Review by Robert Nagle , Houston, Texas, September 2002.
This review is a little special: it’s about a book I heard completely while driving around in my car. I recently returned to my home town, Houston, a city where people spend unbearable amounts of time in the solitude of their cars, driving from work to home and work again. In Houston waiting in traffic is synonymous with living. One passes through neighborhoods in air-conditioned comfort, cursing the red lights and slow-moving cars. The purpose of Houston life, it seems, is to wander around without having to feel the breeze or notice the trees, people or shops. The only interruption to the routine are the weekly visits to the gas station, where the traveler parks, inserts his debit card into the machine and pumps gas into his tank Then, if he is lucky, he can leave as quickly as he came, merging into the grumbling fog of traffic.
Gao Xingjian’s novel, Soul Mountain, is about a similar wandering. It is about a man, an intellectual, a writer, an anthropologist, whose mission is to collect folk culture all around him. In reality, he just wanders around, traveling wherever fate sends him. He is in search of something, some answer, some mythical place he calls “Soul Mountain.” In his heart he knows it does not really exist, but that does not make his pursuit any less worthwhile. His motivation is little more than pretext; he wants to find interesting people and learn about local legends. He wants to meet pretty women. But most of all, he wants the trip to help him make sense of his past tribulations.
The novel is not particularly thrilling or amazing, nor is the plot gripping. There are occasional poetic flourishes, a few self-conscious narrative interludes and several vivid characters. And, oh, yes, several sex scenes, some prurient, some detached. As I hear various tales in my car, I feel restless and uncertain about where the book (and I) are traveling. At a red light at Wilcrest and Richmond Avenue, I am listening to an intensely passionate description of sexual intercourse. On Bissonet and I-59, I am hearing several men debate the existence of the legendary “Wild Man.” While stuck in morning Westheimer traffic, I learn that our protagonist is about to die of lung cancer. But wait. It was a mistake, a misdiagnosis. But wait — I have arrived at the 51 story office building, location of my temp job for the day. I park in an underground garage, walking through a tunnel to the building elevator–never once being exposed to the searing Houston heat.
After listening to the book-on-tape and flipping through the pages, I am still puzzled. It just doesn’t add up. It is formless. Parts are profound or poetic; parts seem like unfinished sketches or notes jotted to oneself. There is no progression, except perhaps an inward progression toward understanding. One Amazon critic reported being so frustrated by the aimlessness of the book that he went directly to the final chapter and started reading backwards, a motive that I certainly understand. If anything, this essayistic novel is thematically arranged. The novel flows in several random directions, hitting the occasional eddy (sex, Taoism, modernism), twirling about until the protagonist can grasp for the next character or incident to push the story forward again. The current is slow and steady, and the narrator is content to stay afloat, letting his unspecified and lackadaisical quest lead him where it may.
What is this novel anyway? It is not a typical Asian novel. What is it? Gao must have been influenced by the formal contrapuntal emphasis of his Parisian contemporary expatriate, Milan Kundera* . Kundera’s essayistic novels impose a rigorous strict structure on plot and characters. But Gao makes no attempt to organize the anecdotes, observations and encounters that populate the book, giving the whole enterprise the aimlessness of a travelogue. Gao is dealing with vague allegory (I am thinking of J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” or maybe Kadare). But although Gao’s protagonist is obsessed with describing legends and examining their significance, in fact the novel dwells on the mundane. In one chapter, his quest to arrive at a city to learn about its legends and spiritual thought is derailed by a bus driver who has decided to stop at a cafe and not resume the journey until tomorrow. The protagonist/writer, eager to be on his way, is frustrated. Although he manages eventually to find a ride, this little episode provides a humorous and familiar example of how everyone abides by different schedules and priorities and how the narrator’s lofty ambitions have no more cosmic significance than a bus driver’s desire to have a good long meal.
The protagonist is clearly aware of contemporary society’s problems (the novel alludes obliquely at times to the building of the Three Gorges Dam or the Cultural Revolution), but his observations are not littered with references to pop culture or political events in the way that American novels or weblogs seem to be nowadays. Instead the narrator describes his novel through hearsay; he records what people say about themselves and their beliefs and mythologies. In one scene, a woman begs the narrator to write a description of her dead girlfriend to evoke her memory. She tells a sordid story about how her girlfriend was denounced and imprisoned and how she tried vainly to track people who knew her close friend. The protagonist half-listens, feeling nauseous from the seafood the woman had been feeding him. He absorbs these kinds of stories without necessarily feeling nourished by them.
Most of the characters are haunted by something, a memory, an old love, a father that died, a mother that disappeared. Because characters make brief appearances in the novel, there is only enough time to sketch one central overriding concern: getting a daughter into college, finding a key, selling one’s calligraphy. The protagonist leaves the people in the same condition in which he found them. That is, in fact, the one complaint I have of this unsettling novel. We have traveled (or driven) long enough with the novel, but by the end, we are left wondering whether we’ve even made any headway.
BEAUTY OR EVIL
Early on it becomes clear that the novel’s central concern was victimization and sexual brutality. The protagonist encountered (and slept with) a large number of females. Some chapters are sparse exchanges between lovers about love and self and surrender. Others recount legends about zhuhuapo, the word for certain beautiful tempting women who often bring misfortune. Most of the time the protagonist relates the sexual encounters with little enthusiasm, treating them as little more than obligatory episodes in his quest.
Throughout the novel the protagonist relates his history of sexual encounters, hinting at having witnessed some unspeakable sexual victimization. He doesn’t seek out female companionship, but he makes no special effort to fend it off either. He is jaded. He remembers the fires of passion, but now the endless conversation about such matters seem nothing more than the vanity of a species unwilling to acknowledge the passing of time. His participation in these unions seem to implicate him in an endless cycle of pain and victimization. His middle age sensibility warns him not to cause pain or harm. It seems he can no longer enjoy the company of a woman. Yet he longs to regain oneness with the natural world he so lovingly describes. Sex offers the opportunity to erase boundaries between self and another person. But it also is a power game in which someone always loses. In one town, the protagonist makes the acquaintance of an inexperienced girl who throws herself before him. He is attracted not by her beauty, but by her naivety and ardor. But in the middle of sexual embrace, he realizes that to continue with her would be absolutely cruel. He didn’t love her; he had no intention of marrying her. In a town with traditional views on marriage, a woman who had lost her virginity would lose any hope of getting married, and the potential for pregnancy would jeopardize this girl’ social standing. He refuses to consummate the act, hurting the girl’s feelings, but knowing in his heart that he is performing a supreme act of kindness. Or is he? In either case, the girl would be hurt; by denying her the sexual attention she craves, he deals a blow to her confidence. He presumes that his careful avoidance of heartbreak will be in the girl’s best interest. But isn’t this just a rationalization for indifference?
The only people who seem to play the game well are those who treat it as just that: a game. A promiscuous woman has a fling with him without any illusions about love or marriage. She does it because it is natural. Is there anything wrong with that? She says no, and after a night of passion, the protagonist recounts the lovemaking not with passion or a sense of the woman’s beauty. He merely recounts their conversation about how such a lifestyle could be justified. Clearly he is past the point of being able to enjoy such encounters. After meeting another young attractive woman, he finds the thought of passion to be more painful than pleasurable. He writes:
I would rather drift here and there without leaving traces. There are so many people in this big wide world and so many places to visit but there is nowhere for me to put down roots, to have a small refuge, to live a simple life. I always encounter the same sort of neighbors, say the same sort of things, good morning or hello and once again am embroiled in endless daily trivia. Even before this becomes solidly entrenched, I will already have tired of it all. I know there is no cure for me.”
In one of the book’s oddest chapters, the protagonist hears the story of a group of youngsters who had sex parties and a girl who was executed for the corrupting influence she had on other girls. The sentence is of course unjust, and the girl is deserving of pity. But the protagonist seems shocked less by the sentence than the fact that the girl organized these parties freely, without any background of victimization or exploitation. For him, it raises the question whether sexual activity was really a power game where one person always trumped another. Here was an individual who turned promiscuity into a personal choice and seemed not to have injured anyone, physically or psychologically. Yet, she is condemned and ultimately destroyed. In another episode with an attractive girl certainly too young for him, they have an innocent talk on a mountain trip, and he agrees to take a picture. The girl gives him her home address in another city and invites him for a friendly visit. But after the encounter, which the protagonist describes very objectively, he never develops the photos or bothers to keep the girl’s address. Later, when he wonders “whether or not one day I’ll have all this film made into print…(or) whether she will look as stunningly beautiful in the photo,” he reveals that his appreciation of beauty has not faded, even as he tries to suppress it. “I can only recoil when confronted by beauty or evil,” he says.
NATURE VS. BUREAUCRATS
Although Gao’s sensibility is far too cerebral to concern himself with political concerns, he laments the loss of privacy, spontaneity and freedom in a society controlled by bureaucrats and officials. Characters don’t rail against communism; they rail against the loss of spontaneity in life caused by their political system. In one scene, when townspeople cheer on a singer to perform some songs, an official breaks the show up because nobody had obtained the right permits. This official turned out to be the singer’s son. These officials are petty and bothersome, but certainly not worth fearing. Gao’s novel is truly apolitical, but he views regulation and officialism as encroaching on the natural world and even personal relationships. In one story, he tells of how elderly people with political blemishes in their past were banished to inferior retirement homes, “homes for the “solitary aged” while others stayed at “homes for the venerable aged.” Later on, after the Party admitted its excesses of the period, all retired people went to a “home for the aged,” leading one to wonder whether the current system was in fact an improvement over the old system. When a relative inquires about a parent who had died in a home for the “solitary aged,” he discovers that the paperwork had disappeared and that barely a record existed of her incarceration. The system is both impersonal and inefficient; the book is littered with incidents of people being harmed, either directly or indirectly by zealous officials. For Gao, officials are harmful because they try to impose artificial order on the world around them. Even when the governing bodies try to amend its impunities against the natural world or society, it fails. For a while he follows a band of biologists trying to study the panda’s natural habitat, a rather absurd undertaking, given that the pandas are practically extinct anyway and the habitat has changed so irrevocably. Why bother, the protagonist asks a skeptical old man. The man replies:
“it’s symbolic, it’s a sort of reassurance–people need to deceive themselves. We’re preoccupied with saving a species which no longer has the chance for survival and yet on the other hand we’re charging ahead and destroying the very environment for the survival of the human species itself. Look at the Min River you came along on your way in here, the forests on both sides have been stripped bare. The Min River has turned into a black muddy river but the Yangtze is much worse yet they are going to block off the river and construct a dam in the Three Gorges! Of course, it’s romantic to indulge in wild fantasy, but the place lies on a geological fault and has many documented records of landslides throughout history. Needless to say, blocking off the river and putting up a dam will destroy the entire ecology…when people assault nature like this nature inevitably takes revenge!”
The sexual violence alluded to throughout the book is another such assault on nature. It suggests disturbance, an inability to reconcile opposing forces in the natural world. According to one legend, young girls who had been raped or treated badly would dive suicidally into the river far below. This violent, eerie reunion with the natural world was alluring not only to the townspeople, but even the protagonist’s girlfriend, who liked to imagine jumping.
THE STORYTELLER’S DISCOMFORT
So where does the novelist come in? What should he do? The protagonist (and author) is not quite sure. His ostensible function is to collect cultural history from the regions. He was a storyteller, historian, photographer, social scientist, ecologist and anthropologist all wrapped up into one. Is he merely cataloging human experience? Or sifting through life for examples of beauty and epiphanies? His ostensible purpose is to collect legends and folk songs (and by the way, even the Communist Party couldn’t find fault with that). Behind this straightforward task lies uncertainty about what the writer should be doing with the half-truths that are called legends. If told and retold enough times, these legends attain the status of a “social truth.” The Wild Man (one of the legends retold in the novel) may be a myth, but hearing it so many times makes one no longer so sure. In a society where official versions of events are repeated over and over, to relegate the writer’s role to that of “legend collector” is essentially to render him irrelevant. Gao doesn’t seem interested in the political dimensions of this. The protagonist just wants to explore and take pictures and record. Still, the novel is more than that. Interspersed between descriptions of his travel, the reader will find stream-of-consciousness ruminations on the storytelling art, a sign that the writer is uncomfortable with just collecting the stories of other people. The novel records bedtime conversations with ex-lovers who are always questioning his motives, interpretations and attitudes. The feminine voice, often unnamed and unseen, is hypercritical, knowing, skeptical, needy and eager to unmask the narrator’s illusions. Indeed, quite often the stories are told in indirect discourse while the narrator is doing something else. He often, for example, tells stories about old lovers while in bed with another. In such a case, a story is a rude distraction for the current woman he is sleeping with. When stories of the past flow freely from the protagonist’s tongue during such private moments, it is a sign that the narrator is uncomfortable with how events are initially understood by people. Only after an event has faded into people’s memories can a storyteller find the discipline and structure and distance to shed light into what the episode was really about.
The legends, while artfully told, often reveal the narrator’s uncertainties about his role in capturing stories. He recounts a fascinating legend of a Grand Marshall from the Jin Dynasty who secretly watches a beautiful nun in the bathtub. As it turns out, the woman has cut open her stomach to expose her entrails and has begun scrubbing them in the same way she scrubbed the rest of her limbs. After she is finished, she sews up her stomach and proceeds with her routine tasks. After telling the story in a dramatic and convincing way, the narrator says:
This story is a political warning.
You say if the ending of the story is changed it could become a morality tale to warn people against lechery and lust. The story could also be turned into a religious tale to exhort people to convert to Buddhism. The story can also serve as a philosophy for getting on in society –to teach the morally superior man that each day he should investigate his own personal conduct, or that human life is suffering, or that suffering in life derives from the self. Or the story could be developed with numerous intricate and complex theories. It all depends on how the storyteller tells it. The Grand Marshall protagonist of the story has a name and surname so a great deal of textual research, examining historical texts and old books, could be carried out. But as you are not a historian, don’t have political aspirations, and certainly neither wish to become an expert in Buddhism, nor to preach religion, nor to become a paragon of virtue, what appeals to you is the superb purity of the story. Any explanation is irrelevant, you simply wanted to retell it in the spoken language.
So what is this bland pronouncement about? Is it just the usual complaint about interpretation? Is it warning people about the dangers of manipulating stories for other purposes? Is it merely professing neutrality about the storytelling art itself? No one could say for sure. In this passage, like many others, the author/protagonist is revealing his personal struggle about the nature of his art in the modern world. No one will deny that storytelling is good for its own sake, but a writer who writes with this belief will find his creative works littered with self-conscious musings, autobiographical ruminations and infusions of allegorical significance into the stories he retells. Does Gao decry this? Should the novelists instead be stripping away such personal touches just to focus on the story? Soul Mountain, as imperfect as it is, stands as an example of how easy it is for the author to become the story he tells and how difficult it is to separate the art of storytelling from the desire to explore ideas, personal emotions and metaphysical meditations.