I’m Many Different Readers Myself, A History Boy, 01/03/2016

This cover is my copy.
Yesterday was the last post I had based on my notes reading Empire. I started Multitude a while ago, but I don't quite want to share that yet. I've also, in the spare moments I can get for it, been re-reading Soul Mountain.

I’ve mentioned Gao Xingjian on the blog before. I don’t know that I really got into much of my history with him. It’s a pretty simple story, really. One day when I was 17, I remember reading that a Chinese author had won the Nobel Prize for Literature for the first time.

His name was Gao Xingjian, and his most impressive, imposing, and inspiring large work was the novel/memoir Soul Mountain. Or Lingshan as the Chinese goes. So later that week, I went to my local Chapters and bought a softcover copy of the English translation.

Later that summer, I read it, entranced. At the time, I had just decided that I wanted to develop my fiction writing abilities and eventually publish novels. That this was something I wanted to do with my life.* And I had read James Joyce’s Ulysses earlier that year, which left me fascinated with how writing could play with subjectivity.

* Two books out already, plus a play produced and developing a couple of movies. Not bad.

This struck me most plainly about Soul Mountain when I first read it. It’s composed of short chapters. Some unfold normally, from a realistic first-person perspective. But many chapters, especially in the first half of the book, are more impressionistic. 

They’re sparse descriptions of the physical environment, as if that’s no longer important. Instead, most of the writing is a biting back-and-forth conversation, written in second-person, between you and she. Most of these conversations are aggressive, lovers wounding each other.

Our author as a young man, wandering Sichuan and
Yunnan on an existential journey into the twisting
depths of his own mind. And to avoid the police.
Those formal innovations made the most impact on me initially. When I read Soul Mountain for the second time shortly after moving to Ontario, its formal quirks stood out for me again. I think it made me feel at home as I was building myself a new home for the first time.**

** Very unpatriotic of me as a Newfoundlander to say that a Chinese novel made me feel at home. Well, too bad for the patriots of my old country. Patriotism is just a gauche self-deception you share with a few million neighbours.

The third time, which I’m in the middle of now, is a very different experience. Yes, I see the formal experimentation. But I see more easily that Soul Mountain isn’t just an exercise in the depiction of subjectivity. It’s about the psychology of loneliness.

When Gao writes his intense chapters, ‘you’ is how you refer to yourself when you’re talking to yourself because there has been no one else to talk to for so long. And ‘she’ is the imagined amalgam of all the women that Gao has ever done wrong in his life. 

And when he’s relating some event that happened to him in casual style, he speaks from the ordinary first person because he doesn't crave company anymore. He’s with people. He doesn’t have to have these disorienting cyclones of conversations with imagined selves and lovers. 
• • •
A more recent photo of Gao, taken now that he lives in
A curiosity I realized reading it now for the third time. Soul Mountain is written (in English) in the present tense. It made me think that having made such an impact on me, it influenced my decision to write almost all of Under the Trees, Eaten in the present tense. 

It wasn’t a conscious homage or anything. I didn’t even think of Gao at all when I was writing that novel. It was more like, I didn’t think writing Under the Trees, Eaten in the present tense was a big deal. The style just seemed normal to me.
• • •
I also now understand how incredibly different it must be to engage with Soul Mountain in the original Chinese, if only because I’ve read about how experimental it is with the Chinese language itself.

Gao wrote in colloquial Han Chinese, as well as in the dialects of ethnic minorities in Sichuan, and in classical dialects and registers. Its explicitly political content in this case – how the Chinese state suppressed the cultural traditions of ethnic minorities – becomes clear in the very words of the novel.

Many of the later chapters I didn’t really like when I first read it because they seemed focussed on folk singers and old men from traditions I didn’t understand. I wanted to see more perspectival gymnastics when I was 17.

A priest of the religion common to the
ethnic minorities of Yunnan, China, which
Gao observed throughout his long walk in
the 1980s.
But now, my sensibility has changed. I can more easily see the real human tragedy in stories like Gao’s encounter with an old folk singer who used to perform religious rituals before the government cracked down on local worship.

Gao goes with the old man on a comically long journey down narrowing, increasingly decrepit roads until they reach his village in the middle of the night. The old man's demonstrations of the old rituals draws a crowd until his performance for the sake of a visitor depending to be an anthropologist is another ritual. The community comes together again.

And then the town’s government and army representative comes to shut down the performance because the old man never got the proper permit to perform the ritual. On top of that, the singer suffers one last indignity – the officer is his oldest son.

I think I’ve become a better reader, writer, and person for knowing to engage with these stories of lost and oppressed cultures instead.

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