Readers surprised by the recent news that obscure Chinese dissident expatriate Gao had won this year’s Nobel Prize may still be seeking enlightenment even after they’ve finished this imperturbably meditative and leisurely 1989 “novel”—his first fiction translated into English.
The few known facts about its author’s life are subsumed in its narrative: a first-person account by a writer and artist out of favor with Communist authorities, who is mistakenly diagnosed with terminal cancer and undertakes a journey throughout his country’s remote central and northern provinces, in hopes of escaping the burden of connections—personal and political alike—with both other people and institutions. The narrator imagines an alternative self (“You”) and a woman companion (“She”) “who” are in effect only pronominal projections of a single sensibility—as it encounters various representatives of Chinese society: miscellaneous villagers, rangers protecting government “preserves” and itinerant acrobats “enact[ing] . . . scenes of grossly unnatural human distortion,” hermitic Daoist priests and “Wild Men” prowling the forests, among many others. A semblance of plot appears in his wavering intimacy with “the woman,” whose dreams of a normal life among others contradict his hopeful drift toward absolute independence. Ironically enough, his peregrinations introduce him to people, stories, and natural phenomena (including the beckoning mountaintop) that trigger memories of his earlier life, and challenge his willed retreat from the quotidian (“I am still seduced by the human world,” he ruefully concludes, “I still haven’t lived enough”). It’s an arduous trek for the reader, redeemed by such vivid set pieces as a hair-raising visit to a “panda observation compound”; the tale of an elderly carpenter obliged to carve the likeness of a goddess who he knows will punish him for his sins; and a fascinating anecdotal account of the founding of the Ming Dynasty.
It all eventually coheres into a vision of an inchoate, voracious culture from which any sentient soul might understandably recoil. A dramatically promising situation; one wishes it had been framed in a story.