I discovered Gao Xinjiang’s writing last year with ‘Soul Mountain’ while doing the A2Z challenge.
Gao Xinjiang won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the year 2000. Choosing an exile from China in 1987, he settled in Paris and completed ‘Soul Mountain’. ‘Soul Mountain’ is a book that draws from the author’s biographical account of a 10-month-long trek along the Yangtze after being misdiagnosed with lung cancer in 1986.
‘Soul Mountain’ left me contented and in love with this ‘absurdist’ genre. There is this eccentric setting of alternate chapters with ‘You’ and ‘I’ as the protagonists. And, China through the eyes of Gao Xinjiang seems more like India, with the similarities of values, rituals, and landscapes. So, I went ahead with his short story collection translated by Mabel Lee titled, ‘Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather’. Isn’t the title beautiful? I guess it was the title rather than the cover that pulled me in.
‘Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather’ translated by Mabel Lee and published in 2004is a collection of six short stories that were written by Gao Xinjiang between 1983 and 1986 before his exile. ‘In an Instant’ is the only story from this collection that was written by Gao in Paris and published in 1996. The original collection in Chinese, ‘Gei wo laoye mai yugan’ (Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather) had seventeen-stories.
I would have loved exploring the book covers of ‘Soul Mountain’ but found very little variations to the standard picture of the man and the mountain. The original Chinese edition cover seems quite mesmerizing but I would require some understanding of the Chinese culture to decipher the meaning of the colours and the patterns there.
The cover of my copy of the ‘Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather’ has these two fishes, obviously a reference to the title story. Not an impressive cover but then I found this beautiful Chinese ink painting cover on the Flamingo edition of the book. It may seem clichéd but it had my heart there. The picture could only refer to the title story. Then there are the shades of blue on the cover which seems more transcendental implying the theme of the stories to look forward to.
A bit about the collection – The first story in the collection is ‘The Temple’, the narrator tells about the visit to an unknown temple located on a rather non-descript town on his honeymoon trip. The narrator and his wife get down at a train station on an impulse to explore this small town. A ruined old temple is understood in a very different sense when they meet a man who has come with his cousin’s child to catch grasshoppers. Is benevolence something inherent in a place of worship or do human beings bring it with them? It is a philosophical journey. There is also a bit of this couple’s fast-paced, excruciating urban life, the pressing financial needs, and then the juxtaposition with this tranquil town.
‘In the Park’, the story is the conversation between two former lovers separated years ago due to a political event. The two have gone their separate ways, now approaching their middle ages but this evening, they have met to share their bitterness, the forgotten romance and their unsatisfactory lives. In the background, there is a woman who is probably waiting for her date who hasn’t turned up and the atmosphere in the park keeps intensifying.
The third story is ‘Cramp’; a man decides to go for a swim in the night at the sea. Suddenly, he has a cramp and cannot swim any more…the serenity of the sea turns into a nightmare in a moment. What about the people on the beach? Is anyone bothered to notice his absence? Finding no one interested to know of his brush with death, he goes back to the beach where he observes three other visitors, two boys and a girl.
‘The Accident’ is literally the accident scene when a cyclist is hit by a bus and the pedestrians’ gather around. From the factual details, the story goes philosophical on the workings of time and fate.
Coming to the title story, ‘Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather’ is an intriguing tale of nostalgia. The narrator sees a fiberglass fishing rod in a store window and is reminded of the time he went fishing with his grandfather. He wants to visit his childhood house but is stuck in a labyrinth of delusion, imagination, a stream of consciousness and surreal experience.
The last story, ‘In an Instant’ is quite bizarre. There are three people; we get a glimpse of their lives on a typical day in a fragmented way. I am yet to understand it completely. This short story is probably like a painting; you just absorb and meditate on the text!
In ‘Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather’, you see an individual experience in a wider context. Memory, the experiences from the past play a crucial role in all the stories. Gao Xinjiang says in the postscript that his fiction does not set out to tell a story. There is no plot, as found in most fiction, and anything of interest to be found in it is inherent in the language itself. More explicit is his proposal that the linguistic art of fiction is “the actualization of language and not the imitation of reality in writing,” and that its power to fascinate lies in the fact that, even while employing language, it is able to evoke authentic feelings in the reader.
You can click here to read the book review of Soul Mountain
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