Tuesday, August 18, 2009

8: Soul Mountain

Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain

Gao Xingjian (Gao is his surname) is a Chinese-French writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. He grew up in China during a period called the Cultural Revolution, which had a lasting impression on him. Due to his plays, he has since emigrated to France and been declared a persona non grata in China. Soul Mountain is one of his major works.

How to introduce such a book? What kind of book is it? What is it about? These are hard questions which I will try to answer. In any case, this is an extraordinary book and is somewhat of a faithful portrait of facets of Chinese culture. Gao Xingjian took a long journey into rural China. The narrator of this book is journeying, autobiographically, in search of a place called “Soul Mountain” which, due to its isolation and the lack of easy transportation, takes on a mystical aspect befitting its name. He traces a journey to the outskirts of Han (Mandarin) civilization, into panda reserves, temples, and the lands of Qiang and Yi ethnic minorities, which are seldom visited by outsiders.

Storytelling runs deep in Chinese culture. When the narrator of Soul Mountain visits with a friend that he hadn’t seen in a long time, they stay up all night talking and their talk eventually strays to histories and legends. The narrator under the guise of “you” (in sections written in the 2nd person narrative) tells many wondrous stories of questionable veracity involving the places around him – an abandoned temple, ruins of what appears to be a great house, an old theatre – to his lady friend. This casual storytelling as a normal form of conversation seems familiar to me because I notice that whenever my dad is with his old friends, their inevitably converges on some historical anecdotes and myths. One person would say, “wasn’t it so-and-so who became emperor after this or that emperor?” and the talkers would then try to trace the threads of history. Chinese history is, after all, so very long and rich. Further, there are little anecdotes that the inhabitants of some little village may know, but not everyone else for it is not found in books that anyone but a serious historian would read but relates to the locals in some way. For example, my dad tells a story of a friend of his whose surname is “Zhu”, an uncommon surname. This friend always claimed that he was descended from the House of Zhu, who had been dethroned and driven from the capital to hide, according to some local legend, in a mountain – the same mountain where my dad’s friend’s family hailed from. Thus history lives on in tall tales and like ilk.

Another reflection that is apparent in this book is the presence of the Cultural Revolution. It is a period of time that I don’t understand well, but I do understand what it meant, beneath the politics, to the common citizen. There was a movement which reviled Western things and old things, in an effort to build a new China. Almost every young person had to go to rural farm and work alongside the farmers – schools and universities were closed for some years. Many of the intelligentsia suffered much persecution during this time, under the branding of “Western thinking” and “Old Things”. This led to a new breed of literature, called scar literature, written by these self-same intelligentsia, having survived the horrible times. These works are clever, poignant, dotted with anecdotes of acute suffering and enveloped in a seasoned and resigned bitterness. I suppose Soul Mountain is somewhat related to a brand of scar literature, perhaps a wayward cousin, several times removed.

The reason why the narrator and Gao Xingjian took these journeys is ostensibly to avoid being set to correctional labour camps due to their political opinions. He relays to the reader many stories of unhappy people persecuted during the Culture Revolution – a poor girl who wrote something in a diary which condemned her to life in prison, for example. This tastes strongly of scar literature. However, it is different because those stories are a part of the overall web of stories, not the focus, and the overall web is a story of one man’s journey within his own past and his own stories, mingled with the mystical places that he frequents.

No ill effects of the exile to the country side nor any lasting bitterness on the narrator’s part is actually described. In fact, it was probably due to this exile that Gao Xingjian was introduced to the ways of the ethnic minorities that he sounds fond of in his description. Most people I know who lived through the farm labour days in fact remember them quite fondly. My dad’s best stories from his youth always start with “when I was with the farmers” and continue with “I had a friend, a Yi friend, who told me ...” or “I went bear hunting with a friend who lost an ear during a previous bear hunting expedition”, etc. My friend’s mother has very happy memories of herding cows and accidentally making one fall over in a stream, whereupon she was sheepish from being laughed at by the supervising farmer. Soul Mountain has many traces of contact with parts of China without skyscraper or pollution or advanced technology, which are still steeped in shaman’s tales and mystical superstitions. It doesn’t really fit into any partitioning of literature that I know of, which makes up some of its charm – I can’t characterize what kind of book this is, I can only tell you similar stories and try to show you how it lies close to my heart and hope that you get the gist of it.

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