Tuesday, April 24, 2012

International Fiction Book Club meeting of April 18, 2012


         The International Fiction Book Club met on the evening of April 18th to discuss Soul Mountain by the Nobel Prize winning author from China, Gao Xingjian.  During the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution this author burned hundreds of manuscripts for fear of having them discovered by “those who oppose spiritual pollution”.  Then, in 1983, he was diagnosed with lung cancer only to be given a reprieve six weeks later by a follow-up x-ray.  As the ax of censorship was about to fall again, he decided to leave Beijing and take what amounted to a walkabout into remote mountain terrain in Southern China.  The result of this expedition into the soul of a man and a country is this novel.

         Xingjian asks himself, “how should I change this life for which I had just won a reprieve”.  He opens the book traveling on a train where the interplay of rattling teacups with a fellow passenger leads  to a conversation.  Intrigued by the man’s destination, the protagonist of the book, decides to make Soul Mountain his goal.  Throughout his travels he encounters Daoist priests, Buddhist monks and a way of village life that will soon be wiped off the earth by the creation of  “The Three Gorges Damn”.  The first approximate half of the book alternates between 1st person and 2nd person narratives with the 1st person that of a wanderer and his chance meetings whereas the 2nd person creates a dialog with a fictitious woman who may or may not be someone the author has met along the way whom he fantasizes about.

         As the book progresses, the traveler becomes more entangled in digressions that lead to both memorable descriptions of ancient ways of life and a transition from daydream like dialogs with a woman accomplice to nightmare visions of reality beyond his control.  At one point he acts as a collector of folk songs as a way to avoid suspicion among the village elders who view his card from the Writers Union as an attempt by the government to expose their way of life as unpatriotic.  Needless to say, the traveler never reaches Soul Mountain.  The directions are ever changing and the best advice he receives comes from a Buddhist monk who tells him, “the true traveler is without a goal, it is the absence of goals which creates the ultimate traveler”.  In 1987, Xingjian left China for Paris where he finished Soul Mountain 1989.  He won the Nobel in 2000.

Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk