Friday, 20 December 2019

Book Review: One Man’s Bible by Gao Xingjian much we’d like to start life all over again with a clean slate after a traumatising experience, it’s virtually impossible. If we like it or not, any such experience has a lasting impact on our world view and on our behaviour as well. It marks and even forms us. Cases of dementia and brain injury excluded, we can only refuse to allow memories to come back to our conscious minds. Nonetheless, they keep working on us under the surface. And more often than not, these disagreeable ghosts of the past return sooner or later to haunt us. Ten years after his flight, the exiled playwright in One Man’s Bible by Gao Xinjian, the Sino-French recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2000, finds himself forced to relive the trauma of almost fifty years under Communist reign that he tried to forget when his Jewish-German sex partner starts asking questions.

Gao Xingjian (高行健) was born in Ganzhou, Jiangxi, China, in January 1940. In Beijing, he studied French at university and then worked at the Chinese International Bookstore until the 1970s. During the Cultural Revolution, he became farm labourer and burnt his writings to destroy all physical evidence for his dissident ideas. Back in Beijing, he worked for a magazine, for the Chinese Association of Writers and eventually for the Beijing People’s Art Theatre where he made his name as absurdist dramatist with plays like 車站 (1983; tr. Bus Stop) and The Other Shore (彼岸: 1986). In the late 1980s, the author left China and settled in France becoming a French citizen in 1998. Although he kept writing and directing plays, his prose works – the short-story collection Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather (給我老爺買魚竿: 1986-1990) and the novels Soul Mountain (靈山: 1989) and One Man’s Bible (一個人的聖經: 1998) – made him known internationally. In 2000, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature “for an œuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity.” Gao Xingjian lives in Bagnolet, France.

The protagonist of One Man’s Bible is a middle-aged writer from China who has been living in Western exile already for years and who tries to exist only in the instant avoiding all thoughts of a past that sometimes still haunts him in nightmares. Nonetheless, his story opens with the memory of a yellowed photo showing himself as a little boy among his bourgeois family. Like most of his personal possessions that could have linked him to his Chinese past it was lost him, probably confiscated by the police after he failed to return to Beijing from a stay abroad.
“For him, life before he was ten was like a dream. His childhood always seemed to be a dream world, even when his family was on the run as refugees. The truck was careering along a muddy mountain road in the rain and, all day long, he held a basket of oranges, which he ate under the tarpaulin covering. He once asked his mother if this had happened, and she said at the time oranges were cheap, and if you gave the villagers some money, they loaded them onto the truck next to the people. […]”
The reencounter with the Jewish-German translator Margarethe, whom he knows from student days in Beijing and meets again by chance in the late 1990s while in Hong Kong for the performance of one of his plays, leads not just to several nights of non-committal sex, but also to many questions about his past that break open the flood gates to his memory. Long repressed recollections come drifting to the surface. He realises that at last he’ll have to face the ghosts of his Chinese past and decides to write down everything in the purest form of narration within his capacity.
“His experiences have silted up in the creases of your memory. How can they be stripped off in layers, coherently arranged and scanned, so that a pair of detached eyes can observe what he had experienced? You are you and he is he. It is difficult for you to return to how it was in his mind in those times, he has already become so unfamiliar. Don’t repaint him with your present arrogance and complacency, but ensure that you maintain a distance that will allow for sober observation and examination. […]”
However, the years under the omnipresent eyes of Mao Zedong and his Party don’t come back to his mind in their chronological order. Driven by momentary associations, he goes back and forth in his life and in the bloodstained history of China after 1949 with its repeated anti-rightist campaigns culminating in the Cultural Revolution that made him volunteer in time for work on a reform-through-labour farm and burn all his writings for fear of their being discovered. He couldn’t trust anybody, not even his sexual partners, but sleeping with them allowed him at least a short instant of complete freedom…

Despite a narrating voice that alternates between a detaching present “you” and an estranged past “he”, One Man’s Bible is the only thinly disguised memoir of the exiled author himself or rather of his novelised alter ego at odds with his Chinese origins. There’s no worthwhile plot driving the story, just a loose frame of present-day scenes around disconnected flashbacks in which the author never shows any emotional response to events witnessed, suffered or caused – unless having sex with any young woman at hand to feel free and alive counts as one. Consequently, the general tone of the account is matter-of-fact throughout. The carefully chosen key events that the author recounts in great, often shocking detail, however, are enough to make palpable the oppressive atmosphere, the constant fear and mistrust in Communist China and they let his unacknowledged pain and bitterness transpire in and between every line. Even in the freedom of exile he can’t find meaning and just drifts living in the moment. Apart from himself, all people who cross his path remain bland and lifeless as if they were to him no more than supernumeraries in a play. The novel’s unpretentious language makes it nevertheless a pleasurable read.

It’s certainly true that One Man’s Bible by en-NOBEL-ed Gao Xingjian isn’t exactly light entertainment offering a welcome escape from dire reality for a while, but this isn’t what I’m primarily looking for in literature, anyway. Unfortunately, the novelised memoir isn’t a particularly deep, enlightening or otherwise impressive read, either, and so I can’t say that I thoroughly liked it… or the author himself as the person that his lines conjure. My impression of him is overall less than flattering, to be honest, and there’s nothing about him that would make me wish to meet him ever. Thus, virtually the only reason why I appreciated the book almost as much as Frog by Mo Yan (»»» read my review), another – later – recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature from China, is that it acquainted me further with recent Chinese history. For the same reason I decided to recommend it here.

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