Soul Mountain

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

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18 thoughts on “Soul Mountain

  1. This was a really great review, very informative. I am thinking that Gao’s style might at time resemble Milan Kundera’s, who has this propensity for suddenly wandering off course and philosophising left and right in the middle of his storytelling. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was a novel that I thought was very beautiful and profound, but it took me a long time to read because of the prose and its style.

    I’m glad that in the end you were able to connect with the novel on some level and found it enriching. I hope the same is true of me when I eventually give it a try.

    1. Steph – I have yet to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but it does sound like a beautiful book. And I suppose the themes in Gao’s and Kundera’s would be similar – both seem to be influenced by the persecution of artists and intellects in Communist regimes… Incidentally, I read this on Amazon, while I was looking up One Man’s Bible:

      In his second novel to be translated into English, Gao combines the form of the Chinese travel journal with a novelistic technique that Milan Kundera (a kindred spirit) once labeled “novelistic counterpoint” a cadenced movement between the modes of essay, vision and story.

  2. I have to congratulate you on writing one of the most insightful and objective review of the novel, which has been one baffling experience at the first reading. The emotional map of China is so spot on because in the novel the narrator does mention that Soul Mountain doesn’t really exist.

    Gao, through his adroit use of first- and second-person narratives, have conveyed a sense of hallucinations and vagueness. Dictated by the limitation of media after Cultural Revolution, Gao re-creates that psyche through his writing.

    I find One Man’s Bible, which also delves into emotional struggle of post-Cultural Revolution China, more concretizing.

    1. Matt – It was rather baffling, but I finally got a review through! I think at first, the reason why I struggled was because I didn’t understand the vagueness. Then once I realised the contextual background, it became easier to swallow. One question I have is: would Soul Mountain – and One Man’s Bible, for that matter – be considered fiction or non-fiction, or a mix of both? Although I’m sure Gao was conscious of what he was creating, it seems to me that he is relating his own experiences most of the time.

    1. Eva – it is really good! Strange, but good. I would recommend it to any lover of words/books, because even on a superficial level, it’s beautiful and a great experience. That’s partly how I got through to the end, even though I was confused for a large part of it. There are long stretches of writing where he just talks about the Chinese countryside, as though it’s a travel journal :)

    1. Chain Reader – well, as I said, it’s a beautiful book even if you read it at face value. I tried to use my brain to figure it out, but I actually understood it better when I stopped thinking about what I was reading, and just read.

  3. Tuesday, this was an excellent review and you were so spot on. This was also how I felt about the novel, although I could never have articulated it perfectly as you did.

    Steph, I actually didn’t see any resemblance with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Soul Mountain. Kundera’s philosophising were concrete ideas.. while Gao’s was really like touching smoke.. you don’t get any one thought at any time but thoughts like a myriad of ghosts.. if that makes any sense.

    1. claire – I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt this way about the novel! Hm, I can’t participate in this discussion, seeing as I’ve never read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I suppose that’s another book to add to my to-read list.

  4. I suppose the only way to know for sure exactly what the experience is like is to read it myself! I’m not sure the the content or even the style of the philosophising is precisely what I meant in my comparison of Gao and Kundera, but more the idea of “breaking the fourth wall” and inserting musings that are somewhat tangential and go beyond the scope of the main story. But again, perhaps upon reading it I would think it nothing like Kundera. It’s just that upon reading the review, he’s who I immediately thought of! ;)

    Tuesday, I think you would probably enjoy The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It has some extremely lovely moments, and as Claire said, the moments where Kundera postulates about the nature of being (or what have you) are done in a far more concrete and accessible manner. It took me while to get through because of how heavy some of the ideas are – I do sometimes feel as though Kundera is more about the deep ideas than he is about his stories, and he just uses the fictional elements to appeal to a broader audience (Claire, feel free to disagree!).

  5. Steph.. I totally agree though! I also feel he uses his stories only to be able to expound his thoughts.

    And I don’t mean anything by what I said before.. I do understand how you can presuppose that by reading Tuesday’s review.. :D

    1. Jackie – Abstract; that’s the word I was looking for! I don’t know, at first I did find it rather annoying. I’d get back home late after work, and I’d settle down with it, only to get lost after three pages. And then I’d read the same pages over and over again, and it took me a while to finish. But even the abstraction sort of grew on me, and it started making sense. You should give it another try!

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