Gao Xingjian's 'One Man's Bible': Past confronts the present

September 22, 2002|By LISA SIMEONE | LISA SIMEONE,Special to the Sun

One Man's Bible, by Gao Xingjian. Harper Collins. 464 pages. $26.95.

About halfway through One Man's Bible, the new novel by Gao Xingjian, the narrator decides to travel to the Yellow River. He's never seen it before, but it has existed as a powerful symbol in Chinese folklore for years. There is a saying, he tells us, "that a person should not give up before reaching the Yellow River." So he takes a train, a bus and a long walk until he finally arrives.

As he stands upon an embankment, the starry vision of his imagination gives way to stark reality: "Was this fast-flowing, brown, muddy river the Yellow River that had been praised in songs over the ages? Had the people who had sung its praises ever actually come to the Yellow River? Or had they simply made it all up? This great muddy river, which was virtually dead, shocked him and filled him with desolation."

The unnamed narrator is a youthful version of the author himself. And the sham of the Yellow River is a metaphor for the sham of the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, it's about the only moving metaphor in the book.

Gao Xingjian, a 60-year-old Chinese writer and painter now living in France, won the 2000 Nobel Prize in literature. His plays have been produced around the world, and his dense, allegorical novel Soul Mountain made it onto the best-seller lists in this country. One Man's Bible covers much of the same territory as the earlier work -- the themes of freedom, loneliness, and the stifling of artistic expression again predominate -- yet the novel is often repetitive and long-winded.

Also like Soul Mountain, One Man's Bible employs more than one narrative voice. The second person singular -- "you" -- tells the story of the present-day author; the third person singular -- "he"-- relates the experiences of the author during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. The struggle between the two voices, as the expatriate Gao looks back on his life and tries to come to grips with it, is meant to give the book its tension.

The novel starts out promisingly enough, with a graphic memory of Gao as a young boy, surrounded by family members in a colorful summer garden at their house in Beijing.

Life before the age of 10, Gao says, was like a dream. His family was educated and well off, he felt loved, and his mother especially encouraged his artistic aspirations. But shadows begin to fall almost immediately in this happy reminiscence. We learn that the Beijing house was later confiscated by the police; that one by one, various family members were killed, committed suicide, went insane, or were imprisoned; and that Gao's talents would haunt him: "From that time he could not stop himself writing about his dreams and self-love, sowing the seeds of future disaster."

That disaster actually began before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), with a series of Communist reforms such as the 1958 Great Leap Forward, and a variety of five-year plans, all of which herded people into communes, political re-education camps and prison farms. The 10 years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution solidified Mao Tse-tung's power and cult of personality, bringing with it an Orwellian cycle of denunciations, purges and paranoia, as neighbors spied on neighbors, and people simply disappeared. In scenes of day-to-day life -- whether public rallies where citizens are forced to shout slogans or simple conversations between colleagues -- Gao vividly evokes the mind-numbing effort and sheer exhaustion of just trying to get by. He longs to escape, if only in his imagination, but since creative expression is also suspect, he has to write in secret, hiding and sometimes burning his manuscripts.

It is in these scenes that the novel most fully comes to life, especially for American readers who've never experienced this kind of fear, for whom the Cultural Revolution is merely an abstract term.

Here the reader holds his breath as the young Gao is questioned about his family background, or as he watches a shadow passing outside his window. But this narrative is constantly interrupted by the latter-day observations -- and sexual escapades -- of the modern Gao, the "you" of the novel. The traumas of the Cultural Revolution are recalled because of the prodding of Margarethe, Gao's lover, as they spend a long weekend in a Hong Kong hotel room.

Gao associates artistic freedom with sexual freedom -- not hard to understand when you consider that the architects of the Cultural Revolution prohibited sexual liaisons and decreed just whom one could marry and when. Throughout the book, Gao recalls the many lovers he's had, surreptitiously in China and openly in the West, and these descriptions tend to ramble.

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