"Modern" Form Can't Hide Bad Prose
By Cao Chang-Ching 曹長青
The Taipei Times
Friday, February 2nd, 2001
Chinese Literature should have taken great pride in having finally won its first Nobel Prize last year. However, instead of applauding, Chinese writers (both in and out of China) were at first shocked when the winner was announced, then hurried to get the only two novels by Gao Xingjian , which the Taiwan publisher rushed to reprint after initial print runs failed to inspire the public's imagination.
Reading the two novels, Soul Mountain and One Man's Bible , which the Swedish Academy highly praised and principally based their award on, turned out to be not only a disappointing but also an insulting experience. Soul Mountain is by no means a novel, let alone a good one.
I have read the reviews in both the English and Chinese media and found that no one has given a clear brief of the book. Nobody really can. For it is a horrendously heaped hodgepodge of travel notes combing chaotic choreography, superficial legends, sinister folklore, fragmentary historical events, random thoughts, hazy memories, artificial feelings, scrappy jottings, ethnic customs, fake fables, folk songs, parodies of ancient Chinese novels, trivial and totally irrelevant encounters, shallow political and literary comments, pseudo-philosophical accounts, and erotic fanatics with monotonous female characters.
One has to admit that it is shrewd to use a modernist-like narrative that instead of giving names to the characters, uses "I," "you," "she" and "he."
In this largely autobiographical book, "`I' travel in the real world," Gao explained in the book and in a lecture at Stockholm University in 1991. "`You' are an imagined `I' who wanders in a fantasized spiritual world, `She,' then is the derivative of the lonely You," he said.
"The dissolution of `She' caused the alienation of `I,'" the author enigmatically rigmaroled in the lecture, "then emerges `He.'"
"All this is better understood when not closely examined," wrote Richard Eder in a review in The New York Times. He is right, because neither Gao's eloquent lecture nor his characters can withstand any close examination.
Occasionally (in two chapters toward the end), when the author becomes too eager to make comments about himself, his work or some phony philosophical thoughts, he finds it sounds awkward to use "I" or "You" as narrator, so he shifts to "He."
After closing this 500-plus-page bogus book, one is guaranteed to remember no characters, no storyline, no details and no beautiful prose. And forget about the stream of consciousness one might expect from a modernist novel, for the book is almost entirely devoid of psychological probes. To sum it up, one will not grab anything at all from reading the book and will become more baffled than ever about anything Chinese. Readers will not feel in the least the philosophical approach Gao explained in his lectures and his English translator parroted in the introduction, that Soul Mountain is about an individual's struggle between resisting collective forces and longing for community warmth.
I can almost see how desperately some reviewers tried to find something philosophical, something beautiful or something quotable in the book, so they would be able to lift the Nobel-winning book up to a certain level. Unfortunately, finding nothing by the end, some went with the English translator's introduction.
So far, the translator, Mabel Lee, has taken most of the blame for the book's coarseness and obscurity. This writer certainly has no intention of glorifying Lee's translation, for mistakes and inaccuracies could easily be picked here and there throughout the book (well, if the whole book is nonsense, why can't a translator add a little more?). What must be pointed out is that Gao's original is as dreadful as the English translation, if not worse. Grammatical blunders and misused characters can be easily found in the Chinese text. Who said Gao is a Chinese language master? Only the Swedish Academy, certainly nobody Chinese. It would invite ridicule for any Chinese person to praise Gao. The language, as well as the content, in his second novel, One Man's Bible, was reduced to such a level that many Chinese writers can find no other word but "trash" to describe it.
The fact that Gao's books were consigned to oblivion immediately after they were released to bookstores here in Taiwan (before their author won the Nobel) was not because they were too avant-garde for the general reading public to understand, but because of their awful quality. The adulation around him now is for his crown and political purpose only.
Nothing better describes what Soul Mountain is than Hans Andersen's fairy tale The Emperor's New Clothes. This writer simply has to say out loud that the "Chinese emperor" is indeed naked!
I certainly have not read all Gao's works, but I believe there could be no greater scandal than this one in the Nobel literature prize's history. With the generous intention of honoring Chinese writers, the Swedish Academy has instead played a big joke on international society and Chinese people everywhere. I have no doubt that the Nobel committee will bitterly regret their blunder before they begin trying to select the next winner.
Cao Chang-Ching is a dissident Chinese writer and journalist based in New York.