The experiences of a dissident artist-intellectual who finds himself in an adversary relationship with Mao’s Cultural Revolution are once again examined—if not consistently dramatized—by the Chinese Nobel laureate (Soul Mountain, 2000).
Like that later autobiographical novel, this one (originally published in 1997) is a collage whose unnamed narrator describes at sometimes numbing length his provincial childhood and youth, confusion of familial and political allegiances, career as a successful (if increasingly suspect) writer and artist, and relationships with many, many women, whom he seems to captivate, seduce, and satisfy without half trying. The narrative begins wonderfully, with luminously detailed reminiscences of his tenth birthday party: an idyllic, centered watershed moment in a life soon thereafter to be characterized by fractured relationships and ceaseless wandering. The declared intention, “to describe in simple language the terrible contamination of a life by politics,” is both realized and occluded by its odd organization—as a story told by him to Margarethe, the German woman who becomes his lover during a period of self-exile in Hong Kong, which employs second-person direct address to himself while he is thus (and elsewhere) exiled, and omniscient narration to describe his past in China. The story is valuable for its vivid piecemeal picture of 20th-century China’s culture of revisionist egoism, paranoia, and repression, especially in segments that focus on the imperiled activities of a “rebel Red Guard group” of which the narrator is a leader. And there is admirable dramatic intensity in the stories of Qian, a fugitive woman met by chance who impulsively (and unwisely) marries the narrator, and Sun Huirong, a naïve village girl who is raped, disbelieved, and summarily condemned to “re-education.” Otherwise, alas, One Man’s Bible is repetitive, discursive, and declamatory to a degree that leaches away far too much of the drama inherent in its content.
Unless Gao’s internationally acclaimed plays are a lot better than his fiction, it’s hard to understand why this writer was awarded a Nobel Prize.