The Barnes & Noble Review
Like another Nobel Prize winner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gao Xingjian, China's leading novelist and playwright, mixes autobiographical details with fictional techniques to create indelible portraits of daily life under a harsh, dehumanizing political regime. In One Man's Bible, Gao gives us a profound meditation on a life marked by personal and political trauma.
The nameless narrator of the novel -- which begins in contemporary Hong Kong -- is clearly Gao himself. In the intimate aftermath of a sexual encounter, Gao revisits the central moments of his life, traveling, in memory, to the Beijing of his childhood, a childhood scarred at the age of ten by his mother's accidental drowning. From emblematic moments like this, Gao's memory ranges across time and space, gradually illuminating the nature of life before, during, and after China's disastrous Cultural Revolution.
Gao Xingjian is one of the most eloquent, authoritative voices of 20th-century China, and his personal, political, and aesthetic musings shine a light on a world that very few Westerners have ever truly understood. Ultimately, through his honesty and his artistry, Gao locates the common ground connecting us all in this memorable, universal novel about "the perplexities of being human."
In this fictionalized memoir by Nobel laureate Gao, a character who shares the novelist's credentials as a dramatist and public figure is visiting Hong Kong for a 1996 production of one of his plays. There he encounters a pale, voluptuous German named Margarethe. The two spend several days in a prolonged sexual encounter, during which a parallel is established between the trauma of Margarethe's sexual history and the systematic violations of one's integrity and person that Gao has witnessed during the cultural revolution. Either the text itself or the translation is occasionally clunky, as in this reference to erotic frenzy: "It had been three days and nights of ... striving to dig and suck in the other party." But such quibbles are like complaining that a message written at a crime scene in a victim's blood is misspelled. The importance of this work is as testimony and testament. What Gao rejects is any allegiance that state or religion seeks to impose. "Heaven is a woman's womb," he concludes in one weary, heartfelt passage, "whether it is the womb of one's mother or a prostitute. You would prefer to sink into that dark chaos rather than have to pretend being a virtuous man, a new person, or the follower of some religion."
In his second novel to be translated into English, Gao combines the form of the Chinese travel journal with a novelistic technique that Milan Kundera (a kindred spirit) once labeled "novelistic counterpoint" a cadenced movement between the modes of essay, vision and story. The heart of the novel is a fragmented sequence of memories lifted from the Cultural Revolution, anchored by an unnamed "he" approximately Gao himself. The narrative often jumps forward to the present, exploring the narrator's relationships with two women: Margarethe, a German Jew fluent in Chinese, and Sylvie, an apolitical French artist. Mao's China, according to Gao, was a Hobbesian world of revenges, lynchings and millennial fervor. To be human, in that epoch, was to denounce. To be inhuman was to be denounced. The narrator/protagonist is a university-educated intellectual. He engages in an affair with Lin, a beautiful woman married to a high-ranking military official and becomes, briefly, the leader of a Red Army faction. He investigates an almost fatal blot on his files his father once owned and sold a gun and is "reformed" at a cadre "school," or labor camp. Finally, he escapes certain death in Beijing by getting transferred to a rural village. Gao, like Kundera, detects the totalitarian impulse in the politicization of everyday life, which is so easily summed up in the '70s slogan, "the personal is the political": "You want to expunge the pervasive politics that penetrated every pore, clung to daily life, became fused in speech and action, and from which no one at that time could escape." For Gao, even under the glaze of sexuality, the denunciatory animal is always lurking. When Gao won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, he was unknown in this country. This novel should justify his prize to doubters. (Sept. 6) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Nobel prize winner Gao follows up his highly praised Soul Mountain with another autobiographical work, first published in Taiwan in 1999. Beginning in 1996 Hong Kong, before its handover to China, the book follows the author on a journey back in time to the heart of that country during the Cultural Revolution. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, the novel vacillates between the past and the present. Readers learn of the writer's marriage, his love/hate obsession with women and sex (which is tinged with a slight Oedipus complex), and, most of all, what it's like to live under a repressive regime. Like other fictional accounts of life during this period by authors such as Anchee Min, Ha Jin, and Pu Ning, the book is pervaded by a sense of dread and a fear of discovery. The continual changes in setting and Gao's liberal shifting from second to third person, mixed with a sprinkling of dialog throughout, add to the novel's complexity and make it a difficult work. But perhaps this is a result of the translation. Only academic and public libraries that had demand for Gao's American debut will want to consider adding this title. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/02.] Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The experiences of a dissident artist-intellectual who finds himself in an adversary relationship with Mao’s Cultural Revolution are once again examined—if not consistently dramatized—by the Chinese Nobel laureate (Soul Mountain, 2000).
Like that later autobiographical novel, this one (originally published in 1997) is a collage whose unnamed narrator describes at sometimes numbing length his provincial childhood and youth, confusion of familial and political allegiances, career as a successful (if increasingly suspect) writer and artist, and relationships with many, many women, whom he seems to captivate, seduce, and satisfy without half trying. The narrative begins wonderfully, with luminously detailed reminiscences of his tenth birthday party: an idyllic, centered watershed moment in a life soon thereafter to be characterized by fractured relationships and ceaseless wandering. The declared intention, "to describe in simple language the terrible contamination of a life by politics," is both realized and occluded by its odd organization—as a story told by him to Margarethe, the German woman who becomes his lover during a period of self-exile in Hong Kong, which employs second-person direct address to himself while he is thus (and elsewhere) exiled, and omniscient narration to describe his past in China. The story is valuable for its vivid piecemeal picture of 20th-century China’s culture of revisionist egoism, paranoia, and repression, especially in segments that focus on the imperiled activities of a "rebel Red Guard group" of which the narrator is a leader. And there is admirable dramatic intensity in the stories of Qian, a fugitive woman met by chance who impulsively (and unwisely)marries the narrator, and Sun Huirong, a naïve village girl who is raped, disbelieved, and summarily condemned to "re-education." Otherwise, alas, One Man’s Bible is repetitive, discursive, and declamatory to a degree that leaches away far too much of the drama inherent in its content.
Unless Gao’s internationally acclaimed plays are a lot better than his fiction, it’s hard to understand why this writer was awarded a Nobel Prize.
New York Times
“Unforgettable … One Man’s Bible burns with a powerfully individualistic fire of intelligence and depth of feeling.”
New York Review of Books
“Perhaps the most powerful thing Gao has ever written.”
“[Gao] paints a stark, unforgiving picture of the results of Mao’s regime and of the Cultural Revolution.”
“Dreamlike …. elegant and haunting.”
Christian Science Monitor
“A remarkable achievement.”
“450 brilliant pages of reflection, self-reflection and redemption.”
“Conveys that profound sense of dislocation human beings can sometimes feel, when looks back on one’s own life.”
Read an Excerpt
It was not that he didn't remember he once had another sort of life. But, like the old yellowing photograph at home, which he did not burn, it was sad to think about, and far away, like another world that had disappeared forever. In his Beijing home, confiscated by the police, he had a family photo left by his dead father: it was a happy gathering, and everyone in the big family was present. His grandfather who was still alive at the time, his hair completely white, was reclined in a rocking chair, paralyzed and unable to speak. He, the eldest son and eldest grandson of the family, the only child in the photo, was squashed between his grandparents. He was wearing slit trousers that showed his little dick, and he had on his head an American-style boat-shaped cap. At the time, the eight-year War of Resistance against the Japanese had just ended, and the Civil War had not properly started. The photograph had been taken on a bright summer day in front of the round gateway in the garden, which was full of golden chrysanthemums and purple-red cockscombs. That was what he recalled of the garden, but the photo was water-stained and had turned a grayish yellow. Behind the round gateway was a two story, English-style building with a winding walkway below and a balustrade upstairs. It was the big house he had lived in. He recalled that there were thirteen people in the photograph -- an unlucky number -- his parents, his paternal uncles and aunts, and also the wife of one of the uncles. Now, apart from an aunt in America and himself, all of them and the big house had vanished from this world.
While still in China, he had revisited the old city, looking for the old courtyard compound at the back of the bank where his father had once worked. He found only a few cheaply built cement residential buildings that would have been constructed a good number of years earlier. He asked people coming in and out if such a courtyard used to be there, but no one could say for sure. He remembered that at the rear gate of the courtyard, below the stone steps, there was a lake. At Duanwu Festival, his father and his bank colleagues would crowd on the stone steps to watch the dragon-boat race. There was the pounding of big gongs and drums, as dragon boats decorated with colorful streamers came to snatch the red packets hanging from bamboo poles put out by the houses around the lake. The red packets, of course, contained money. His third uncle, youngest uncle, and youngest aunt, once took him out on a boat to fish for the two-horned water chestnuts that grew in the lake. He had never been to the opposite side of the lake, but even if he went there and looked back, from that short distance, he would not have recognized this dreamlike memory.
This family had been decimated; it was too gentle and fragile for the times. It was destined to have no progeny. After his grandfather died, his father lost his job as bank manager and the family fell into rapid decline. His second uncle, who was keen on singing Peking Opera, was the only one to work with the new government authorities, and this was on account of his Democratic Personage title. Nevertheless, seven or eight years later he was labeled a rightist. Afterward, he grew sullen, barely spoke, and would doze off as soon as he sat down. Transformed into a listless, wizened old man, he held on for a few years, then quietly died. The members of this big family died of illness, drowned, committed suicide, went insane, or followed their husbands to prison farms and simply passed away, so that the only person left was a bastard like him. There was also his eldest aunt whose black shadow had once engulfed the whole family. She was said to have been alive and well a few years ago, but he had not seen her since that photo was taken. The husband of this aunt was a member of the Nationalist airforce. As ground personnel, he never dropped a bomb but he fled to Taiwan, where he died of some illness a few years later. He did not know how this aunt had managed to get to America, and had not bothered to find out.
However, on his tenth birthday -- it was customary in those times to use the lunar calendar, so he was actually only nine -- the family was a large one, and it was a big event. When he got out of bed that morning, he put on new clothes as well as a new pair of leather shoes; to have a child wear leather shoes in those days was indulgent. He also received lots of presents: a kite, a chess set, a geometrical puzzle, imported coloring pencils, a pop gun with a rubber stopper, and the Complete Collection of Grimms' Fairy Tales in two volumes with copperplate illustrations. His grandmother gave him three silver dollars wrapped in red paper: one Qing Dynasty "dragon ocean," one Yuan Shikai "big bald head," and one new silver dollar with Chiang Kai-shek in full military regalia. Each of the coins made a different sound. The Chiang Kai-shek one made a tinkle, compared with the clank of the thick and heavy Yuan Shikai "big bald head." He put these in his little leather suitcase, together with his stamp album and his colored marbles. Afterward, the whole family went out to eat steamed crab-roe dumplings in a garden restaurant with artificial mountains and a pond full of goldfish. A big round tabletop had to be used to seat everyone. For the first time, he was the center of attention in the family and he sat next to his grandmother in the seat where his grandfather, who had recently died, would have sat. It was as if they were waiting for him to become the bastion of the family. He bit into a dumpling ...