A tough climb

Soul Mountain
By Gao Xingjian, translated by Mabel Lee

Soul Mountain, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, is not a compelling read. Meandering and self-indulgent, the novel simply fails to truly engage the reader, despite covering many issues and landscapes that provide ample opportunities for insightful and provocative writing. There are occasional glimpses of beauty, and stylistically Soul Mountain certainly breaks new boundaries, but as a whole the work fails to make any coherent statement and leaves frustration and boredom in its wake.

The book’s original approach is at once its highlight and its major downfall. Soul Mountain is a work of fiction, but author Gao Xingjian has also included "travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, … folk songs, … [and] some legend-like nonsense of [his] own invention". As such, it is difficult to summarise the "plot", but at its core, Soul Mountain is a travel tale of attempted self-discovery.

The protagonist, a writer whose views are not aligned with the severe Chinese government, has been diagnosed with lung cancer, but finds out six weeks later that the diagnosis is incorrect. After this realisation of his own mortality, he heads off into the depths of China, physically following the Yangzte River and hoping to find Lingshan, or Soul Mountain, and mentally hoping to achieve clarity of mind. There are vague echoes of The Snow Leopard in the author’s search for meaning via travelling through untouristed land, and the absurd realist aspects of the novel are similar to Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent novel When We Were Orphans – but this is an essentially unique and non-derivative piece of literature.

To ward off loneliness, the protagonist creates "you", the reader, and then "he" and "she" (the protagonist is "I"). Initially, this unusual style is quite absorbing and is conducive to some lovely poetic passages.: "You regret not fixing a time to see her again, you regret not chasing after her, you regret your lack of courage, not getting her to stay, not chatting her up, not being more forward, and that there will not be a wonderful liaison."

Halfway through the book the use of this technique is directly addressed: "You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness… In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate, a myself who listens intently to me – you are simply my shadow… He is the back of you after you have turned around and left me… You who are my creation, created her."

But the novelty of this technique soon wears off and descends into tedium, as the book’s lack of focus and many sidetracks become a liability. The blend of dialogue, thoughts and abstractions that could have been the book’s central strength evolve into something unwieldy and at times even incomprehensible. For instance:

"I’m terrified, she says.
What are you terrified of? you ask.
I’m not terrified of anything but I want to say that I’m terrified.
Silly child,
The other shore,
What are you saying?
You don’t understand,
Do you love me?
I don’t know,
Do you hate me?
I don’t know,
Haven’t you ever?
I only knew that sooner or later there would be this day, Are you happy?
I’m yours, speak to me tenderly, tell me about the darkness," and so on and on.

A further annoyance is Gao’s obsessive focus on sex. His descriptions are dated and mysogynistic, and lack sensuality. His female voice, created simply in the protagonist’s imagination, fails to ring true:

"I miss my father, only he truly loves me, you only want to sleep with me, I can’t make love without love,
I love you,
Nonsense, with you it’s only a momentary need,
What are you talking about? I love you!"

Gao’s attempt at philosophising is also amateurish and doesn’t seem to tread any new ground. A Buddhist monk he meets tells him that "The true traveller is without goal, it is the absence of goals which creates the ultimate traveller," and "The human world can be abandoned just by saying it." Later he wonders himself: "Where is the boundary between memory and wishful thinking? How can the two be separated? Which of the two is more real and how can this be determined?" And later still, "I am perpetually searching for meaning, but what in fact is meaning? … [O]f what consquence is it whether one book more, or one book less, is written. Hasn’t enough culture been destroyed? Does humankind need so much culture? And moreover, what is culture?" These aren’t serious meditations, and teeter on the edge of superfluousness.

Everything else seems to be in the novel, so why not a little post-modern self-reference, a la Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?:

" ‘Don’t you want to listen?’
‘Of course I do,’ I say, ‘ but it’ll be hard writing it into the novel.’
‘I didn’t give you permission to write about it. But you novelists can make up anything.’ "

Indeed – and given Gao’s fascinating life, it’s disappointing that he bothered to fictionalise this period of his life.

As Australian translator Mabel Lee points out in her illuminating introduction, Gao – playwright, novelist, critic, director and translator – first became known in the early 1980s for his work when it upset the Chinese Communist Party. It wasn’t until the 1979 end of the Cultural Revolution, however, that Gao’s work – books, short stories, essays and plays – began to be published. In 1987 Gao left China with no intention of returning; he had started Lingshan, the novel’s Chinese title, in 1982 and took his manuscript with him. The following year he was diagnosed incorrectly with lung cancer, and it is the next few years, when he travelled more than 15,000 km across China, that form the basis of his novel. Lingshan was first published in Taipei in 1990, and translated into English as Soul Mountain last year.

In English, at least, Soul Mountain is at best occasionally lyrical. At worst, it lacks the realistic passion and emotional intensity of other more humble and less critically-acclaimed expatriate Chinese literature, such as Da Chen’s Colours of the Mountain and Gail Tsukiyama’s Women of the Silk. It appears that the emperor, in this case, is wearing no clothes.

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