Xingjian Gao (China, 1940)
"Signal Alarm" (1982) [t] +
"Bus Stop" (1983) [t] +
"Wild Man" (1985) [t]
"A Pigeon Called Red Beak" (1985)
"The Other Shore" (1986) [t]
"Soul Mountain" (1989) ++
is the diary of a journey back in time, to the age of
magic and superstition, a diary in the form of a jigsaw puzzle of stories told
from the perspective of a curious observer who doesn't belong.
He is in fact a ghost himself, having been brought back to life by a miracle after being told he would soon die.
He is accompanied by a much younger woman who has her own ghosts to exorcise,
her own life to resurrect.
Chapters narrated by an "I" alternate with chapters narrated by a "You" who talks to a "She". It almost feels like there are two parallel journeys, or maybe the
"She" is only an imaginary companion.
The "I" chapters are sometimes mere meditations. The "You/She" chapters are frequently exchange of (mostly painful) memories.
The fragmented nature of the work is its main limitation: a lot of nice images
and interesting meditations, but no coherent story (as the author himself preemptively admits in chapter 72). It is not even clear if they are sequenced temporally or shuffled randomly. And, after a while, the
emphasis on middle-age lust becomes a bit repetitive.
After a casual encounter on a train with a man who draws a map
on an empty cigarette pack of Lingshan, or "Soul Mountain", the narrator,
a writer who abandoned his book-filled room after being diagnosed with lung
cancer, sets out on a journey through the mountains and the forests of a remote
part of his country. Fascinated by magic and legends, he meets a shaman who
tells him of a legendary hunter who lies dead in his cabin next to his rifle
(although nobody seems to have been there in a generation). Then an elderly
tells him the story of the bandit Song Guotai who ruled that region and
mysteriously disappeared after government troops restored order.
He meets a beautiful young woman who turns out to be suicidal: rejected by
her stepmother and stepbrother, and neglected by a useless father, she gave
herself to a lover who cheated on her, and now fantasizes about killing herself.
He tells her the romantic story of Mamei, who fled with her lover rather than
marry a rich man, and of her tragic death after she felt
abandoned by her lover.
He joins a scientific team that takes care of giant pandas in the mountains
and befriends a botanist who warns him against venturing alone in the distant
forest. He waits until one day he can go with another scientist, but then gets
lost and panics.
He remembers the day, just after he had begun to worship Buddha again, when
a new test showed that the cancer had been a false
warning after all: he got a new lease on life. Buddha had performed a miracle
He tells the woman of when his two brothers raped a female shaman. He couldn't do it and let her go. She was found dead, and he still feels guilty and she keeps appearing to him in various manifestations.
He visit a spirit medium but she senses his mocking attitude and refuses to help him shed his bad luck.
Then he pretends to be a descendant of a family of grave robbers, the Li, and visits their family temple.
Then comes the story of the woman who was bethrothed to a still unborn child, raped by her father-in-law while still a child, then finally married to her fiance only for him to be crushed under a falling tree. She became a shaman and terrorized her village.
Then he reaches a lake that used to be surrounded by a thick forest but it is now a man-made "natural disaster" after the communist regime drafted thousands of men to drain it.
Every now and then the tale returns to the much younger woman who has accepted to follow him on the mountains, who seems to sleep with him only to take her revenge on her boyfriend but then admits that this is the first time that she enjoys sex.
They ask an old woman about Lingyan and she tells them that it is for women only, taboo for men, a village of shamans and seductresses.
The "I" is afraid of his split personality and finds solace in Buddhist riddles
(e.g., chapter 26). He gets off a bus when the driver refuses to continue and
follows the drums to a lost village. She tells him that she lost her virginity
to a teacher when she was a student, but then claims that this is the story of
The couple often talks about sex, mostly brutal sex stories, and sometimes their
own ambiguous relationship.
A ranger organizes for him a guide to the mountains. In a cave he dreams of his
childhood home and is scared by his monster shadow.
He tells the story of when the frenzy of the worshippers, who wanted to pay
tribute to a dying monk, caused the destruction of a monastery, a parable of
He visits the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery and, delirious to tell
stories nonstop, travels 500 years to the age when the ruins had become a hideout of bandits and then 150 years back to the age when a Dao scholar lived on
that mountain and then 1547 years later to when a warlord reigned there and
then 50 years later to the communist age when a tragic romance (yet another
bloody story about sex) took place there (cpt 38). s
She spurns him to keep talking and
keep narrating, as if she needed his stories to stay alive.
Back to civilization, he joins a dragon boat festival.
She is now a married woman, with a workaholic husband and a son, who had an
affair with a coworker she didn't even love.
Another bus takes him to a small county town where,
introducing himself as a writer who came to collect folk songs,
a girl finds him a room
and then offers herself sexually to him, only to tell him that she is still a virgin,
and he realizes that in that part of the world she would get in trouble for
having lost her virginity to someone who didn't marry her. So he restrains
himself, afraid of the consequences, and she is half disappointed.
There is also another woman, a ferocious sexual animal who wants to enslave him
and makes a bloody scene with a knife until he takes her again.
He tracks down a former Daoist priest who now makes a living selling good-luck
characters. The old man takes him to his village and accepts to perform ancient
rituals to exorcise demons and sing the old folk songs. However, his eldest son
is the chief of the village and is disturbed to see a stranger with a tape
recorder documenting superstitions that have officially been banned by the
The suicidal woman has a nervous breakdown and now wants to go back to the man
who proposed to her, realizing that the middle-aged writer has no intention of
marrying her. She accuses him of having seduced her, but it is also the other
way around. He senses trouble and accepts the split without uttering a word.
Then he wonders if she really existed, incapable of telling memory from fiction.
He then reaches the Yangtze River and explores the ancient imperial ruins soon
to be submerged by a new giant dam.
He admits to himself that he likes to talk to himself and to create a "she" to talk to (cpt 52).
He visits the capital of an ancient kingdom, the same place where his granma ended her days, abandoned by her family into an institution for the elderly during Mao's Cultural Revolution.
He admits that he is now looking for his childhood.
He returns to a big city, where, as a somewhat dissident writer, he becomes the attraction of a group of intellectuals, but he is more interested in telling them about shamans than social justice. They have fun aping the folk rituals and he even offers to read women their future.
He is in the wilderness again, sleeping in a forest where folk songs have been preserved and where a Wild Man is widely believed to live. A friend who would have been a writer if the authorities had not killed his first book tells him the story of how he captured the Wild Man: the Wild Man was none other than a political dissident who had fled to the forest and lived there for twenty years. The story is probably just that: a story created on the spot by a master storyteller whose career was cut short by bureaucrats.
Meanwhile the traveler indulges in the fantasy of a woman who is a former model and now is married but she nonetheless wants to have sex with him; and they keep discussing about a key that he has lost but he hasn't really lost (in the manner of the absurdist theater).
He heards from a peasants that the last surviving Daoist of an exoteric order
lives on a mountain but, when found, the old man refuses to talk. On the way
down the writer gets lost and panics.
He then sets out in a region of rivers with a lawyer friend and a female friend
of his. The lawyer tells the story of when the police arrested a group of young
people who were engaging in group sex. One girl confessed to 200 sexual
intercourses and was sentenced to death for enticing other girls into illegal
sex, although it was not clear what was illegal about it.
They hire a boat. The old boat man sings a song that intrigues them and excites
him and the girl sexually, but they just hold hands.
He sleeps in a Buddhist monastery and enjoys the gongs and bells of the prayer
in the middle of the night.
Chapter 72 is simply a preemptive strike against the literary critics who will
accuse this novel of not being a novel but a random heap of meditations and
travel notes. Gao concludes his defense with one long meaningless sentence
and the sardonic instruction:
"Reading this chapter is optional but as you've read it you've read it".
He reaches the east coast of China and eventually the metropolis of Shanghai.
A woman tells him the story of her best friend, with whom she had a Platonic
relationship before she was imprisoned for writing a diary in which she
worshipped her reactionary father. This girl died trying to escape from prison
after falling in love with a male prisoner.
He then remembers his uncle who lived in Shanghai and also got into political
trouble, but this was during the Cultural Revolution. He also remembers how
he saw a woman committing suicide under the same train he is going to take,
her body brutally dismembered.
Then he is back in a landscape of snow, haunted by hallucinations and memories.
"Fugitives" (1990) [t]