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[324] Soul Mountain – Xingjian Gao

” I am on a journey—life. Life, good or bad, is a journey and wallowing in my imagination I travel into my inner mind with you who are my reflection. The perennial and perplexing question of what is most important can be changed to a discussion of what is more authentic and at times can constitute what is known as debate. But let others discuss or debate such matters, they are of no consequence for I who am engrossed in my journey or you who are on your spiritual journey. ” [52:312-313]

Even though Gao drops a hint, that Lingshan (ling: soul, shan: mountain) is imaginary, Soul Mountain is a challenging book that calls for more than concentration: rumination and patience. This is the perfect example of how you are forced to be in a constant conversation with the book. Two narratives that appear in alternating chapters make up the book, which is no more than a collection of fragments, thoughts, diary-like entries, and travelogue. In the first-person narrative (even chapters up to ch. 30, odd from ch. 33 to the end), the narrator had been misdiagnosed with lung cancer. He decides to change his life for which he just wins reprieve after the mistake is uncovered—by traveling. Leaving behind the unbearably perplexing world of human beings, he embraces the wildlife preserve up in the remote mountains of the Sichuan part of China, visiting autonomous regions of the Miao and Yi, collecting soon-to-be moribund folk songs. “I” is a writer and academic who is on a quest for authentic life, one that is untainted by political agenda, one that is free of struggles, controversies and debates of the human world. “I” desires to regain his soul and self, which have been gradually forgotten as one struggles to survive (assimilate) in a society that strips of privacy, deprives of freedom of speech, and discourages individuality. “I” is the organ of Gao’s vehement criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.

Where else can reverence of the soul be found? Where else can we find these songs which one should listen to while seated in quiet reverence or even while prostrated be found? What should be revered isn’t revered and instead only all sorts of things are worshipped! A race with empty, desolate souls! A race of people who have lost their souls. [59:361]

It’s not obvious from the beginning but the second-person narrative (odd chapters up to ch. 31, even from ch. 32 to the end) is the reflection of “I”. “You”, who is on a journey near Wuyishan (Fujian province) to search for the fabled Lingshan, is an alter-ego creation of “I”. “You” has a longing for the past and shuns the concept of a peaceful and stable existence—a stable job and family. In his nostalgic search for that liberating elusive past-cum-childhood away from urban life, he meets up with a troubled, emotional “She” who wants to run away from her established life (a nurse, a mother, and a daughter). With “She” “You”‘s journey becomes an inward one that steers into an erotic relationship in defiance of tradition. The verbal sparring between the two sheds light into battles between men and women and how, owing to the difference in gender sensitivities, no one is a winner.

…because in the early chill of the autumn light she stirred your memories and your fantasies, your fantasies about her and your lust . . . you seduced her but she also seduced you. Is there need to attribute proportions of responsibility to a woman’s intrigue and a man’s lust? [50:303]

Soul Mountain‘s ingenious story-telling technique, which juxtaposes folk tales, politics, Buddhist teachings, and incoherent reflection, has also invited criticism. The over self-indulgent style, which Gao himself has disclaimed and leaves readers to be the judge, calls for patience. In real life, there would be experiences like fragments which are not followed up (never have the chance to be followed up), memories that are developed but aren’t completed. Life is capricious; life is abrupt. “She” departs as suddenly as “You” encounters her. An important and critical aspect of, and influence on the novel is the political and cultural environment in which it was written. Gao lambastes the self-sacrificing ideology of the Chinese Communist Revolution that effectively silenced artists and writers who depended on their creativity of self-expression. The characters hold some interest for the sacred mountain of Lingshan, yet in their quest for it their sensitivity and humanity are revealed. Even Gao himself cannot say whether he is ready to forfeit human ties for this utopia.

506 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


15 Responses

  1. I have a copy of this but have been put off of reading it because I have heard that it is so esoteric and difficult to read. Your thoughts on it definitely make me think that it is a book to be savored and read slowly, and will give me much to think about. Definitely not one that I will rush through, but will have to take my time with. You give me hope that I will be able to read it and enjoy it one day! Sounds like it’s not a book to be missed.

    • Consider how plain and simple the language is, the book is very difficult to read. It’s highly meditative fiction, demanding readers to constantly ponder and reflect along with the reading. Taking time with the book would be a very good approach. It’s not the kind of book that you can put down, do some cooking, and come back to it later.

  2. Wow, this looks really intense. I’m thinking about picking it up over the holiday break when I’ll actually have time to devote to something this complex.

    • Yes, this book is meant to be read when you have a huge block of time. Life’s distraction and chores will most certainly diminish your joy of reading this book.

  3. An ingenious style indeed. It shown in your apt representation. this is a novel I would love to read. Thanks for bringing more books to my notice. I love what you are doing here.

    • After finishing the book, I realize an alternative approach to the book would be to read all the 1st narrative chapters and then tackle the 2nd narrative ones. But Gao’s intention, of course, is to impose upon readers his constant reflection on his life as he journeys on.

  4. “Life is capricious; life is abrupt.” Mirroring this in fiction sometimes makes for a challenging read, when we are so accustomed to traditional story arcs, but I often find that a work that takes that on ends up to be a favourite read. (Or maybe I convince myself of it because I’ve spent so long reading it and trying to make sense of it all! ::lol::) This does sound impressive and worthwhile.

    • The book is heavily criticized for not being fiction because of the fragments, the scraps of travelogoue, and personal reflections that make up the narrative. This is not a book by convention—without a beginning, development of characters (do these characters even exist) and a plausible resolution. But I vouch that this book is more real than life itself.

  5. This book sounds like one that is remembered long after it is read. I look forward to tackling it in the future.

  6. This certainly looks like a challenging, thoughtful book. I think it will have to go on the list for the reading retreat I dream about (along with the Wind-up Bird Chronicle).

    I love the phrase “constant conversation with a book” and feel that as I am reading Great House – it is definitely a book you need to converse with yourself as you are reading it.

    Thank you for linking to the original post where you discuss this notion in greater detail. I enjoyed reading it and have put it in my reflect on file.

    • Actually this book reminds me of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in how the author uses metaphysical reflections to express feelings and emotions. Soul Mountain makes it clear than one of the journeys is imaginary–spawned by the altered ego of the narrator. But at the end these two identities merge.

  7. I bought Soul Mountain when the author won the Nobel Prize. But I gave up on reading the book. I just could not get into it. I think I wasn’t clear on what type of book it was. Your review has prompted me to try again. It’s back on my list of books to read next year.

    • Soul Mountain is hard to like. I trudged through parts of it but have made a point to go back and re-read. Try to take your time reading it, and allow a huge block of time to read the book.

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