Christopher Merrill on China's Nobel Prize-winning author
THE CASE FOR LITERATURE.
By Gao Xingjian. Translated by Mabel Lee. Yale Univ. Press. 181 pp. $25
When the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in 2000 to Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese writer to receive this honor, not everyone in China was pleased. Gao had lived in exile in Paris since 1987, precariously surviving on sales of his paintings, and many Chinese literary and political figures could neither recognize Gao’s genius nor accept the Swedish Academy’s elevation of someone who had turned his back on his homeland.
Moreover, the novel singled out for special attention, Soul Mountain, challenged prevailing literary and political norms. A fictional record of Gao’s 1983 journey to China’s interior, Soul Mountain was first published in 1990 in Taiwan and appeared in English translation in 2000. A health crisis and the threat of imprisonment had prompted Gao to set off, at the age of 43, on a five-month voyage from Beijing to the mountains of Sichuan in southwest China and back to the east coast, fleeing the conformity—literary and social—enforced by the Communist government. Out of the depths of his solitude, in a sweeping panorama of stories and descriptions of China’s seemingly infinite variety of landscapes, Soul Mountain celebrates the power of the imagination to discover meaning in the world—even if it turns out that there is no meaning at all.
Gao does not mince words about the disastrous decisions taken by his countrymen in the name of revolution. In his Nobel lecture, included in The Case for Literature, he charges that Communist cultural policies have posed “enormous difficulties” for Chinese-language writers. “Chinese literature in the 20th century was worn out time and again, and indeed almost suffocated, because it was manipulated by politics,” he said. “The revolution in literature and revolutionary literature alike passed death sentences on literature and the individual. The attack on China’s traditional culture in the name of revolution led to the public prohibition and burning of books. Countless writers have been shot, imprisoned, exiled, or punished with hard labor over the past hundred years.”
This is not history that an authoritarian government—and a rising superpower—likes to be reminded of. But literature cannot be subservient to anything except the truth, a constant refrain in the dozen wide-ranging essays, talks, and speeches collected here. In addition to meditating on his own fiction and plays, Gao discusses literature as testimony, the relationship between writing and metaphysics, the role of loneliness in creativity, and the importance of the individual. “I am highly suspicious whenever the name of a collective is invoked,” he writes. “I actually become afraid that this collective name will strangle me before I have a chance to say anything.” What is remarkable is that Gao carved out a space—physical, spiritual, aesthetic—in which to say what had to be said.
Two phrases—“without isms” and “cold literature”—recur like musical motifs, the first denoting the necessity of writing without subscribing to any political or literary ideology, the second describing writing as “a luxury, a form of pure spiritual pleasure.” A luxury, one hastens to add, that to serious readers feels like a necessity. Gao’s prose is dense, but his thought is far-reaching, his range of reference wide, his commitment to freedom absolute. This is required reading for those who want to see how a brave spirit overcame seemingly intractable political forces to create an enduring body of work.
Translator Mabel Lee provides a useful introduction to Gao’s life and work, placing him in the context of modern Chinese literature, and she adds a bibliography. Soul Mountain is, of course, the place to start reading Gao Xingjian. But after you have experienced the play of his mind, the clarity of his vision, and the heartbreaking scope of his subject—the fate of the individual in a mass society—The Case for Literature will reveal the foundation upon which he builds his utterly original house of fiction.