Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2000. Part travel diary, part philosophy, part love story, ‘Soul Mountain’ is an elegant, unforgettable novel that journeys deep into the heart of modern-day China.
In 1982 Chinese playwright, novelist and artist Gao Xingjian was diagnosed with lung cancer, the very disease that had killed his father. For six weeks Gao inhabited a transcendental state of imminent death, treating himself to the finest foods he could afford while spending time reading in an old graveyard in the Beijing suburbs. But a secondary examination revealed there was no cancer – he had won a ‘reprieve from death’ and had been thrown back into the world of the living.
Faced with a repressive cultural environment and the threat of a spell in a prison farm, Gao fled Beijing. He travelled first to the ancient forests of central China and from there to the east coast, passing through eight provinces and seven nature reserves, a journey of fifteen thousand kilometres over a period of five months. The result of this epic voyage of discovery is ‘Soul Mountain’.
Interwoven into this picaresque journey are myriad stories and countless memorable characters – from venerable Daoist masters and Buddhist monks and nuns to mythical Wild Men; deadly Qichun snakes to farting buses. Conventions are challenged, preconceptions are thwarted and the human condition, with all its foibles and triumphs, is laid bare.
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As one of Gao Xingjian's characters remarks, if a fiction writer could know the true stories of the people he passes on the street, he would be amazed. Surely the Nobel laureate's own story, which forms the basis of Soul Mountain, is worthy of amazement. In 1983 Gao was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that had killed his father. At the same time, he had been threatened with arrest for his counterrevolutionary writings and was preparing to flee Beijing for the remote regions of southwest China. Shortly before his departure, however, the condemned man got at least a partial reprieve: a second set of x-rays revealed no cancer at all. On the heels of this extraordinary redemption, he began the circuitous journey that would lead him to the sacred (and possibly mythical) mountain of Lingshan--and to this daring, historically resonant novel.
A destination chosen arbitrarily, at the suggestion of a fellow traveller, the elusive Lingshan becomes rich with meaning for the narrator of Soul Mountain. Meanwhile, the narrator himself shows a tendency to go forth and multiply. First he divides into You and I. Then You generates yet a third voice, a somewhat simple but intense young woman named She, followed by He--and none of these personae can resist the elemental lure of the sacred site. Indeed, the search for Lingshan becomes a metaphor for all spiritual striving:
Would it be better to go along the main road? It will take longer travelling by the main road? After making some detours you will understand in your heart? Once you understand in your heart you will find it as soon as you look for it? The important thing is to be sincere of heart? If your heart is sincere then your wish will be granted?
Along the way, I and You mourn the devastations of the Cultural Revolution, when thousands of monuments, temples, and graves were reduced to rubble. The obliteration of these reminders of the dead becomes a torment to the narrators of the novel, who struggle to assert their individuality--itself a proscribed act in Communist China--against what they see as a false and brutal ideal that has swept away history, literature, and tradition as decisively as it has destroyed the ancient forests. (At one point Gao describes the sad spectacle of the few remaining pandas, who wander a shrinking woodland wearing electronic transmitters.) Seamlessly translated by the Australian scholar Mabel Lee, Soul Mountain is a masterpiece of self-observation set against a soulful denunciation of "progress" and practicality. --Regina MarlerReview:
‘Chinese literature of the nineties will have to contend with the creative energy and the daring of Gao Xingjian.’ Le Monde
‘An original voice unlike any contemporary writing available in English… an extraordinary product of an imagination infused with European and Chinese cultures; an exploration of individual identity in a society that exalts the collective; and a daring play with voice that plunders ancient Chinese myths, philosophy, history, folk songs and memory.’ Weekend Australian
'Gao's search is a wonderful realisation of the multiplicity of Chinese cultures and the persistence of a sense of the divine in the face of so much official hostility. Soul Mountain is part autobiography, part sexual rhapsody, part cynical rave at the meaninglessness of life. Gao has divided this mass into chapters, many of which can be read as self-contained episodes. Most are brilliant miniatures, exercises in style composed with an instinctive understanding of the way words work. Despite the deliberate disconnectedness, the book hangs together by dint of its linguistic energy and exuberant storytelling.' Courier Mail
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