Volatile and fleeting – those are the two words that I feel best portray my impressions of Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain. Upon completing a book, my opinions will usually clot together and solidify somewhat, but here, they evaporated away. All I was left with was a wispy impression, and that’s why it took me such a long time to gather my thoughts.
At a superficial level, Soul Mountain is the story of one man’s journey across the Chinese countryside. The narrator travels through mountains and desolate villages, gathering folk songs and attempting to rediscover a lost childhood. Beneath this, however, there lies a tangled mess of thought. Something of deeper meaning. A few days ago, I wrote that I was floating outside of Gao’s vision, unable to understand. He himself explores this in his writing:
…the village settlement with the wooden houses which have gone black, the savage Alsatian with the grey-black fur, and the crazy woman with the snake on the carrying pole. These all seem to be hinting at something, just like the huge gloomy mountain behind the small building. There is something more to it all which I will never be able to fully understand.
It is soon evident that far from being a physical journey, Gao is redrawing the spiritual and emotional map of China, alongside the physical. With Soul Mountain, especially, an understanding of contextual background is significant. This novel was birthed during the tumultuous after-effects of the Cultural Revolution – it was formed from the void of religion, morals, and culture in Communist China. Uncertainty and the need to rediscover the self was poured into – and has been contained within – Gao’s novel.
I am perpetually searching for meaning, but what in fact is meaning? … I can only search for the self of the I who is small and insignificant like a grain of sand. I may as well write a book on the hman self without worrying whether it will be published. But then of what consequence is it whether one book more, or one book less, is written? Hasn’t enough culture been destroyed? Does humankind need so much culture? And moreover, what is culture?
Gao’s frustration is evident throughout – at one point in the novel, his alternate self refers to China as “a race with empty, desolate souls”. In the end, he writes, “in this vast ocean of humanity you are at most only a spoonful of green seawater, insignificant and fragile”.
You should know that there is little you can seek in this world, that there is no need for you to be so greedy, in the end all ou can achieve are memories, hazy, intengible, dreamlike memories which are impossible to articulate. When you try to relate them, there are only sentences, the dregs left from the filter of linguistic structures.
There is an ethereal, intangible quality to this book. It is dreamlike in its rambling disjointedness, and this contributes to the sense of uncertainty. Many of the events narrated throughout the book unfold like hazy visions and hallucinations:
Along the road, the rapids sending forth white spray in the abundant mountain streams, the round mountain tops and the clear sky are simply too bright, and the slate rooftops shimmer in the sunlight. The lines are clear and distinct, like the colour paintings executed in the gongbi style. Shaking up and down in the speeding bus on the mountain round induces a sense of loss of gravity. I dont know where I’m drifting and I don’t know what it is I’m searching for.
There is also a deconstruction of the art of writing, which I found particularly intruiging. Gao questions originality, and the significance of literature:
You create out of nothingness, playing with words like a child playing with blocks. But blocks can only construct fixed patterns, the possibilities of structures are inherent in the blocks and matter how they are moved you will not be able to make anything new.
Dragging weighty thoughts you crawl about in language, trying all the time to grab a thread to pull yourself up, becoming more and more weary, entangling in floating strands of language, like a silkworm spitting out silk, weaving a net foryourself, wrapping yourself in thicker and thicker darkness, the faint glimmer of light in your heart becoming weaker and weaker until finally the net is a totality of chaos.
In the midst of his long ‘soliloquy’, his various selfs criticise Soul Mountain itself:
“This isn’t a novel!”
“A novel must have a complete story.”
“They’re all fragments without any sequence, the author doesn’t konw how to organize connected episodes.”
When asked for a definition of fiction, the inner-critic snarls:
“This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short.”
He then says this is Eastern
“Yours is much worse than Eastern! You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralikstic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and you are calling it fiction!”
Gao goes on to question the validity of his characters:
“But surely the I, you, she and he in the book are characters?”
“These are just different pronouns to change the view of the narrative. This can’t replace the portrayal of characters.”
Thus far, I have managed to avoid discussion of (what I thought to be) the problematic abstract pronouns and second-person narration, but I suppose it’s inevitable. It was one of the things that initially made my reading experiencing more frustrating and, well, confusing. I found the anonymity of the “she” and “you”s disorienting. It was perceivable throughout the novel that the different ‘characters’ were projections of the narrator; even so I found it difficult to read. Once I allowed myself to ‘float’ however, I was able to enjoy even this.
You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness … In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate to, a myself who listens intently to me – you are simply my shadow. As I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she, because you are like me and also cannot bear the loneliness and have to find a partner for your conversation. So you talk with her, just like I talk with you. She was born of you, yet is an affirmation of myself.
Reading Soul Mountain was an enriching experience – I think more so because I wasn’t expecting the quirky jumble of philosophical rumination and Chinese folklore and Modernist writing. If, however, you refuse to completely hand the reins over to Gao and allow him to take you places, you won’t get far into this book. I made several futile attempts to place my mind inside a box, and control what I was reading, and I struggled. Once I allowed myself to float, I was able to embark upon a truly magical, eye-opening journey.
» Soul Mountain was read as a part of the Nobel Literature Prize project