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Gao Xingjian: 灵山 (Soul Mountain)

This was his first novel translated into English and a first-class novel it is. It isn’t really a novel. As his alter ego says late in the book 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! and, indeed, this is more or less what it is. Gao Xingjian recounts his wanderings round the Southern part of China. There is no plot and, apart from the narrator and his alter egos, other characters are only briefly encountered, before he moves on.

The motive for the journey is an encounter on a train with a man who is going to Ling Shan (Soul Mountain). Gao is determined to go there but finding it is rather tricky, as it seems to be somewhat moveable, according to whom he speaks to. Of course, what he is really looking for is both his own soul and, more particularly, the soul of China. This soul is not the soul that Westerners see and, indeed, not the one that most Chinese see, least of all the Chinese that govern and that have started revolutions during the course of Chinese history. What he finds are ordinary people who are somewhat extraordinary, temples, archeological sites, Taoist monasteries, wildlife preserves, rivers and forests, little corners of rural China, which are under threat from urbanization and development (particularly the Three Gorges Dam, of which he is very critical) and have been damaged or destroyed by various political forces, particularly the Cultural Revolution.

This could be very boring but Gao succeeds for two reasons. First, he is a wonderful story-teller, telling all sorts of fascinating stories and legends and unfable-like fables about the people he meets and the places he visits. There are stories from Chinese history and stories of bandits. There are stories of tigers and pandas and yeti-like creatures. There are brutal stories, with rape being not uncommon, and simples stories about simple people. He tells of the difficulties of travelling through the area and the kindness of strangers. He gets drunk and he gets laid. But he is not alone. Though this is a first-person narration, he uses all three persons, sometimes referring to himself as you and, more particularly, coming up with a both a male and a female alter ego, with whom he talks, argues and travels.

So what is it about? Firstly, it is about the China that Western tourists and many Chinese do not see. It is about a lost China of Taoism and wild animals and bandits, which, despite its associated horrors, the author seems to have a grudging admiration for. Secondly, it is about people who just do what they want to do, not what the state wants them to do, whether that is casual sex, preserving wild tigers, praying in a monastery or just being themselves. There is no straight easy answer, as communism, religion or other philosophies might pretend. There just is and it is best to ride it out rather than try to change it or explain it. And that is what he does and produces a rather extraordinary novel in doing so.

Publishing history

First published in Chinese 1990 by Lien ching ch’u pan shih yeh kung ssu, Taipei
First published in English 2000 by HarperCollins