What the Swedes Read: Gao Xingjian

What the Swedes Read: Gao Xingjian

Daniel Handler
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  • LAUREATE: Gao Xingjian (China, 2000)
  • BOOK READ: Soul Mountain, translated by Mabel Lee

A Conversation

DANIEL HANDLER: Not long after Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize, I went to my local bookshop and there was a big pile of copies of Soul Mountain. It was inspiring. Everybody wanted to read him.

THE BELIEVER: You remember it was a used-book shop, right?

DH: I realized it was the dream of the Nobel Prize, if not the dream of literature: people eager to read a book from a foreign land, a disparate culture—

BLVR: —and sell it back to a used-book shop. You bought one from a huge pile of used copies. People had tried to read the book and had given up, or read it but didn’t like it enough to keep it. And “foreign land”? “Disparate culture”? You really think China is an unknown quantity in San Francisco? Not to mention that Gao Xingjian has spent a great deal of his writing life in Paris. Soul Mountain easily owes as much to the French literary tradition as it does to the Chinese one, not that you actually know very much about the Chinese literary tradition. In fact, Soul Mountain reminded you the most of the work of Julien Gracq, a Frenchman who wrote many meandery books of fiction.

DH: I love Julien Gracq. He’s one of my favorite writers.

BLVR: Still, you’ve had trouble finishing several of his books.

DH: Nevertheless, his work has such nice flow. It moves from exposition to digression, from fiction to memoir, from observation to drama.

BLVR: Well, not much drama. It’s the same with Soul Mountain—you won’t find much of a plot. The book describes a journey taken by an outsider through the rural, mountainous region of China in search of solace.

DH: The outsider is presumably a stand-in for the author, who chose exile in 1987 following a successful career as a dramatist in Beijing. An x-ray revealed him to be in the latter stages of lung cancer, and Xingjian was told he would die soon, only to learn shortly after that it was a misdiagnosis and he had a long life ahead of him.

BLVR: Can you imagine?

DH: Soul Mountain helps me imagine how such an event might shape one’s outlook. If ever a book embodies “It’s the journey, not the destination,” it’s this one, which is stuffed with all of the incidentals of travel—transportation, lodging, food, and the chance conversations with strangers—without any sense of forward movement.

BLVR: In other words, you got bored.

DH: I did not get bored. The style is light, almost breezy, moving from old folktales recounted by unreliable drunks, to an obsessive, inscrutable attraction to a female traveler, to the natural landscape with all of the solace and loneliness that it brings when it’s one’s only company.

BLVR: Nevertheless, you began to wonder if anything was really going to happen in the book.

DH: I did not, because I knew it wouldn’t. Xingjian sets it up early, when the traveler asks about Lingshan, a.k.a. the “Soul Mountain” of the title, and what he might do when he arrives. “There’s a pavilion on the river” is the answer. “If you sit there you’ll get a good view of the other side of the river.”

BLVR: This reminded you of that old song “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” where the only thing the bear sees is the other side of the mountain.

DH: I always find that song very sad.

BLVR: That’s absurd.

DH: But in Soul Mountain absurdity and sadness go hand in hand. Xingjian has translated Beckett and Ionesco, so the lack of forward momentum in the novel is as much slap-stick as it is existential dread.

An inconsequential snow scene like this creates images in my mind, induces in me a desire to enter it. By entering the snow scene I would become the back of someone. This back of course would not have any particular meaning if I were not at this window looking at it. Gloomy sky, snow-covered ground brighter than the sky, no mynas and sparrows. Snow absorbing thought and meaning.

Blank, inscrutable surfaces; desperate, ridiculous thoughts. It couldn’t get more Becketty.

BLVR: True. Even when the book threatens to get lively, he tamps it down, interrupting, for instance, a wild yarn with “You’ve made it all up and it’s a story you could go on telling, except that she doesn’t want to listen,” which brings an early chapter to a jarring end.

DH: And the book closes on a bitter, blank note: “The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing. I understand nothing. This is how it is.” I closed the book and thought, What is a novel doing, if it can illuminate no understanding in the events it relates?

BLVR: See? You were bored.

DH: I wasn’t bored. I was interested the entire time. But at its close Soul Mountain seemed somehow less than its parts. Even its structural gambit folds back in on itself.

BLVR: You haven’t said what the structural gambit is.

DH: Soul Mountain alternates between two unnamed travelers, really: an “I” and a “you” who at first seem to be different people but who are revealed to be the same person, perhaps Xingjian himself: “You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness. You know that this loneliness of mine is incurable, that no-one can save me and that I can only talk with myself as the partner of my conversation.” All books, of course, can be said to be nothing more than the author talking to himself. But when Xingjian dismisses even the pretext that he might be addressing someone else, I had the sneaking suspicion that I was unwelcome as a reader. “Only connect,” Forster said; but Soul Mountain is connected only to itself.

BLVR: Of course, Forster worked from a European tradition. Perhaps it’s not the reader who feels distanced, but your sort of reader. Xingjian was the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize. His use of old tales from the Confucians, along with his muted knocks at the Cultural Revolution, would suggest that he’s working from a different palette than most novelists you read.

DH: But hey, you were the one who gave me a hard time about “foreign land” and “disparate culture.”

BLVR: Was that “I”? Or was that “you”?

DH: Knock it off.

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