Book Review: “Soul Mountain” by Gao Xingjian

Translation from the Mandarin by Mable Lee

Awarded the Nobel in literature in 2000, Gao Xingjian had completed his monumental work, Soul Mountain while in exile in Paris.

The book was a natural selection for someone who has always made a point of reading contemporary world literature, but it had also been staring at me from the bookshelf of my sister, who—unlike the author and protagonist—had not been granted a repreive from death by a false lung cancer diagnosis.

It took the better part of a year to get through the book. The slow reading had many excuses during the pandemic, not the least of which was the book’s size at more than 500 pages of a novel that is not exactly a novel. It is a collage of semi-autobiographical vignettes from the journey of an artist across China—the painter, writer, dramaturg and critic—persecuted for his undying dissent, a man on the run from himself and to himself as much as he eludes yet brushes with authorities.

The Introduction by the novel’s translator, professor Mabel Lee, was invaluable for appreciating a work that would have been impenetrable without her providing the historical and autobiographical context in which the search of the self – the mission of artists—was systematically silenced by the Cultural Revolution, and Gao Xingjian had to burn much of his work in order to survive. The book has a startling usage of singular pronouns to dissect the protagonist, exploring the dimensions of human relationships when speaking to himself and others as “you” , “she” and “he”, while on the run across China. Searching for the self in the world around him, he finds a civilization left in tatters by the Cultural Revolution, where both the natural environment and ancient culture have been destroyed by “progress” and there are elusive “Wild men” living in wilderness. Gao Xingjian takes the reader on a journey to the corners of China, the fringes of Han Chinese civilization, to places where he is safe from the circuit of Beijing and enriched by traditions of such foreign lands. He is the nonconformist, a lonely man, and a magnet for lonely people who he encounters on the road to the folkloric and elusive Lingshan mountain. His contact with Buddhism and Daoism in remote monasteries might offer a respite from the state consensus of self-sacrifice within Confucianism, but it is clear these traditions are also not for him. What is also not for him is the search for the self in another, although insist he does: there are numerous erotic passages, their curious and measured dialogue illustrate the struggle between men and women, revealing the rapture and disappointment of lust. He could have applied the old wisdom of the Rule of Three, leaving the erotic vignettes with purpose instead of tiring them, but besides these passages, there were others that I found unnecessary. The singular point-of-view was at times exhausting and adding little to search for Soul Mountain and his bent for absurdism was lost on me, especially when I had expected a revelation of the self when he had indeed come so very close:

  • “I don’t know if you have ever observed this strange thing, the self. Often the more you look the more it doesn’t seem to be like it, and the more you look the more it isn’t it. It’s just like when one is lying on the grass and staring at a cloud – at first it’s like a camel, then like a woman, and when you look again it becomes an old man with a long beard, but this doesn’t last because clouds are transforming every minute.”

What will remain, however, is some of the most beautiful prose I’ve encountered, the painter Gao Xingjian leaps onto the page with some of the most visual writing imaginable, describing the wilderness and ancient traditions of the interior of China, orchestrated as only a painter could when in command of words just as with oils. An artist, he consistently finds that detail which encapsulates the passersby, making them explode or implode on the page unforgettably. Resonate was the relentless honesty when criticizing a world and past he does not control and when revealing himself, unabashed while on the run.

The novel is for explorers and not for readers of traditional novels, who might not appreciate so much work in a lengthy book, unconventional with its lack of characters to settle into. Although I am among such readers, I am also stubborn, and therefore I was rewarded by finishing a book that enriched me with an experience into a world I know little about. Albeit a door into China more than a door unto the Self, the novel will not disappoint philosophers with the struggle of an individual who needs yet refutes a world around him.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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