The Nobel Mystery Man and His Deep Daoist Novel

Soul Mountain , by Gao Xingjian, translated by Mabel Lee. HarperCollins, 510 pages, $27.

Gao Xingjian trails a heavy aura of ex nihilo . Who is this guy? When he won the Nobel Prize–the first Chinese writer to do so–there was no guardian exegete, no Sontag, no Roth, no Kundera to provide us with a gloss on his cosmopolitan canonicity. His name doesn’t register in Columbia University’s definitive Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature , and even in a book published a month before he received the prize, Chinese Literature in the Second Half of a Modern Century , the authors, an assembly of professors, mention him just once in 332 very dense pages.

Mr. Gao is the oddest Nobel winner since Elias Canetti (with the possible exception of the Italian clown, Dario Fo). Until he hit the Stockholm jackpot, our latest laureate was not paying the rent on his Paris apartment with any revenue stream deriving from his books; Mr. Gao was subsisting instead, in the true bohemian spirit, on the sales of his ink paintings.

In China, he’s best known for the controversy that erupted around his play Bus Stop (1983). It’s about a group waiting for a bus that never comes while the years allegorically elapse, and it’s Godot-awful. Mr. Gao has written that the play was influenced by Beckett, but it reads more like juvenilia–you know, the kind of play that takes itself so seriously that the audience can’t. Nevertheless, rump Maoist ideologues attacked the play for its defeatism, anti-socialist thought and unwarranted criticism of the great Chinese transportation system. The polemic was conducted in that inimitable hack-pack invective, forged during the Cultural Revolution, which gives the reader the sick feeling of a language somehow infected with rabies. It is a language which, in China, is quite literally a vector of death.

Mr. Gao astutely recused himself from the Beijing scene after the blowup. He’d already been sent to one labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. His plan was to travel around the less developed parts of China, lie low, hope that his name wouldn’t attract attention. Like the English antiquarians of the late 17th century, seeking in fables and relics evidence of merrie olde England buried under the dour Protestant ascendancy, Mr. Gao found himself searching for something like merrie olde Cathay, a folk empire of shamans ( zhuhuapo ) and portents lying beneath the monuments of Communist dishonesty.

The resulting travel journal forms the heart of Soul Mountain . The story goes like this: Two unnamed men meet on a train going through a backwoods section of western China. One claims to be a journalist, headed for the Qinghai-Tibetan border, where he’s going to gather folk customs and artifacts. The other, a middle-aged man of obvious literary inclinations, is intrigued by the journalist’s mention of Lingshan, or Soul Mountain, and decides to visit it. The novel tracks the subsequent journeys of these two men–the journalist “I” tending eastward, through wilderness parks and small villages, toward the metropoles; our other narrator, represented by the second-person pronoun “you,” enfolded in a slightly more abstract landscape, interminably questing for his mountain. This “you” is a grammatical boomerang, aimed not at the hypocrite lecteur (there’s never any sense that Mr. Gao wants the reader to feel that he himself might be drafted for that second person) but returning, unerringly, to sender. The “you,” in other words, must be taken as a deviated “I,” the self talking to itself, ego to alter ego, as it does in the secret diary we keep in our heads.

The first person’s share of the book is less murky. It consists of that string of anecdotal addenda, that absorption into local histories, which are the joy of the travel book. The great set pieces here arise around some fortuitously discovered remnant of old custom, especially among China’s tribal peoples–the Yi, the Qiang, the “clever and intelligent” Jiangsu, the Miao. Mr. Gao (or rather Gao–let’s drop the honorific to distinguish the character from the author) attends a Miao festival in which the village girls, lining a river bank, holding hands, sing seductively to the village boys at twilight. He finds an old Daoist priest who brings him to a small village and, to the delight of the villagers, treats him to a concert first of magical songs and then, as the night and the liquor take hold, bawdy ones. This episode is interrupted, typically, when an official Party pooper, the village cadre (who happens also to be the priest’s son), breaks up this superstitious assembly. Gao runs into forest rangers with stories about the poaching of tigers and pandas, and old scientists worried about the imminent environmental catastrophe about to be visited upon the Yangtze River by the government in the form of the Three Gorges Dam. Gao is especially on the lookout for any stories about the Wild Man, a mythical hominid offshoot that, like Bigfoot, seems to flash into view in isolated backwoods areas only when there are no recording instruments around. Upon this creature, living in the cracks and niches left by civilization, Gao projects all his nostalgia for barbarism, his dream of a life outside the totalitarian Chinese system.

“You” and “I” appear in alternate chapters. The chapters that feature the second person are more lyrical and hornier: “You” is a puritanical cocksman, continually shocked by the wantonness of his conquests, a string of desperate country girls and married vamps. An amusing irony–and sometimes not so amusing, as when the fine line between irony and sexism is callously crossed.

Both of these figures represent Gao Xingjian divvied up, reflecting fundamental Daoist beliefs about the dissolution of duality in an ultimate unity. Daoism, like Christianity, has generated a class of images that have been used in Chinese literature and arts over the millennia. For the non-initiated Western reader, however, a lack of familiarity with the symbology isn’t going to detract much from the pleasure of the text. There’s nothing inscrutable or particularly esoteric about Mr. Gao’s mindset: He is that familiar figure in 20th-century literature, an intellectual disenchanted with all systems of belief–the disenchantment a byproduct of the killing state machinery that has been brought to bear to coerce belief.

Mr. Gao is one of those people to whom Baudelaire was referring when he wrote: “but the true voyagers are only those who depart / for the sake of departure.” His fellow travelers are such figures as Bruce Chatwin and W. G. Sebald: Wunderkammer writers, curators of curiosa. Mr. Gao is a less consistently intelligent writer than either of those two. His great talent is for pictorial pathos, conjuring, in a few brush strokes, scenes of a disproportionately affecting intensity. At one point Gao approaches a boy fishing on the shore of Lake Caohai and gets stuck up to his knees in the mud. The boy runs off, leaving him stranded, unable to move: “On the lonely lake, even the aquatic birds have gone. The dazzling surface of the water imperceptibly grows hazy, twilight emanates from the reeds and the cold rises from underfoot. I am chilled all over, there are no cicadas chirping, no frogs croaking. Can this possibly be the primitive loneliness devoid of all meaning I seek?”

The forces at work here are amassed in a slightly off-balance way, with the irresistible, immense forces of nature–water, night and cold–poised against the small, ridiculous human figure, given, as it were, in a foreground corner of the entire visual field, like the legs of Icarus in Brueghel’s famous painting. There’s a tradition in Chinese painting of the master painter becoming one with the painting: The T’ang painter Wu Tao-tzu, according to legend, disappeared into the mist of one of his own landscape paintings. Gao’s momentary, absurd plight–actually being sucked into the sensuous texture of the pictorial field–is like the parodic verso of Wu Tao-tzu’s recto: the artist too clumsy to escape from his own picture. But whether you like Mr. Gao’s work depends, I think, on your feeling about that final sentence, which hovers just on the edge of preciosity. It has to work–as it does indeed work for me–as a sort of quavering flute note over the

silence of the cicadas and frogs, breathing on what would otherwise be a completely closed scene, shaking its very composed surface, rendering it at once less beautiful and more human, and bringing us back, with a tug, to the awkward, the imperfect, the living.

Roger Gathman has written for The Economist , The American Scholar and Green Magazine .