Friday, November 23, 2007

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Lingshan, Soul Mountain. This is the first Chinese novel I read when I decided to begin researching China. I chose Soul Mountain because Gao Xingjian received the Nobel Prize for Literature the year after this book was published. On my first reading, I understood the existential exploration, but the subtext and cultural implications of the main character's journey went right past me. After a year of research, I returned to this novel and was elated at how much richer the novel's message was after I understood the Communist government better. This is a rich, complex, and enticing novel. It is like a favorite hike, each time I open this book I find something new. It has been so long since I read Soul Mountain, but I know it affected my work, especially in regard to the sense of self and community, and the complexity of this relationship in Chinese culture. In this country we look for ways to celebrate the individual, but that would not work in China. The closest I can come to understanding this complex relationship is when I still feel Catholic guilt even years after leaving the church.

Connection, connection, connection. Individual power comes only through connection to the power elements in society. That's why Soul Mountain is such a profound novel, because Goa Xingjian understood this yet tries to escape the power structure of his society, by a journey to the most distant mountain, by taking on a variety of points of view, and by exploding the self. Even in the most remote areas, he is unable to shake society. He remembers an old proverb: "Existence is returning, non-existence is returning, so don't stay by the river getting blown about by the cold wind." Yet he stands by the river, looking across at the Soul Mountain, afraid to cross.

As he avoids the dark road beyond the river, society knocks on his door in the form of a friend asking for help to get his daughter into a university. The writer tells the man that the girl's strong exam results should be enough, but the man tells him "you're really pedantic. Do you think all those children of high-ranking cadres have passed examinations?" The author responds, "I haven't researched such matters." The friend answers "You're a writer." The author refuses to see the connection, and answers "So what if I am a writer?" The friend answers, "you're the conscience of society, you must speak for the people!" The writer answers. "Stop joking, I say. Are you the people, or am I the people, or is it the so-called we who are the people? I speak only for myself." And with this disclaimer, Gao Xingjian makes a final attempt to disengage. By asserting that he is only an individual. The radicalness of the idea nearly brings him to the end. The next man knocking on the door wants the author to help him publish his manuscript. The author gives him back his novel and decides not to open the door again, not to let society enter. Only by ignoring society, by pretending it is not there, can he finally "reach the extremity of life." He crosses the river, "slowly transforming, gradually solidifying into a dark moon tinged with blue."

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