Gao Xingjian’s terrifying autobiographical novel One Man’s Biblecombines a rigorous retelling of the horrors of Mao Zedong’s infamous Cultural Revolution with a literary quest for a style of writing appropriate to the subject and includes a passionate search for ultimate personal freedom. The winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature, Gao presents a moving tale of the dark excesses of a totalitarian system appealing to the worst instincts in humanity and a man’s quest for privacy and sexual fulfillment.
The story begins with the unnamed protagonist reflecting back to his early childhood just at the end of World War II, before China succumbed to the renewed civil war between the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Communists. Five years later, on his tenth birthday, the Communists had gained power in all of China but Taiwan. The family of the protagonist gathers for what would be their last happy gathering, while a monk warns the boy of a life of hardship and sufferings. One Man’s Bible will tell of exactly such a life.
Stylistically, Gao intersperses the chapters drawing on the memory of the protagonist with the events of his life from 1996 to 1997, the year of the turnover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. The narrator alternates between using the unusual second person pronoun “you” to refer to himself or the more familiar third person pronoun “he.” The aim is to establish a situation where the narrator appears literally to talk to himself. “You do not have to hide,” he reassures himself as he wakes up next to the Jewish German woman Margarethe. They are in a hotel in Hong Kong, where he has traveled to attend the production of one of his plays that is banned in mainland China, just as the author’s plays are really banned there. Throughout the novel, the boundaries between the fictional narrator and the author’s actual experience are very thin.
Taking his cue from Margarethe’s prodding to reveal more of his haunted past, the protagonist plunges right ahead into an evocative description of the mental and physical claustrophobia felt while living in Communist China, up to the day of his final departure from the place. “He needed a nest, a refuge, he needed a home where he could be away from people, where he could have privacy . . . and not be observed.” These lines sound very similar to the experiences of other writers who have escaped Communist regimes. A reader may remember Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps(1968). There, the quest for privacy almost cannot be fulfilled. It drives university students to the lavatories. Here, after scrubbing away any potentially incriminating graffiti left behind by others, they can sit and feel finally free.
Yet even when he obtains an apartment of his own where he can make love to his last Chinese girlfriend, who is in the army, the protagonist longs for real freedom. Asserting his privacy, he leaves her behind as he boards a plane into exile. From now on, he does not want to belong to anybody. As the title of the novel indicates, the protagonist wants to live according to his own standards. He will follow no rules and no laws other than those he writes down for himself in his One Man’s Bible, the book written by and for him alone.
When the narrator delves deeper into his past in Beijing, One Man’s Bible suddenly reads like George Orwell’s fictional dystopia Nineteen Eighty-four (1948) come to life. Mao’s China of the mid-1960’s has all the most frightening ingredients of Orwell’s science fiction novel of a none-too-distant future. The Cultural Revolution really does use a thought police. There is the equivalent of Orwell’s “hate...
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