I picked this book up a while ago at the Lifeline Bookfair. Something about it must have struck me somehow. As I’ve mentioned, this year I’m trying to read more diversely, but I don’t think that’s what made me pick up this book. Maybe it was the title. Maybe it was the Nobel Prize for Literature. Maybe it was the blurb. I’m not sure. Either way, “Soul Mountain” by Gao Xingjian wriggled its way into my to-read pile and I thought I’d give it a go.
It’s hard to say to what extent this novel is autobiography, fiction or pure observation. Like the narrator, the author was diagnosed with lung cancer and told he was dying. Also like the narrator, a secondary examination showed that there was no lung cancer, and he was given essentially a second chance at life. This sparked a 15,000 km journey through 8 provinces of China over 5 months, and this book is the result.
“Soul Mountain” has a rather unusual narrative style. Some of the chapters are in first person. Some of the chapters are in a rather startling second person. Sometimes the chapters seem to be linked, and sometimes there don’t seem to be any links at all. This book is part travel book, part political statement and part memoir. It is impossible to tell how much is true and how much is fiction. Throughout the book you get the sense the narrator is searching for something, but it’s not quite clear what it is or whether he finds it. There is the palpable sense of loss throughout China caused by the Cultural Revolution. There is a real fissure between the past and the present. Reading this book is kind of like being on a really long train journey, looking out the window. You are awash with observations of things fleeting past and your thoughts and feelings about those things. Then they’re gone, and you’re on to the next part.
This book is a slow, thoughtful read. It’s beautifully written, full of passing acquaintances and the richness of Chinese cultures and landscapes. There’s not really much plot, but there is a lot of consideration about the inevitability of life and the beauty of the natural world. This book is perfect if you have the patience and want to try reading something profound.