Gao Xingjian Soul Mountain

ISBN 13: 9780066210827

Soul Mountain

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9780066210827: Soul Mountain

In 1983 Chinese playwright, critic, fiction writer, and painter Gao Xingjian (pronounced gow shing-jen) was diagnosed with lung cancer and faced imminent death.  But six weeks later, a second examination revealed there was no cancer -- he had won "a reprieve from death" and had been thrown back into the world of the living.  Faced with a repressive cultural environment and the threat of a spell in a prison farm, Gao fled Beijing.  He traveled to the remote mountains and ancient forests of Sichuan in southwest China and from there back to the east coast, a journey of fifteen thousand kilometers over a period of five months.  The results of this epic voyage of discovery is Soul Mountain.

A bold, lyrical, prodigious novel, Soul Mountain probes the human soul with an uncommon directness and candor.  Interwoven with the myriad of stories and countless memorable characters -- from venerable Daosit masters and Buddhist nuns to mythical Wild Men, deadly Qichun snakes, and farting buses -- is the narrator's poignant inner journey and search for freedom.

Fleeing the social conformity required by the Communist government, he wanders deep into the regions of the Qiang, Miago, and Yi peoples located on the fringes of Han Chinese civilization and discovers a plethora of different traditions, history, legends, folk songs, and landscapes. Slowly, with the help of memory, imagination, and sensory experience, he reconstructs his personal past. He laments the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the ecology -- both human and physical -- of China. And in a polyphony of narrating selves -- the narrator's "I" spawns a "you," a "she," and a "he," each with a distinct perspective and voice -- the novel delights in the freedom of the imagination to expand the notion of the individual self.

Storytelling saves the narrator from a deep loneliness that is part of the human condition. His search for meaning -- in life, in the journey -- turns up the possibility that there may be no meaning. The elusive Lingshan ("Soul Mountain"), which becomes the object of his quest, never yields up its secrets, but the journey is a rich, strange, provocative, and rewarding one. Soul Mountain is a novel of immense wisdom and profound beauty.

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Review:

As one of Gao Xingjian's characters remarks, if a fiction writer could know the true stories of the people he passes on the street, he would be amazed. Surely the Nobel laureate's own story, which forms the basis of Soul Mountain, is worthy of amazement. In 1983 Gao was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that had killed his father. At the same time, he had been threatened with arrest for his counterrevolutionary writings and was preparing to flee Beijing for the remote regions of southwest China. Shortly before his departure, however, the condemned man got at least a partial reprieve: a second set of x-rays revealed no cancer at all. On the heels of this extraordinary redemption, he began the circuitous journey that would lead him to the sacred (and possibly mythical) mountain of Lingshan--and to this daring, historically resonant novel.

A destination chosen arbitrarily, at the suggestion of a fellow traveler, the elusive Lingshan becomes rich with meaning for the narrator of Soul Mountain. Meanwhile, the narrator himself shows a tendency to go forth and multiply. First he divides into You and I. Then You generates yet a third voice, a somewhat simple but intense young woman named She, followed by He--and none of these personae can resist the elemental lure of the sacred site. Indeed, the search for Lingshan becomes a metaphor for all spiritual striving:

Would it be better to go along the main road? It will take longer travelling by the main road? After making some detours you will understand in your heart? Once you understand in your heart you will find it as soon as you look for it? The important thing is to be sincere of heart? If your heart is sincere then your wish will be granted?
Along the way, I and You mourn the devastations of the Cultural Revolution, when thousands of monuments, temples, and graves were reduced to rubble. The obliteration of these reminders of the dead becomes a torment to the narrators of the novel, who struggle to assert their individuality--itself a proscribed act in Communist China--against what they see as a false and brutal ideal that has swept away history, literature, and tradition as decisively as it has destroyed the ancient forests. (At one point Gao describes the sad spectacle of the few remaining pandas, who wander a shrinking woodland wearing electronic transmitters.) Seamlessly translated by the Australian scholar Mabel Lee, Soul Mountain is a masterpiece of self-observation set against a soulful denunciation of "progress" and practicality. --Regina Marler

About the Author:

Gao Xingjian (whose name is pronounced gow shing-jen) is the first Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in 1940 in Jiangxi province in eastern China, he has lived in France since 1987. Gao Xingjian is an artistic innovator, in both the visual arts and literature. He is that rare multitalented artist who excels as novelist, playwright, essayist, director, and painter. In addition to Soul Mountain and One Man's Bible, a book of his plays, The Other Shore, and a volume of his paintings, Return to Painting, have been published in the United States.

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