Sabrina F Ahmad
“I was taught that life was the source of literature, that literature had to be faithful to life, faithful to real life. My mistake was that I had alienated myself from life and ended up turning my back on real life. Real life, or in other words the basic substance of life, should be the former and not the latter.”
With that thought in mind, Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian made his attempt to portray life and the result was the confusing, disturbing, yet completely enchanting 'Soul Mountain'. The best way to describe this work would be to call it a collection of stories, myths and legends all woven together with the author's personal philosophies. It branches over the vibrant and violent history of China, and paints vivid images of its rich folklore and cultural norms.
There's no main plot as such, but there seem to be two stories that are prevalent. One involves the principle narrator, who goes soul-searching in the wilderness after a miraculous recovery from lung cancer. Another story is of a curious tourist who decides to go trekking over unfamiliar territory on a whim, and on the way picks up a love interest, who is a bit eccentric in the manner of the crazy women in Yanasuri Kawabata's works. To pacify her in her turbulent moods, he tells her wild, frightening stories, drawn from local myths, old wives' tales, and history that fluctuates back and forth between Imperial China and the Cultural Revolution. It's hard to say whether or not the three travellers are all different manifestations of the same person. The narrative fluctuates from the first person, when referring to the cancer patient, to the second person when talking about the male tourist, while the woman is addressed in the third person. The title of the book is derived from Lingshan ('ling' meaning 'soul', and 'shan' meaning mountain), which is the common destination for all three travellers. So the physical journey mirrors the spiritual journey.
Without any clear sequence of events, or chronological order to refer to, this book can be a bit of a tricky read. In fact, Xingjian underwent severe criticism, with his own countrymen questioning his eligibility for a Nobel award.
It is compensated for, though, by beautiful imagery, and if one reads them as separate stories instead of looking for what happens next, it can be a very interesting read.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007