Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian. Harper Perennial, 2001.
[NB: The reviewer has chosen to stay attuned to the Chinese style of the original to enable readers to better capture its flavour.]
Although I had heard about the controversial Nobel Prize winner Soul Mountain years ago, it is not until recently that I was able to read it. And I only got a rough idea of it, as the book was borrowed for a limited time. As the Chinese proverb goes: “see a leopard spot, see a leopard.”
I read the original Chinese version first. The best way to get the original and authentic impression of a book is from its original and authentic language version, for each language has its own uniqueness which can not be fully converted into another. The work of translation, no matter how precise it is, will more or less lose the authenticity of the original. And the more outstanding the book, the more this could be the case. It is with the expectation of an outstanding book that I opened Soul Mountain. Seeing is believing. As a reader, I believe the true appraisal of a book should be from one’s own eyes.
At first I was disappointed, either because I am not a good reader or I am too good. My first impression of Soul Mountain was that it was not worth reading and that it was as difficult to reach a conclusion about it as it was to reach the unreachable mountain from which the book gets its name. As we say in Chinese: “like a chicken rib, it is tasteless to taste and a pity to discard.” The book does not read like a novel, or a travelogue, or a diary, or prose, or a biography or an essay or anything in particular. It would be more interesting to say that it is philosophic al prose like Nietzsche’s genius work Thus Spake Zarthustra. .
Enjoying great popularity should be the key element of a good novel. In terms of readability, Soul Mountain lacks artistic charm with its disordered, obscure, tedious and story-less story. It is known that Gao is a multi-talented artist with multiple titles, play writer, painter, translator, director, critic, etc. However, in the words of the ancient Chinese sage Mencius: “one cannot expect to catch and to enjoy the two delicacies of fish and bear’s paw at the same time,” Gao had no choice but to become a second-rate playwright, a third-rate interpreter-translator and a fourth-rate painter and writer, among which his gift of story-telling is obviously the weakest. This reduces Soul Mountain to a mere soliloquy by Gao. Frankly, I really doubt that the book could attract any publisher in the Chinese market before winning its Nobel Prize.
Yet as an afterthought, I think we cannot simply say that Soul Mountain is “not good to read.” Needless to say, a masterpiece’s value lies in the perfect combination of both ideological content and artistic quality, thus can it be gifted with maximum and eternal charm and can stand the touchstone of time and space to become immortal, just as the famous four Chinese Classic Masterpieces mentioned in Gao’s Nobel Lecture and the masterpieces of the world. The problem is, this kind of rare work is becoming even rarer nowadays. Even Gao himself admitted, “Now I seldom read novels. They are not interesting. The new novels are generally uninteresting. I feel that there is basically nothing worth reading.” All his geese are swans. I wonder whether Gao realizes that his readers might have exactly the same feeling? In the great modern time and with great expectations of the world there have seldom appeared great masterpieces. What’s wrong with this time and world of ours? This would be a big question mark itself. It seems that people can only make the best of things from the following choices: Grade A, Perfect Work. Excellent both in ideology content and artistic charm; Grade B, Imperfect Work. Excellent in ideology content but regrettable in artistic charm; Grade C, Superficial work. Charming in art but shallow in thought. Soul Mountain could be classified into Grade B, personally, a typical imperfect, imbalanced work where its core is much prettier than its unattractive shell.
In my opinion, among Gao’s multifarious artistic attainments, the most anonymous yet the most valuable one is as a thinker. Though a bit nihilistic, morbid and cynical, he is a man of great concern and ardent exploration, and this is just the most important quality of a good writer. He said that what concerned him was “men’s problems, their existential environment their inner being,” and he has been showing this care and concern through various artistic explorations throughout his artistic career. His explorative eyes went from man to society to environment to nature, and eventually his spiritual journey arrived at Soul Mountain. Just as its inspirational title, the message of Soul Mountain is all about the almighty spirit of nature, and its metaphor could go far beyond a sick modern man’s searching for his final destiny of redemption and regression to mother nature. It could be a review of man-nature relationship, an insight into this very troubled world.. So, despite the insufficiency of Soul Mountain, Gao has still made a valuable experiment with its ideology as I see it.
Furthermore, Gao’s idea is not water without source, or a tree without roots, but stemmed from the profound sediment of Chinese culture. He said he attaches a lot of importance to the ancient books and records, namely ‘The Book of Changes’ (more than three thousand years old) and ‘Laozi’ and ‘Zhuangzi’. (more than two thousand years old). These are the very source and crystal of the splendid ancient Chinese civilization and wisdom. “Their cognition and interpretation of the relationship of man and nature, is primitive man’s earliest way of looking at his existential environment, and it is not the political way of looking,” he said. Is the development of human beings getting closer to or farther away from this ultimate truth, the way of nature, the “Tao”? This is a universal problem. Soul Mountain is just an examination and ponderation over this problem with “primitive man’s earliest way of looking at his existential environment, but not the political way of looking.”
Being one of the earliest pioneers and explorers of history, this ideological system of returning to the simple and plain lifestyle of nature state is the kernel of Chinese culture resulted from the vicissitudes of history. The peaceful and self-sufficient mode preserved by Chinese for thousands of years is deemed one of the most reasonable to the way of nature. However, man was confused by his own growth and ignored or kidnapped the sagacious ancient civilization and chose the vain and dangerous mode, and the world has been in a mess ever since. Now, along with the prevailing waves of globalization and capitalization, rises the global crisis of existence. How to avoid the more and more intricate and complicated contradictions caused by violating the way of nature? The answers are nowhere to be found by the exhausted people but are buried in the deserted old treasure. It is a priceless value not only for the Chinese but also the world to excavate and develop in order to resolve common problems. Soul Mountain is just a glimpse into the lost treasure, how far are people from fully discovering it? The whole world seems still confused and “knows nothing” as the author said at the conclusion of his book. Yet, the glimpse itself is worthwhile.
Last but not least, Gao is not only a scholar of Chinese language and culture, but also a learned person of French and foreign culture. This rare specialty among Chinese writers broadened his vision and enriched his thought, and enabled him to understand and communicate between different languages, cultures and mentalities effectively. This is even more important in today’s world, for many conflicts and contradictions are actually misunderstandings and suspicions caused by cultural differences and miscommunication, especially between the two poles of culture, the oriental and the occidental. In this sense, the winning of the Nobel Prize by Soul Mountain could be deemed as the expectation and confirmation of this importance, and the expectation and confirmation of the traditional value of Chinese culture.