Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian [A Review]

Soul Mountain is perhaps the best known work in English by Chinese writer and Nobel Prize winner Gao Xinjian. Experimental and unconventional in perspective and structure, and semi-autobiographical; its wandering narrator gives a portrait of a modern China where the signs of environmental and cultural destruction are inescapable.

Cover image of Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

The narrator of Soul Mountain is man wandering through modern China, somewhat aimlessly, collecting stories. In the Qiang region he meets an old man who was formerly a traditional song master and dancer, his art form mostly lost due to the Cultural Revolution, but he is trying to revive it. The warden of a nature reserve tells him the story of the bandit chief Song Guotai who disappeared after an attack by government forces. An old botanist makes him yearn to see a real ancient forest, but logging and damming mean the only ones remaining are extremely remote and inaccessible. When he actually finds a guide to take him hiking to one, he is so exhilarated by the beauty around him, he gets lost in the forest.

Not long ago, the narrator was told he had lung cancer and was not expected to live much longer. This news made him desperate for a miracle, even praying and begging mediums to intervene though he does not believe in either. He begins to dwell on his regrets, on the nature of fate. And then, he is reprieved! It was all a misdiagnosis, he has a second chance at life!

Death was playing a joke on me but now that I’ve escaped the demon wall, I am secretly rejoicing. Life for me once again has a wonderful freshness. I should have left those contaminated surroundings long ago and returned to nature to look for this authentic life.

In those contaminated surroundings I was taught that life was the source of literature, that literature had to be faithful to life, faithful to real life. My mistake was that I had alienated myself from life and ended up turning my back on real life.

[…] I don’t know whether I’m now on the right track but in any case I’ve extricated myself from the bustling literary world and have also escaped from my smoke-filled room. The books piled everywhere in that room were oppressive and stifling. They expounded all sorts of truths, historical truths to truths on how to be human. I couldn’t see the point of so many truths but still got enmeshed in the net of those truths and was struggling helplessly, like an insect caught in a spider’s web. Fortunately, the doctor who gave the wrong diagnosis saved my life.

And so, he has become a wanderer, trying to see as much of China and experience its diversity while he still can. Everywhere he goes he sees destruction. Environments destroyed by those seeking to bend nature to human needs. Local cultures destroyed in the name of national cultural conformity. Amongst Buddhists and Daoists, he sees fragments of a once rich culture – music, poetry, storytelling, art, dance and spirituality – now largely lost. In the wilderness he experiences beauty and isolation that spurs reflection.

Clearly cultural and natural destruction are key themes in the novel. The narrator’s observations of the loss of local and minority art, tradition and culture against the forces of modernity, conformity and the Cultural Revolution recur frequently in the novel. So too does his observation of the destruction of nature by poaching, logging and damming. In the narrator’s story of his wanderings, Soul Mountain perhaps belongs to that genre of Chinese fiction that emerged after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution of “roots-seeking” or “xungen”.

“This is wonderful!” I gasp in praise. “How did you get hold of it?”

“I got this a couple of years ago when I was a primary school teacher in the mountains. I asked an old master singer to sing it while I wrote it down.”

“The language is really beautiful and flow straight from the heart, it isn’t at all constrained by the five-word and seven-word prosody of the so-called folk song genre.”

“Quite right. This is a genuine folk song.” As he drinks, his façade of timidity totally vanishes.

“This is a folk song which hasn’t been vandalised by the literati! It is song gushing straight out of the soul! Do you realise this? You’ve saved a culture! It’s not unique to the smaller nationalities, the Han nationality also has a genuine folk culture which hasn’t been contaminated by Confucian ethical teachings!” I can’t contain my excitement.

The aimlessness of the narrator in Soul Mountain unfortunately matches a certain aimlessness in the story. Though you appreciate his experiences with him, vicariously enjoy the natural beauty as he does – and the beauty of the writing complements these moments – I did spend a lot of time wondering where this was all going. But what I have described of Soul Mountain thus far is only half the book. The chapters of this nameless first-person narrator alternate with chapters of a second nameless narrator which is written in the second-person.

Who is this second-person narrator? Is it the same person as the first-person narrator? Is this the same person, but perhaps at a different time in his life, his pre-diagnosis self? Is it a different person and will they eventually meet?

The second-person narration provides a strong contrast to the first-person narration in the novel. The nature of second-person narration means there is no distance between the writer and the reader, their/your thoughts and feelings are direct and naked. While the first-person half of the novel is grounded in reality, the second-person is sometimes daydream-like, a fantasy, improvisational and almost stream-of-consciousness. Later in the novel these second-person chapters seem to lose form and become even more untethered to realism.

Ah… this dense palpable darkness, primordial chaos, no sky, no ground, no space, no time, no existence, no non-existence, no existence and no non-existence; non-existence exists so there is non-existence of existence; non-existence of existence exists so there non-existence of non-existence; burning charcoal, moist eye, open cave, vapours rising, burning lips, deep growls; human and animal invoking primitive darkness; forest tiger in agony, lusting; flames rise, she screams and weeps; the animal bites, roars and, possessed by spirits, jumps and leaps, circling the fire which burns brighter and brighter, ephemeral flames, without form. In the mist-filled cave a fierce battle rages, pouncing, shrieking, jumping, howling, strangling and devouring… The stealer of fire escapes, the torch recedes into the distance, goes deeper into the darkness, grows smaller and smaller, until a flame no bigger than a bean sways in the cold breeze and finally goes out.

All this makes reading Soul Mountain a unique, innovative but somewhat unsatisfactory experience. I did not know much about author Gao Xingjian prior to reading Soul Mountain other than the facts that he has received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 and that he had also received a false cancer diagnosis and, therefore, the first-person narration is semi-autobiographical and sometimes metafictional too. I also did not read the Introduction to this edition of Soul Mountain – I never do for fictional books I have not read before, to avoid spoilers – until after I read the book. But the Introduction, by translator Mabel Lee, contains a lot of insights into Soul Mountain which helped change my perspective on the novel. If you are new to Soul Mountain and have the same edition I read (Harper Perennial, 2004), I think it would be best to read the Introduction first.

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.

In the short Introduction, Lee shares an overview of Xingjian’s life and career, in particular the experiences which inform the novel. There is also some good insight into the destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution and Xingjian’s own experiences of being unable to publish, which contributes to the themes of Soul Mountain. A bit where Lee writes about the conflict between the self and the collective was especially insightful for helping make sense of the novel. As for the two-narrator technique, one of which is in the second-person, Lee has this to say:

On his solitary journey, the protagonist seeks to alleviate his acute loneliness and creates “you” so that he will have someone to talk to.

This helps so much and I wished I had read it before the novel. This edition of Soul Mountain also includes Xingjian’s Nobel acceptance speech in which he has this to say of the technique:

In my fiction I use pronouns instead of the usual characters; I use the pronouns I, you and he to tell about or to focus on the protagonist. The portrayal of the one character using different pronouns creates a sense of distance.

Soul Mountain is not a short novel and, combined with its experimental and unorthodox style and techniques, may not for those readers who prefer the satisfaction of more conventional storytelling. I am a stubborn reader, so I was always going to read Soul Mountain to the end regardless of how I felt while reading it. Learning a bit about the author, his techniques and the context of the writing helped me appreciate better where he was coming from and what he was aiming for. And, while I welcome those writers who experiment and break through norms, I still think the ones whose work will endure best will be those who can deliver something innovative without compromising more traditional appeals. How you feel about Soul Mountain may come down to whether this particular compromise works for you.

“This isn’t a novel!”

“Then what is it?” he asks.

“A novel must have a complete story.”

He says he has told many stories, some with endings and others without.

“They’re all fragments without any sequence, the author doesn’t know how to organise connected episodes.”

“Then may I ask how a novel is supposed to be organised?”

“You must first foreshadow, build to a climax, then have a conclusion. That’s basic common knowledge for writing fiction.”

He asks if fiction can be written without conforming to the method which is common knowledge. It would be just like a story, with parts told from beginning to end and parts from end to beginning, parts with a beginning and no ending and others which are only conclusions or fragments which aren’t followed up, parts which are developed but aren’t completed or which can’t be completed or which can be left out or which don’t need to be told any further or about which there’s nothing more to say. And all of these would also be considered stories.

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