Gao Xingjian, The Book of a Man Alone

It is ten years since the Chinese original of The Mountain of the Soul,
was first published. It had been written, partly in Peking, partly
in Paris, between 1982 and 1989. The French-language edition, translated by the
same husband and wife team as the new novel, was published five years later, and
will be read by at least ten times as many readers. Yigeren de Shengjing,
published last year in Taipei, was written entirely in France between 1996 and
1998. One can have nothing but praise for the quality of this translation, so
meticulously accomplished as it is. Again this is a monumental work, the twin
of Lingshan but in one sense its antithesis, a book described on the back
cover as “the ultimate novel of the Chinese condition rediscovered”.
This is a misunderstanding. Certainly the two works have in common their literary
structure, which seems really not to derive from the novel at all. The misunderstanding
itself lies in the Chinese term xiaoshuo, literally “minor remarks”,
which is different both in its etymology and polysemy from our word “novel”.
The question came up for discussion in chapter 72 of Lingshan, at the end
of which the author concluded, “One may read it, or one may not read it;
but since it has been written, one might just as well”. In short then, everything
and anything is xiaoshuo… except for what is not. In the new book,
there are no such discussions that are rooted in the Chinese cultural heritage.
Moreover, rather than “the Chinese condition rediscovered”, what has
been rediscovered here is the human condition, which justifies Liu Zaifu’s
description of the novel, in his postscript to its Chinese edition, as a “philosophical
poem”. In the preface to the same edition, Noël Dutrait quotes—in
reference to yigeren (a man)—from Primo Levi’s novel If This
is a Man
. Should we infer an indefinite article? A man? Or a numeral? One
man? By this “one”, the title in Chinese seems not to imply solitude,
the author’s preferred state, having been cruelly deprived of it during the
years of Mao-worship. On the other hand, the initial capital letter of Book as
the author uses it in the novel is to be respected with care, since it translates
the word normally used in Chinese to designate the Bible. What should we understand
from this? The exemplary nature of each person’s destiny? The rejection of
any guide but the personal consciousness as fashioned by our experience of life?
The Judaeo-Christian tradition seems not to be relevant here, even though the
writer enjoys repeating that he is not Christ (Chapter 16, p. 152), that he cannot
bear all the suffering in the world, and that he does not seek to be either a
hero or a martyr.

Moreover, the woman he gets to know, in the biblical sense, as early as the
second chapter, and helps us to know, is at the very origins of the Book: Margaret,
is that a wink towards Faust? She rejects her German identity in favour
of her Jewishness, which she claims to have inherited from her mother, clings
to it, so thinks the author who, for his part, strips himself of all marks of
identity. Yet, towards the end of the book, he is left perplexed by the fact that
“a Jew as intelligent as Kissinger could have admired Mao, even though he
didn’t go so far as to worship him” (Chapter 53, p. 439). From this
same chapter let us quote the entire passage in which the author sums up, speaking
in the third person, where he stands:

He wished to tell him as well that, while history might fade, he had had to
say at the time what Mao had laid down. For this reason the hatred he personally
felt for Mao could not be erased. Later on he was to say to himself that, as long
as Mao continued to be adulated as a leader, an emperor or a God, he would not
go back to that country. Little by little he had become aware that a man could
not, deep within himself, be forced into submission by another, without consenting
to it.

Consenting causes him much suffering, and he rages:

You didn’t know what had happened to Margaret, when it was she that got
you into this mess and forced you into writing this shitty book. (Chapter 22,
p. 201) […] you’re still thinking about her, yet she’s the one
that made you write this rotten book, reduced you to despondency, drove you into
repression: she tormented you, the whore—you only want one thing, to fuck
her savagely, to beat her the way she likes it, the masochistic bitch… (Chapter
39, p. 327).

The author becomes mixed up with the narrator, who is never caught speaking
in the first person except in recollected conversations. As a general rule, the
narrator is detached from the novel, always conveyed in the third person, like
a dead skin, and the second person is used for the present author who has survived:

What you need is pain and an unforced sadness; for life to be worth living
you need this freedom that brings you, in the end, both joy and serenity. (Chapter
39, p. 329)

The image of the mask finally pulled away recurs after:

His true features would only appear later, once the mask had been torn aside;
but it would not be easy; for his face, the nerves of which the mask had remained
glued to, had already get rigid. The slightest smile, the slightest grimace caused
him a considerable effort. (Chapter 26, p. 235)

Admittedly, lying comes naturally to man, as the author insists, but in vain
he accuses himself of fabricating literary falsehoods (Chapter 24, p. 218). His
“novel” holds so fast to reality that it appears to us like some fragmented
kind of autobiography, one made up of the painful confessions of a Maoist 1960er
who finally lost faith only driving the watershed of 1968, when the army once
again took control of the movement launched in 1966, which was by then drifting
towards outright anarchy. Certainly, this is far from the linear narration of
a Rousseau and his avowals of utter sincerity; nevertheless, we may recognise
a similarly touching wish to tell a personal story by taking it to its limits.
But there is more, and it’s not the least valuable part: through the magic
of a mature and accomplished style, the author convincingly evokes that terrible
period of a world without compassion or justice. In this sense, Gao Xingjian is
closer to a Jorge Semprun. Could this represent the duty he feels to bear witness,
rather than a need?

But at the end of each letter she wrote to you, after her signature, she would
draw a yellow six-point star; you could not forget that she was Jewish, but what
you were trying to wipe away was, in fact, the marks of suffering. (Chapter 22,
p. 201)

It is not surprising that Gao Xingjian’s book has been listed as belonging
to the “literature of reflection”, fansi, “thinking that
is turned inwards [on oneself and/or on one’s past]”. But here does
it not equally fit within the literature of badly healed “scars”, shanghen
? That it can be either means that the novel offers the elements of
a phenomenology of the Cultural Revolution and of what Maoism was: it constitutes
an important contribution to the clarification of a period of history that no-one
wants to talk about—and in an original, incomparable form. Who can forget
that, as a playwright, Gao Xingjian had caused a sensation in Peking in the early
1980s? He now has nearly twenty plays to his name, four of them written directly
in French. His idea of the “split personality” goes back to that time:

In its fulfilment, the psychological process of behaviour, the performance
[of an actor] starts from “I” (the ego), passes through “you”
(the actor’s body) and interprets “him” (the part). For the actor
who combines within himself the “I”, “you” and “he”,
the relationship between these three component parts is often more complicated
in the performance: “you” is present in “I”, “he”
is present in “you”, and “I” sometimes in “he”;
it can be difficult, particularly at the moments when the actor looks towards
the audience, to distinguish between the three (1).

His confidences about his relations with women become so precise this time
that they have something of the confessional about them; the occasion of his first
exciting encounter is recalled many times over:

He loves sex as well. When he was small he had seen the magnificent naked body
of his mother while she was taking a bath. He has delighted ever since in beautiful
women. […] In that regard he is no gentleman—he even envies Don Juan
and Casanova—but he doesn’t have their luck and has to be content with
describing his fantasies in his books. (Chapter 26, p. 237)

Judging from his narrative, women fall into his arms so easily that he should
not need to envy the Casanovas. Almost always it is the women who seek him out.
Lin herself took the lead in initiating him when he was 20, which was early for
that time, when lovemaking was fraught with danger in a climate of generalised
informing on others. The alternative was to be consumed by frustrated desires.
This is certainly the ego from which the author is detached, but the other one
cannot escape unscathed. He admits it:

You say that you’re not the author. Who is then? It’s not clear—himself
no doubt! As for you, you’re only his conscience. So what shall we do about
you? If it’s all over for him, it’s over for you as well, isn’t
it? (Chapter 60, p. 477)

Is this dissatisfaction not congenital? Isn’t he in search of not a better
half, but the original other half, from the time when the Gods cut the human body
in two, as Aristophanes amusingly relates in Plato’s Banquet? One
might think so, from his description of the kind of woman he yearns for:

You would like to have a woman, a woman who’d be willing to go as far
as you, who would be just as free of all attachments, a woman who doesn’t
have children, who would not submit to the burden of family, a woman who would
not care for the vanity of fashion, a woman who would be naturally shameless,
who would not try to take anything at all from you and who would feel with you
as a fish in water—but where can such a woman be found? A woman as solitary
as you and who would be just as satisfied as you with this solitude, who would
bring her solitude together with yours in sexual satisfaction, in caresses and
exchanged glances, and in mutual research and observation. Where can such a woman
be found? (Chapter 59, pp. 474-475)

Yet, the good fairies gathered around Gao Xingjian’s cradle were not ungenerous:
he did attract women with an equal gift for painting and for literature. His problem
was that he came into this world too soon, he writes (Chapter 60, p. 478), in
that little Jianxi town, Ganzhou, in 1940. Had he been born in the twenty-first
century, would he have encountered the misfortune of Sylvie, the French woman,
whose freedom has no limits and whose suicide he fears? How can one know? Would
he then have been in the unusual situation of being a Chinese writer with French

You won’t go back. ‘Never?’ someone asks. No, this isn’t
your country: your country is in your memory, it is a spring in the darkness bubbling
up feelings that are difficult to express, it’s a personal China that belongs
to you alone, and you no longer have any connection with the other. (Chapter 61,
p. 479) The only thing he has never broken his links with is language. […]
He hasn’t abandoned his own language, but only because it’s easier.
[…] But this language, though more practical for him, is not necessarily
the best under the circumstances. […] Perhaps one day he will have to give
it up, and to something that can communicate his feelings better. (Chapter 56,
p. 454)

How will he develop in the future? There is enough to convince us here that
this Book is only the latest magnificent landmark in a promising literary career.

Translated from French original by Philip

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