Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian: Book Review

Soul Mountain (originally written in Chinese) is a novel by Gao Xingjian published in 1990. The book was translated into English by Mabel Lee in the year 2000. Gao Xingjian is a Chinese novelist, playwright and critic, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. Gao Xingjian is China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is said the book is based upon Gao Xingjian’s travel through Qiang, Miao and Yi districts of the Han Chinese civilization.

The book has two narratives, one by ‘I’ and the second by ‘You’ set alternately. The protagonists are unnamed throughout the book. Therein lies the beauty of the narrative where it brings the reader to the unknown Chinese landscape and lets hime/her soak in its geography, culture and folklore.

Soul Mountain is a beautiful quest as a reader. We have vicariously traveled through the moors of England, chased a fast-paced thriller across California and Los Angeles in America but China beyond Beijing has widely remained unknown. Here, you can relate to or visualize the places just as the words from this book tell and this is bliss for any reader.  

The book begins with ‘You’ on an old bus shaking through a twelve-hour long bumpy highway ride to reach a county town in the mountains of South China. On the way, a fellow passenger has told ‘You’ about ‘Lingshan’.

Lingshan, ling meaning spirit or soul, and shan meaning mountain.” It was at Lingshan that Buddha enlightened the Venerable Mahakashyapa. ‘You’ had visited a lot of mountains but never heard about the Soul Mountain so you decide to set out in search of Lingshan.  

‘You’ has lived in the city so yearns for rural life. He wants to break away from the set norm of stability with a job, family and money in the bank. ‘You’ meets with a woman addressed as ‘She’ and talks to her, telling about different stories that he has known and finally having an erotic relationship with her.

‘I’ was wrongly diagnosed with Lung Cancer. After being diagnosed, ‘I’ had developed the habit of going to the park on the outskirts of the city, the only place where one could get fresh air. With the second X-ray report when he is sure of good health, he sets out to the mountains.

‘I’ is a fiction writer and an academic. During his journey, he meets different people. He finds a man in the secluded regions of the mountainous terrain singing. Songs were considered dirty during the Cultural Revolution and people turned to singing ‘Sayings of Mao Zedong’ instead. But, this was a phase that passed by, people had gone back to singing and dancing.

‘You’ has stories of the bandits and how they treated women. He can also narrate folktales that he never knew he had any knowledge of, to ‘She’. ‘To talk about a mixture of history and legend is how folk stories are born. Reality exists only through experience, and it must be personal experience.’

Within this narrative, we find references to the ecological degradation. In South China, tigers are already extinct. If one comes across a tiger these days, one is really lucky.

Then, there is an anecdote about a journalist who posed with a baby giant panda for a picture and was horrifically attacked by it. The villagers had made traps to catch and kill Pandas. ‘Young man, nature is not frightening, it’s people who are frightening.’

“This creature known as man is of course highly intelligent, he’s capable of manufacturing almost anything from rumours to test-tube babies and yet he destroys two to three species every day. This is the absurdity of man.”

In ‘I’, we keep exploring the psychological state of a person. At one point he thinks like a man facing imminent death. Does it occur that people against whom he had done wrongdoings did not hold any grudge?

Sometimes, you will juggle with your brain to understand the sentences before you. ‘…existence exists so there is non-existence of existence, non-existence of existence exists so there is non-existence of non-existence…

The reforms post Cultural Revolution and Communist regime is another theme that moves along. References are made to construction of bridges and drainage and yet people facing firewood shortage. And, to the climatic changes especially in the past ten years.

In the ‘Soul Mountain’, you are not chasing a plot or a storyline but are merged with the narrators in knowing the world around you and searching your inner self. It is philosophical, with historical reference points, myths and folk stories.

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z challenge under Alphabet X

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