Monday, October 27, 2008

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Soul Mountain is a metaphorical pilgrimage by a modern Chinese writer, undertaken after he is mistakenly diagnosed with terminal cancer, only to find several weeks later that the diagnosis is in error, earning him a reprieve from death. It is a grand work, but curiously, grand in its individual pieces, not necessarily as the sum of its parts.

In the early 1980’s, Gao Xingjian was a playwright under suspicion by the Chinese government. Faced with a threat of forced rehabilitation, he sets out for the mountainous regions of western China. Once there, he seeks to undertake a pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Lingshan, or “Soul Mountain”. This is clearly a metaphor for a journey of self-examination, for although a mountain – or various mountains (ambiguity is a hallmark of this novel) – is explored, it is never explicit that they are the elusive Lingshan.

Wandering through villages and remote outposts, the misty valleys and isolated Daoist enclaves the protagonist encounters are almost timeless, like images from an ancient scroll painting. As a means of illustrating, perhaps, the transitory states of being of the protagonist, Gao never settles on a defining pronoun, which makes for some head-scratching until one gets into the flow of the narrative. Even the term “narrative” is somewhat misleading, in my mind, at least, for one could well shuffle and rearrange the 81 chapters with little discernable impact to the novel.

In addition to being an inward examination of the protagonist, Soul Mountain is also a book about the spatial and temporal immensity of China itself. It is replete with secret Daoist rituals, ancient ruins, folk songs and tales seemingly passed down from time immemorial. Bronze artifacts and stamped bricks seem to litter the landscape, and every abandoned bandit camp seems haunted by the ghosts of China’s deep past. There are abducted maidens and corpses of lovesick girls washed down the mountain streams, and at times the stories might well be updates from the classic anthology of weird tales, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. The protagonist muses on his fate and that of his family, he seeks tales of the legendary Wild Men of the mountains and collects folk songs and artifacts. Amongst it all, the specter of the Cultural Revolution – that forced agrarianism that decimated the intelligentsia – looms large.

There is a certain self-conscious indulgence in some of the writing, especially in the chapter where the author defends the fluid use of pronouns in the novel, in the end telling the reader that there is no point in even reading the chapter he has just finished. There is also an underlying misogyny in the work: many of the chapters alternate with encounters between a man and a woman (or multiple women – that ambiguity again). The women come across as frivolous, needy, or na├»ve, and the author seems preoccupied with describing their positive and negative physical attributes, and one of the later chapters is a long complaint of having to listen to an uninteresting narrative spoken by an “ugly” crone whom the narrator finds particularly repulsive.

The curious thing about this novel of personal pilgrimage and discovery is that, despite flashes of awareness, there seems to be no fundamental shift in the mind of the protagonist, no summit to the mountain except the pessimistic reinforcement of the idea of the transitory futility of human life, and the awareness that, despite his attempts to break away, he is not ready to abandon human society. Anyone approaching Soul Mountain in search of spiritual uplift would likely come away, assuming they have gotten through the 500+ pages, seriously disappointed. Still, the writing is lyrical and compelling in places, enough for a serious reader to stay engaged. For its faults, it remains a fascinating document of a man’s restless and troubled inner life. It is, on its own terms, a masterful book.

Gao Xingjian received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. He lives in Paris, working as a novelist, playwright, critic, and painter.