[An article I wrote, published in today’s [23 August] Garhwal Post]
“In the snow outside my window I see a small green frog, one eye blinking and the other wide open, unmoving, looking at me. I know this is God.” It’s a sentence typical of Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. Soul Mountain, Gao’s prize-winning book, was first published in Chinese in 1989, with the title Lingshan. His other novel has been translated into English as One Man’s Bible. He has also written a number of plays, including Absolute Signal (1982), Bus Stop (1983), Wild Man(1985), Absconding (1989), a novella, A Pigeon Called Red Beak, (all originally in Chinese) a play in French, Le Somnambule, as well as essays and literary criticism. His plays and novels explore political and personal themes, attempting to understand life against the background of his experiences in China.
Soul Mountain is a journey into China’s past. Escaping from Beijing at a time of political turmoil, Gao decides to visit Lingshan, a remote and small place. He goes to Lingshan, that means ‘Soul Mountain’, only because he heard about it from a fellow traveller in a train. He doesn’t even know if the place exists, it is not listed in travel guides, but somehow, he reaches there. He had been wrongly diagnosed with cancer, and now he feels a need to move out of his book-filled rooms. He knew, he says that literature should be faithful to life, yet he had turned his back on real life. As he travels through China, he records all he sees and learns, as well as his thoughts. The Cultural Revolution has ended, and the old China is beginning to re-emerge, a China steeped in customs and traditions, too strong to be destroyed by the overlay of communism. Its varied nature, the different languages and people he encounters, and the tragedies and absurdities of the past and the present, remind one at times of India. There are passages of beautiful writing, but Soul Mountain is not a novel with a single story, rather a collection of stories, narratives and dialogues with the author’s different selves, forming a base for Gao’s own emerging personal philosophy.
One Man’s Bible is a far more coherent work. Setting aside the distant past, here Gao reminiscences about the Cultural Revolution. Memory is too painful, and so a philosophy develops, of living in the present. To have meaning, life has to bring happiness and a sense of freedom – a freedom which comes from awareness, from the ability to observe, even in the midst of suffering and grief.
The first writer of Chinese origin to win the Nobel prize for literature, Gao’s works are steeped in China’s history and culture. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) he was not able to publish anything, and finally destroyed all that he wrote at that time, for fear of being labelled a dissident. In the 80s his work began to be published in China, but still lacking total freedom there, he moved to France and is now a French citizen. Gao continues to write mainly in Chinese, though he has begun to write in French as well. In One Man’s Bible, he explains what China means to him today. Referring to himself as ‘you’, he says: “You will not go back. Not even in future? Someone asks. No, it is not your country. It exists in your memory only, as a hidden spring gushing forth feelings that are hard to articulate. This China is possessed by you alone, and has nothing to do with the country.”
Though Gao no longer lives in China, his work is appreciated there. It is his intensity of feeling, along with his brilliant prose, and his detached observations, that particularly make his books worth reading. His sensitivity also expresses itself through art and over thirty exhibitions of his ink paintings have been held. His works have been translated into several languages.
[by Roshen Dalal]