Soul Mountainby Gao Xingjian, Mabel Lee (Translator)
Gao Xingjian was a virtual unknown in this country when he won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature for his bold and lyrical novel Soul Mountain. The Swedish Academy described it as "an odyssey in time and space through the Chinese countryside," while The New York Times celebrated the novel "not only for its magical tales, folkloric roots and eroticism but also for its patchwork of narrative styles, from poems and monologues to ballads and conversations." Inspired by Gao Xingjian's true-life epic journey to freedom through the ancient forests of China a five-month trek over 15,000 kilometers -Soul Mountain at once challenges conventions and lays bare the human condition.
THE RECENTLY translated masterpiece from the new Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian, is a product of the author's experimentation with words, his exploration of the boundaries of conventional forms and his belief in the uniqueness of a literary voice. In important ways, the book is about the struggle of the individual over the interests of the group. Gao's protagonist is a composite character alternately portrayed as "You," "I," "She" and "He." In one chapter, Gao sheds light on his nameless characters: "In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate...as I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she...You who are the partner of my conversation transforms my experiences and imagination into your relationship with her...She who is the creation of experience and imagination transforms into various images." "He" is created when "You" and "I" merge and become inseparable; when the need arises to incorporate a distinguishable space. What is most notable about these pronouns is that they are never grouped together into "We": "When I speak of me and you...I never speak of we or us...[T]hey are all the more substantial than what is known as we."
With its unconventional plot, Soul Mountain, which explores China's physical, cultural, historical and political landscapes, is charged with creative energy and artistic audacity. It interweaves myriad stories that "You" and "I" encounter while traveling, recollect from memories, glean from history or fabricate from imagination. The stories' settings range from contemporary China to ancient timesfrom the notorious Cultural Revolution to China's earliest empires. They cover locations ranging from the metropolitancapital to the remotest regions of southwest China, where ethnic groups coexist with primeval forests. They fuse Eastern and Western philosophies, from Taoism to Buddhism to Existentialism. In short, the book merges fact and fiction, past and present, legend and biography in unique ways that baffle, dazzle, excite and enlighten the reader.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Gao addressed the benefits of "cold observation," a means toward achieving higher levels of lyricism. "Poetry is hidden in such detached observation. If this observing eye also examines the writer himself, then even the sufferings and garbage of the world can stand scrutiny...While it causes pain and disgust, it also arouses compassion, pity and love and appreciation of life."
This is precisely what Gao does with Soul Mountain; he captures plights of human sufferings, invoking the tragedies suffered as a result of political dictatorship. By extension, he probes the inner self, the meaning of existence, the complexity of individual human relationships with society and nature. Throughout the book, Gao adeptly illuminates critical scenes with well-placed details: "I have in [my backpack] a Han Dynasty brick with a design on it," he writes. "I came across it in Hezhang where peasants were constructing pig pens with bricks taken from the Han Dynasty tombs." Such images, which speak volumes on behalf of a people plagued by one political movement after another, highlight the absurdities of benightedness and the destruction propagated by the Cultural Revolution.
Despite Gao's achievement, this new translation of his book is marred by flaws and inconsistencies. Not only is some of the original, graceful flow of the prose lost in the English translation but, just as unfortunately, the translation itself is riddled with mistakes. The language often reads awkwardly, such as in the line "His death takes place two years before I come here," or "So there is therefore still the unextinguished passion of a soul still being tormented." In the translator's hands, 1 million yuan shrinks to one hundred, while a portrait of Lao-tzu (the father of Taoism) by the famous artist Zhang Daqian changes to a portrait of Zhang Daqian's own father. "Middle school," which is the equivalent of junior and senior high school, is translated variably into middle school, high school and even primary school. In several places, the Chinese word "Haiba" is incorrectly used. "Haiba" is a transliteration of the word "elevation" and the term "above sea level." The translator, unfamiliar with its meaning, capitalizes it and treats it as the name of a place. The line that ends "...in the 2,500-meter giant panda observation compound at Haiba" should actually read as "...in the giant panda observation campground at 2,500 meters above sea level." These examples are just a few of the many inaccuracies that do a disservice to the original Chinese edition.
Soul Mountain is a colossal, encompassing work that was written, according to the metafictional narrator, "without conforming to the method [of fiction] which is common knowledge." This is not an easy read, and the mistakes in translation add an unnecessary element of confusion. The book is like a patchwork quilt made from rich, diversified fabrics in bold, original patterns; though the translation introduces crooked stitches, Gao's achievement still dazzles and delights.
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Read an Excerpt
The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning, you arrive in this mountain county town in the South.
In the bus station, which is littered with ice-block wrappers and sugar cane scraps, you stand with your backpack and a bag and look around for a while. People are getting off the bus or walking past, men humping sacks and women carrying babies. A crowd of youths, unhampered by sacks or baskets, have their hands free. They take sunflower seeds out of their pockets, toss them one at a time into their mouths and spit out the shells. With a loud crack the kernels are expertly eaten. To be leisurely and carefree is endemic to the place. They are locals and life has made them like this, they have been here for many generations and you wouldn't need to go looking anywhere else for them. The earliest to leave the place traveled by river in black canopy boats and overland in hired carts, or by foot if they didn't have the money. Of course at that time there were no buses and no bus stations. Nowadays, as long as they are still able to travel, they flock back home, even from the other side of the Pacific, arriving in cars or big air-conditioned coaches. The rich, the famous and the nothing in particular all hurry back because they are getting old. After all, who doesn't love the home of their ancestors? They don't intend to stay so they walk around looking relaxed, talking and laughing loudly, and effusing fondness and affection for the place. When friends meet they don't just give a nod or a handshake in the meaningless ritual of city people, but rather they shout the person's name or thump him on the back. Hugging is also common, but not for women. By the cement trough where the buses are washed, two young women hold hands as they chat. The women here have lovely voices and you can't help taking a second look. The one with her back to you is wearing an indigo-print headscarf. This type of scarf, and how it's tied, dates back many generations but is seldom seen these days. You find yourself walking towards them. The scarf is knotted under her chin and the two ends point up. She has a beautiful face. Her features are delicate, so is her slim body. You pass close by them. They have been holding hands all this time, both have red coarse hands and strong fingers. Both are probably recent brides back seeing relatives and friends, or visiting parents. Here, the word xifu means one's own daughter-in-law and using it like rustic Northerners to refer to any young married woman will immediately incur angry abuse. On the other hand, a married woman calls her own husband laogong, yet your laogong and my laogong are both used. People here speak with a unique intonation even though they are descendants of the same legendary emperor and are of the same culture and race.
You can't explain why you're here. It happened that you were on a train and this person mentioned a place called Lingshan. He was sitting opposite and your cup was next to his. As the train moved, the lids on the cups clattered against one another. If the lids kept on clattering or clattered and then stopped, that would have been the end of it. However, whenever you and he were about to separate the cups, the clattering would stop, and as soon as you and he looked away the clattering would start again. He and you reached out, but again the clattering stopped. The two of you laughed at the same instant, put the cups well apart, and started a conversation. You asked him where he was going.
"Lingshan, ling meaning spirit or soul, and shan meaning mountain."
You'd been to lots of places, visited lots of famous mountains, but had never heard of this place.
Your friend opposite had closed his eyes and was dozing. Like anyone else, you couldn't help being curious and naturally wanted to know which famous places you'd missed on your travels. Also, you liked doing things properly and it was annoying that there was a place you've never even heard of You asked him about the location of Lingshan.
"At the source of the You River," he said, opening his eyes.
You didn't know this You River either, but was embarrassed about asking and gave an ambiguous nod which could have meant either "I see, thanks" or "Oh, I know the place". This satisfied your desire for superiority, but not your curiosity. After a while you asked how to get there and the route up the mountain.
"Take the train to Wuyizhen, then go upstream by boat on the You River."
"What's there? Scenery? Temples? Historic sites?" you asked, trying to be casual.
"It's all virgin wilderness."
"Of course, but not just ancient forests."
"What about Wild Men?" you said, joking.
He laughed without any sarcasm, and didn't seem to be making fun of himself which intrigued you even more. You had to find out more about him.
"Are you an ecologist? A biologist? An anthropologist? An archaeologist?"
He shook his head each time then said, "I'm more interested in living people."
"So you're doing research on folk customs? You're a sociologist? An ethnographer? An ethnologist? A journalist, perhaps? An adventurer?"
"I'm an amateur in all of these."
The two of you started laughing.
"I'm an expert amateur in all of these!"
The laughing made you and him cheerful. He lit a cigarette and couldn't stop talking as he told you about the wonders of Lingshan...
Text copyright © Gao Xingjian 1990 English language translation copyright © Mabel Lee 2000
Meet 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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I finished 'Soul Mountain' today. It is hard to describe. It may well be his travelling memoirs and is not a novel in that sense. He hints at some of his anxiety and unsettledness about his life throughout the 500 pages, but he is more focused in the last 10 or so chapters. The author peppers his memories and accounts through other people with sarcasm and hatred of what happened politically. He got more creative and less duty bound to writing rules as he moved along. His descriptions of nature and landscapes might easily have been the written form of his painting. The images of this ancient culture shine with fantastic ghosts, totems, animals, human violence and brutality. Would I recommend it? I enjoyed the folk tales, mythology, history, but I didn't think his writing was always sensational. Perhaps, it was the translation, but the translator did a good job to make it flow. Some of his discussions of ego and I and separateness have been better dealt with by other thinkers, but this was a personal journey and not an academic treatise on consciousness or existentialism. I enjoyed his jaunts into the wilderness and isolated areas of his country.
This book is amazing! I don't understand why it gets such low reviews. It's deep and incredibly artistic. The dialogue is absolutely amazing.
Beautifully written, somehow stitched together with folklore and Chinese imagery. I originally read it two years ago and I will read it again this winter. The journey was long and somewhat precarious, however this text was like a drink of water to a parched soul.
Our bookclub thought this sounded like a great novel until we actually started reading it. We called an emergency meeting and decided we had to choose something else. We determined that either something got lost in the translation or we just weren't "zen" enough to follow Gao Xingjian's thought process. Pardon the cliches, but while I admire Gao Xingjian perseverence in the face of adversity,I think that maybe some of his deeper thoughts were better left unsaid. I'll sum it up by quoting a passage found on page 114 "...no existence,no non-existence, no existence and no non-existence; non-existence exists so there is non-existence of existence; non-existence of existence exists so there is non-existence of non-existence..." I think Mr. Xingjian might want to consider a career in writing those over the top novels we were all assigned in college.
What a bizarre book. I would not call it a novel but streams of consciousness loosely strung together. The book lacks plot and character development so it does not meet the definition of novel. Some profound points are made but it is too difficult getting through the mysticism to find the meaning of life in this book. It is enjoyable but boring and just too odd to really get lost in.
Without any published manifesto, something seems to have been developing at the end of the 20th century that looks awfully good for the life of the spirit. Writers with little else to connect them have been emerging from the underworld of Post-World-War-II despair and sense of disappointment with life and the meaningless of human experience. Brilliant as they have been, the carnival mazes constructed by novelists to divert us from the wasteland outside their fictional fairgrounds seem to be packing up. Serious fiction, without nostalgia or pollyanna optimism is suddenly looking up and asking, 'O.K. What now?' Without any denial of the difficulties of being human, the pain and uncertainty of our cosmic status and without illusions about our ability to transcend the limitations of our own flawed humanity, Jose Saramago in Blindness, Matt Ash in Islands, Islands, Islands, and now Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian have set their protagonists on painful journeys. In Blindness a man sitting in his car at a stoplight in Lisbon goes suddenly blind and is left to make his way through the streets of a city in which all around him are also going blind. In Islands, the protagonist is dumped by his wife and fired from his job in the first two pages and is set on a journey around the world in search of some meaning to his wandering. The line between author and narrator/character is as blurred in Soul Mountain as it is in both other novels: Gao himself was diagnosed with lung cancer, only to learn six weeks later that the diagnosis was false. Having smelled death so close, and feeling the heat from communist authorities in Beijing, Gao fled into the mountains and forest of Sichuan. Saramago's narrator is, like Saramago himself, blind; the protagonist of Ash's Islands is the pseudo-autobiographical Matt Ash. Each of these Homeric journeys begins with damaged and shipwrecked people, and each novel has an episodic quality, as free of predictable form as any hike up an unexplored path in the mountains. And each character, so much alone, encounters strange, exotic, sometimes mad and dangerous but often playful, joyous and magically real human beings. These are never 'guides' or mystical 'wisemen' in the tradition of medieval quest stories. They are simply human and very much alive and real. If these are characters in search of an 'answer', none of the three ever finds that ultimate solution--and neither does the reader. Gao's narrator never finds the secret of soul mountain, but what he does discover is the very tactile magic of the real, of the human beings and lives and stories that they have to tell him. Their truth is that it is the searching itself that matters and that all of us are wanderers together. While Saramago, Ash and Gao begin with isolated and lonely men seeking only survival in a dangerous and painful land, all three of their heroes seem almost to stumble upon the loveliness of the moment and the immediate experience of those individuals they encounter and of the joy of the 'community' that each has fled or been exiled from. And that is exactly the experience that the reader will have while reading Soul Mountain or Blindness or Islands: the fascination with the immediate place, person, or story on the page at that moment. Not every reader will be comfortable with novels centered on such flawed and damaged characters as these, or with books that raise unanswerable questions--then choose to leave them unresolved, nor with stories so circular and endless that the only thing you are left with at the end is the experience itself of what Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians tell Billy Pilgrim are 'the many marvellous moments' encountered along the way. One could argue about the meaning of 'Humanism'--Classical, Secular, New or Newer--but what Gao, Ash and Saramago offer us (perhaps learned from Gabriel Garcia Marquez) seems to me to constitute a resurgence of Humanism for the 21st Century. At first glance, t
this is one heck of a novel where there is no plot,chacracter development or anything else you would find in an ordinary novel. It is like chunks of information that is put together.I Wouldn't recommend it.
Ok, so I had to read this book for school and at first I thought it wouldn't be too bad. But it was so confusing. I mean I understood that every other chapter 'you' were the main character, but he literally started in one chapter saying how he got lost on a mountain and leaves you hanging on how he got off and the next chapter after the 'you' he tells of how he literally got stuck in the mud while deciding whether or not to steal a boat. He even writes 'well, what should I talk about now?' and blabbers on and on about things that don't tie in with anything. I was so fed up with it and wanted to rip it to shreds. Not a good read for anyone in my opinion.
This wonderfully written novel explores the evils of the cultural revolution, the beauty of China, it's culture, and people, and the existential conflict of individuality and community. Although this story does not have a plot, it is still an engaging and beautiful read. Mabel Lee deserves many accolades for her wonderful translation. I have to admit, that the first time I attempted to read this book, two years ago, I couldn't get into it. For some reason it resonates much stronger with me now. I recommend reading Mabel Lee's introduction. I also think that finishing a difficult novel, especially one so rich in spirituality, is very rewarding.