Soul China

February 12, 2001

gao-1This review of Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain (2000) appeared in an edited form as “Chinese Heart within this Soul” in The Straits Times (12 February 2001).

Phenomenologically speaking, there are crucial differences between a Western mountain and a Chinese one.

A Western mountain rises above the risk-ridden muddle of human society; on it, one ponders over — as one ponders over a chessboard piece — man’s place in history and his negotiations within a social whole. Think Mount Olympus or Mann’s Zauberberg or recall what Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel and the mount of Jesus’s Beatitudes symbolize in Western religion.

The mountain is a high point of human reason but, as this, it resides also at its fringe; the mountain therefore elucidates Kant’s sublime and inspires Romantic imaginings of an infinite inside outstripping justifiable thought.

A Chinese mountain, on the other hand, has always been catastrophically wild; its mode of being relates neither to civilization nor aspects of reason but attests to a kind of everlastingness altogether ignorant. The mountain may offer healing, but it does so by unraveling what is woven by social laws and taboos without ever arriving at the certainties of individualism.

What one gets instead is pre-individual or, perhaps, post-individual, China’s mountains being, after all, the body and limbs of dead Panku, the mythic first man. For good reasons, the mountain is legendarily home to outlaws, monks, spiritual masters, wild men and hermits.

One is accordingly puzzled as to how the Swedish Academy could have considered Soul Mountain, the sprawling 1990 novel of last year’s Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, “impossible to compare” with anything but itself. In the sense just mentioned — and I apologize for being garrulous, but you see how it can be helpful — Soul Mountain continues a tradition in Chinese literature where the self dissolved becomes a point through which, mercurially, Nature speaks to itself.

It is really not about “the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses”, never mind what the agreed meaning of Gao’s more controversial plays may be.

It is certainly not a commentary on post-Cultural Revolution China as still others suppose. While the socio-psychological impact of the period is frugally depicted, so are other violent episodes, personal and tribal, some as tragic or bizarre, all of which are randomly extracted from China’s vast rural history.

History, Gao even says at one point, is “shrouds for wrapping corpses” and “ghosts banging on walls”, but it is also “nonsense”, “sour fruit”, “balls of wheat-flour dumplings”, “a dish of scattered pearls”. Many layers on layers of folktales and tall tales later, his narrator exclaims: “I don’t know where I am at this moment. … The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing. I understand nothing. This is how it is.”

Sure, the novel may have drawn heavily from Gao’s own odyssey of five months and some 15000 kilometres in the remote regions of Southern and Southwestern China, a trip he began hastily in 1983 following rumours of his sentence to a prison farm, but how it is itself “an individual’s search for roots, inner peace and liberty” I do not see. When the individual is dead, the mountain lives on. In the words of an ancient proverb that grips Gao’s narrator by the river: “Existence is returning, non-existence is returning.”

Perhaps Mabel Lee’s translation, commendable for its literalness and a style both clean and spacious, has not hinted enough at Gao’s own denseness, use of allusions and almost obsessive wordplay. But Gao’s central linguistic ingenuity — his alternation between first- and second-person narratives — already tells us as much. The “I” chapters observe and record stoically, showcasing an “I” who is world-absorbing, centripetal, while the “You”, of the sensual “You” chapters, emanates as world-producing, centrifugal. “You”, as sexual, also addresses the “You” of a “She” as existential lover; the “He” in “You” himself emerges briefly, sheepishly and confusedly.

Perspectives take over and smudge the edges of self to a point that individuality becomes window-like: we look into and out of it, but the window in itself — what is it? Gao’s inventiveness, famously inspired by Western Modernism, seems at some point to coincide with what the soul of the mountain effects or, thematically, with the elusive Soul Mountain which, by the way, we soon realize, cannot be “found”.

Therefore, if there is a critique of Communist China here, it can only lie precisely and simply in Gao’s demonstration that not everything can be explained in political terms. Gao himself has professed repeatedly to being apolitically wrapped up in his art and his self-styled defenders should indeed know better from the fact that his Western influence is largely peopled by Absurdists like Beckett, Ionesco and Genet. To find politics within Soul Mountain is as good as saying Beckett’s Godot is only de Gaulle.

Read the novel for its experimentation, its endless, and often pointless, stream of stories, its generous eroticism, even its majestic lack of plot and characterization, but, if you must look for Westernness in Chineseness, tread softly, intelligently.

Gwee Li Sui

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