Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Flamingo, 2001, 508 p, plus vii p Introduction and iv p Appendix of Works by Gao Xingjian. Translated from the Chinese, 灵山 (Língshān,) by Mabel Lee.

Soul Mountain cover

Xingjian is China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (though he has for a long time lived in France) and Soul Mountain his most well-known work. In it there is certainly a literary knowingness at work. At first it seems as if alternating chapters are being narrated in the second person, a notoriously unusual, and brave, strategy – with the intervening chapters apparently a more conventional first person – but it isn’t quite so, as the treatment is subtler than that. In fact the “you” of the “second person” chapters is an unnamed character in the novel – as are the “I” and “she” we also find within its covers. His portrait of historical China makes it seem a harsh, lawless place. The book contains an astonishing number of casually reported rapes and abductions of women.

Interspersed with innumerable tales and occasional poems or folk song transcriptions the novel is on the surface the story of a writer, unable to be published after being labelled a rightist, wandering around China in search of Lingshan, the Soul Mountain of the title, and the various encounters he has on the way, many of which are enigmatic. A blurb on the back describes it as “a picaresque novel on an epic scale” which “bristles with narratives in miniature”, and it certainly is picaresque in the dictionary definition. However, another word for it might be “bitty”.

The trouble is that the “you” and “I” are barely distinguishable and there is little in the way of forward thrust. In the writer’s voice Xingjian tells us, “I never speak of we or us. I believe that this is much more concrete than the sham we which is totally meaningless. Even if you and she and he and masculine they and feminine they are images of the imagination, for me they are all more substantial than what is known as we…. How many of we are in fact implicated? There is nothing more false than this we,” – an extract which conveys some of the flavour of the book’s reflective passages.

Xingjian’s purpose is, perhaps, laid out in Chapter 72 where a critic complains, “‘This isn’t a novel!’” and when asked what, then, it is, says, “‘A novel must have a complete story.’” Our narrator says he has told many stories some with endings, some without, and the critic responds, “‘They’re all fragments without any sequence, the author doesn’t know how to organise connected episodes.’” As to how the critic thinks a novel ought to be organised, foreshadowing, climax then conclusion are cited. Our author then asks “if fiction can be written without conforming to (that) method …. with ‘parts told from beginning to end and parts from end to beginning, parts with a beginning and no ending and others which are only conclusions or fragments which aren’t followed up, parts which are developed but aren’t completed or which can’t be completed or which can be left out or which don’t need to be told any further or about which there’s nothing more to say. And all of these would also be considered stories.’” He retorts to the suggestion that there are no characters, “‘But surely the I, you and she in the book are characters?’” The critic claims, “‘These are just different pronouns to change the point of view of the narrative. This can’t replace the portrayal of characters,’” and also, “‘This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short….. You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!’” (This last could easily stand as a critique of the book.) In a less ambitious work the chapter’s ending, “Reading this chapter is optional but as you’ve read it, you’ve read it,” might feel like a slap in the face to a reader. As it is we’ve known for a long time the book is not straightforward.

In the guise of his writer Xingjian also says, “in the end all you can achieve are memories, hazy, intangible, dreamlike memories which are impossible to articulate. When you try to relate them, there are only sentences, the dregs left from linguistic structures.” It is as if he is saying the practice of writing is useless. “The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing.” Not a sentiment I would have expected to read in a Nobel Prize winner’s book.

Pedant’s corner:- “it was annoying there was a place you’ve never even heard of” (past tense so “you’d”?) Peddlers (USian for pedlars,) eying (eyeing,) undefinable (indefinable?) “there are a series of courtyards” (there is a series,) bungers (these seem to be fireworks; so, bangers?) “this his how fights often start” (is,) “I didn’t seen anything clearly” (see,) “with no-one is sight” (in sight.) “Outside the upstairs widow” (window, I think,) “the band of shining feathers puff out” (the band puffs out,) wreathes (wreaths,) “none of the people sell tops” (none sells tops,) a fire burnt for days (burned is more usual as the past tense, burnt as the past participle,) mucous (as a noun; so, mucus,) an inscriptions (inscription.) “It is only when I stop the recorder to change the tape that, panting, that he too comes to a stop” (one “that” too many,) “came from an other” (is there a different meaning when “another” is used?) “of what consequence is it whether one book more, or one book less, is written” (one book fewer?) “the totality of my misfortunes also exist within you” (the totality exists,) cockscombs (cocks’ combs,) “and you stop there and to look” (and look, or omit and,) “A unfriendly voice answers.” (An unfriendly voice,) stomaches (stomachs,) “I immediately open the rice wine right away” (immediately or right away; not both,) high-pitch voice (usually high-pitched.) “Where else can we find these songs which we should listen to while seated in quiet reverence or even while prostrated be found?” (“can we find”, or, “be found”, not both,) “Aren’t I welcome?” (Do the Chinese phrase this so ungrammatically?) “is that job?” (your job,) “‘But where is the criteria?’” (are,) “the lens were so worn they were like frosted glass” (lenses.) “The Immortal Cliffs slowly recedes” (recede,) artemesia (artemisia.) “Fragments of that hoary old voice sings” (fragments sing,) “his eyes have sunken deep” (sunk,) “striking it everywhere from its centre to their sides” (its sides,) “we… put our thumb print to it” (we; so, prints.)

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