Reality exists only through experience, and it must be personal experience. However, once related, even personal experience becomes a narrative. Reality can’t be verified and doesn’t need to be… What is important is life.’
-Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain
In 1983, writer Gao Xingjian, in his early 40s at the time, faced some uncertainty and drama. The accomplished painter, poet and novelist was diagnosed with lung cancer, at a time he was getting ready to flee his native China, having been threatened with arrest if he stayed, for his ‘counterrevolutionary’ writings. However, he then discovered that the cancer was a misdiagnosis and with a new lease on life, he went on a ten-month trek of self-discovery through mountainous southwest China. This journey ended up producing one of his most highly acclaimed literary works, the semi-autobiographical Soul Mountain.
On the topic of Gao, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak to Mabel Lee. Lee, who is one of Australia’s leading authorities on Chinese cultural affairs,has translated several of Gao’s works, including Soul Mountain, a project which she told me took her seven years to complete.
When I asked her what initially drew her to Gao’s works, Lee told me that it all started with a trip to Paris in 1991 to meet him with friend. Back then, she’d only read a couple of his plays, but Gao gave her a copy of his 1990 novel Lingshan. She remembers that as they chatted, she leafed through the book, and was ‘attracted to the poetic language, and by his remarks about what he sought to achieve in writing the novel.’
Lee asked Gao whether he’d found a translator for the book, and as he hadn’t she took the job on, and Lingshan eventually became Soul Mountain, published in 2000, just prior to the announcement that Gao had won the Nobel Prize for Literature that same year. Lee told me that it was as she worked on the translation that she truly began to sense that Lingshan was ‘a truly remarkable novel,’ and thus began to study others of Gao’s writings, eventually introducing his plays and essays into her own teaching and research.
Lee also pointed out that what makes Gao unique and thus attractive to a wide audience, in her eyes, is partly his ‘profound knowledge of both Chinese and Western writings,’ his ‘keen interest in the aesthetics and techniques of creation across various genres,’ which is reflected in ‘his plays, operas, novels and short stories,’ and also that he is an ‘accomplished artist who can appeal to a ‘full range of senses’ including the ‘visual, auditory and tactile.’ In Lee’s opinion, it’s therefore Gao’s ‘all encompassing powerful intellect and understanding of human psychology’ that gives him universal appeal.
And while she believes that each of Gao Xingjian’s works is unique and worth reading, Lee recommends Soul Mountain and his opera Snow in August to readers new to his work.
Meanwhile, Olivier Burckhardt, a poet and essayist who wrote The Voice of One in the Wilderness, a critical essay of Gao’s works, recommends his personal favourite, Gao’s play Between Life and Death. Burckhardt also cautioned that in his opinion, since all of Gao’s work, including plays, painting and fiction, ‘revolves around the multi-faceted nature of selfhood,’ we would be missing the point if we tried to ‘classify or label him.’
Gao Xingjian now lives in France, where he was granted citizenship in 1997.