Books: Zen Visions through a Frog's Eye ; Soul Mountain by GAO Xingjian, Translated by Mabel Lee Flamingo, Pounds 9.95, 510pp; GAO Xingjian's Nobel Prize Was Greeted with a Chorus of Abuse Led from Beijing. Henry Zhao Sets the Record Straight

By Zhao, Henry | The Independent (London, England), March 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Books: Zen Visions through a Frog's Eye ; Soul Mountain by GAO Xingjian, Translated by Mabel Lee Flamingo, Pounds 9.95, 510pp; GAO Xingjian's Nobel Prize Was Greeted with a Chorus of Abuse Led from Beijing. Henry Zhao Sets the Record Straight


Zhao, Henry, The Independent (London, England)


WHEN GAO Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for Literature last October, the Swedish Academy stated that his oeuvre, and the novel Soul Mountain in particular, "has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama". The statement has caused serious controversy, as if the mere fact of giving the first Chinese Nobel for literature to a mainlander in exile were not irritating enough. Yet since Soul Mountain (1991) is unique in content and form, it could be a "new path" not only for the Chinese novel but for the art of narrative in general. Thanks to this uniqueness, however, I doubt whether it is imitable.

True to his works, Gao the playwright and novelist is an incorrigible individualist, a rare species in Chinese communities. He was born in 1940 and studied French. In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, he hurriedly burned all his earliest manuscripts. The horror and the cruelty of that revolution is exposed with brutal force in Gao's autobiographical novel One Man's Bible (1997). During the post-Mao thaw in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he emerged as the best-known representative of the Experimental Theatre Movement, with his epic play Yeti (1985) pushing the movement to its splendid zenith.

His next play The Other Shore (1986) went beyond the boundary of the patronising tolerance shown by Communist reformist leaders, as it demonstrated a strong urge for a religious healing of the Chinese trauma. His plays no longer stageable in mainland China, Gao resettled in Paris. Finding himself in total freedom as well as unfamiliar loneliness, he could finish the novels he had started in China while creating a new aesthetic of drama with a series of plays.

His plays of the 1990s have been widely staged in continental Europe, Hong Kong and Taiwan - but hardly ever in the English- speaking world. This strange fortune also befell his novels, which were translated into major European languages - but not English. Even the English translation of Soul Mountain remained unaccepted until HarperCollins Australia took it up, with no intention then of a wider distribution. This stubborn Anglo- American apathy to true originality in art has long been a puzzle to me.

When the Nobel Prize fell on Gao, surprised and angry outcries were heard in both Chinese and English. Most went like this: "The guy was only known as the Chinese theatre-absurdist of the early1980s. If we, the experts in Chinese literature, do not know anything else by him, the Swedish Academy must have made a ridiculous mistake." This cyclical logic stemmed from an ignorance imposed by the government in China, and by academia in the US and Britain.

Now the indignation has evolved into a storm of words, with the Chinese intelligentsia resoundingly split. In the English-speaking world, silence followed. But with the publication of Soul Mountain, a sincere discussion should now start.

Soul Mountain seems to have taken its earlier shape in 1983 when Gao was roaming the Yangtze Valley, an escape from harsh political criticism of his plays.

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Books: Zen Visions through a Frog's Eye ; Soul Mountain by GAO Xingjian, Translated by Mabel Lee Flamingo, Pounds 9.95, 510pp; GAO Xingjian's Nobel Prize Was Greeted with a Chorus of Abuse Led from Beijing. Henry Zhao Sets the Record Straight
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