The two outstanding literary characteristics of Gao Xingjian’s masterful novels Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible are autobiographical elements and formal experimentation. At one level, the narrative of Soul Mountain is driven by Gao’s personal impressions gathered during his own travels to the remote southwestern parts of China’s Sichuan province and his subsequent journey along the Yangze River to its estuary into the East China Sea in 1983. Similarly, One Man’s Bible tells of both the horrors and the tribulations witnessed and endured by Gao during the disastrous years of the Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing from 1966 to 1976, and the upheavals and ironies of the subsequent post-Mao era witnessed by the author.
What further distinguishes both novels is Gao’s forceful use of stylistic experimentation and literary innovation. Most strikingly, Gao splits the persona of his protagonists into different entities by means of experimentation with personal pronouns. In Soul Mountain, the narrator’s “I” is juxtaposed with a second character addressed only as “you,” who acts as if he were a different person, even though “you” is another part of the narrator’s self. Midway into the novel, to create another level of self-alienation leading to self-awareness, “you” is left behind to become “he,” described as a shadow of the narrator’s “I.” The women of the novel are identified only as “she.” In One Man’s Bible, when the narrator describes his past in Mao’s vicious China, the third person “he” is used to relate that experience; to render his present visit to China, the narrator uses “you” to refer to himself. Gao’s goal is to offer as many perspectives on one’s self as possible by using these different pronouns.
Reflecting Gao’s rich work as a playwright, even in his novels dialogue is of key importance, and descriptions of his characters are of secondary importance. One can see the work of Gao the dramatist active in his novels and short stories.
Appreciative of French modernism, existentialism, and the notion of the absurd that Gao encountered in mid-twentieth century French novels and plays he read and translated into Chinese, Gao’s novels echo their literary themes and techniques. Both Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible eschew conventional, linear narratives, a unifying plot, and sharply drawn characters involved in a plot leading to a clear climax. They replace these conventions with stream-of-consciousness narration, meandering thoughts, a pastiche of elements of folktales, and journalistic interludes describing, for example, indigenous rituals, and end more in a vision than in a classic resolution of plot conflicts.
In addition to these Western influences, Gao includes elements drawn from Chinese history, philosophy, and religion. Critics have remarked on the Zen Buddhist-like qualities expressed in his novels, short stories, and plays. At the end of Soul Mountain, God may appear in the guise of a frog, and One Man’s Bible finishes on a note of ambiguity.
Gao’s many globally performed plays roughly fall into two categories. His early plays, written in China from 1982 until 1986, sought to adapt modern Western theatrical experimentation as a means of enlivening Chinese drama. His first play, Alarm Signal, ends with the unemployed protagonist choosing law over crime by helping to prevent a train robbery. The Bus Stop was banned in 1983 for its critical depiction of people waiting for a bus that never stops. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), at the end of The Bus Stop some characters do indeed leave the stage, more active than their counterparts in Beckett’s play.
The second set of Gao’s plays, collected in The Other Shore (1999), increasingly adds traditional Chinese theatrical, philosophical, religious, and historical elements. With the exception of The Other Shore itself, Gao’s last play written in China and banned from production in 1986, these later plays were written in France after 1987. What unifies them is the playwright’s attempt to move beyond messages that can be impressed by language. Instead, Gao employs Zen concepts, such as gong-an storytelling moving through questions and answers, or hundun, the idea of depicting the self in chaos. In these plays, truth is grasped at by means of intuition rather than by reasoning. Snow in August is Gao’s most openly Buddhist play, featuring the life of Huineng, the Zen monk who founded the Sudden Enlightenment School in the late seventh century b.c.e.
Gao’s short stories collected in...
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