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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]

Passages from Soul Mountain

Despite the simple and plain language, Soul Mountain is a challenging book to read. The provocative passages force me to put down the book and reflect.

When I am observing others I always treat the other person as a mirror for looking inwardly at myself. [151]
(No wonder China considered Gao a reactionary. He literally quotes the Bible: Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?)

She says, yes, she wants to become the ends of your nerves, she wants you to touch with her fingers, to see with her eyes, to create images with her, to climb with her up Lingshan, she wants to look down on the whole of your soul from the peak of Lingshan, including secrets of which you are ashamed, hidden in the darkest corners. [181]
(“Ling” in Chinese means soul. The title of the book hints at the imaginary mountain. Journey to Lingshan is a journey to self-enlightenment.)

So-called civilization in later ages separated sexual impulse from love and created the concepts of status, wealth, religion, ethics and cultural responsibility. Such is the stupidity of human beings. [228]
(Is outsourcing all manufacturing to China also considered a cultural responsibility the the United States has acted upon at the expense of losing all of its domestic jobs?)

I know my name is already on documents circulated to various echelons of the central government down to the provincial cities and county towns, and could be seen by the heads of party committees and cultural offices. [260]
(Why do you think they ask you to fill out arrival cards? And here we freak out at FBI’s access to our library records.)

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. [312]
(Finally over halfway of the book it makes sense. The perplexing 1st- and 2nd-person narratives converge.)

Everyone has memories they treasure.
Not all memories are worth treasuring.
Yes.
Losing them is a form of liberation. [391]
(This is exactly how I feel for months. So hit-home. Like Sheena Easton’s song.)

Reading Notes: Soul Mountain

Many years ago, way before the existence of the blog, I read Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain in Chinese. In fact, the English translation was not available until exactly a decade after the Chinese edition was published in 1990. I wasn’t reviewing novels as solicitously as I do now. Anyway, I pick up this enigmatic (to many) novel again in English language. Part autobiographical, part fictional account of a man’s journey to find the fabled mountain Lingshan, Soul Mountain is a combination of story fragments, travel accounts, unnamed characters (referred to by the pronouns “I”, “you”, “she”, etc.), and folk poetry/legends. Despite the very lucid and simple prose, the book, of which there is no lack of travel fragments and random musings, is being criticized as overly self-indulgent, unreader-friendly and alienating. In keeping sentiment to yesterday’s post about how reading is a mental conversation between reader and words, Soul Mountain is a journey to self-enlightenment sugar coated with physical travel. First-person narrative alternates with second-person. This peculiar format alone can be mind-boggling. This novel forces me to think, to interact, to ponder and to reflect, otherwise the nonlinear progression simply amounts to ennui. But I find it very delightful to read the shifting perspectives although this will take me some extra time.