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The World According to GAO

The Nobel Prize-winning author of 'Soul Mountain' explains how, self, culture and the loneliness of the communist experience inform his work.


SEATTLE — There ought to be a Nobel Prize for readers. Consider the terrible isolation of the reader, for example, turning the pages of Gao Xingjian's Nobel Prize-winning novel, "Soul Mountain," a beautiful, confusing, thought-demanding book full of questions and no answers. Whom can you talk to about the self and the soul and the constrictions of culture? Or about the perversions of social will on the pure, animal needs of the individual? On page 506, the loyal reader is told that God is a small green frog on a snowy windowsill in Sichuan province, that conclusions are bogus, the self is elusive and nothing can be understood.

And he gets the $900,000.

Last October, Gao Xingjian (pronounced gow shing-jen) became the first Chinese Nobel laureate (poet Bei Dao has been a past finalist), yet officials in Beijing were not happy about it. "Soul Mountain," which won him the award, has been banned in China since 1985. One state newspaper, the Yangcheng Evening News, called him "an awful writer." Chinese officials refused to attend the prize ceremonies in January. In China, Gao, 61, a playwright, critic, painter and novelist, has been considered a dissident writer since his play "Bus Stop," in which eight characters wait for a bus, was banned in 1983, described by a government official as "the most poisonous play written since 1949."

We meet here on one of the city's signature gray winter days (no wonder they read so much). Gao, who has come here from France, where he has lived since 1988, is polite and handsome in a black cashmere coat. He hardly moves when he talks. Underneath some of his answers to some questions is a well of warmth; others he has answered so much they skim the surface of his expressiveness. We talk as he heads to the University Bookstore, where the signatures he will inscribe on 80 "stock" copies of "Soul Mountain" are too beautiful for the day.

Mabel Lee, who translated "Soul Mountain," is traveling with Gao on the book tour and translating for him; he speaks French and Mandarin but not English. Lee, who is neat, with cropped white hair and a black leather jacket, keeps saying, "I am not a translator." She does not speak French. Each time I show the slightest inclination to speak in French, she tries, albeit politely, to abandon us. An honorary associate professor of Chinese Studies at Australia's University of Sydney, Lee came to work with him almost by accident; she was visiting a friend in Paris in 1995 and decided to visit Gao. She asked if he had a translator for "Soul Mountain," and he said no.

"The first chapter was by far the hardest," she says, "because I had never done it before. "His writing is like poetry. It can be very natural, like speech, but also classical. He is trying to depoliticize language."

"I thought 'Bus Stop' was a comedy," Gao says when asked about the play that made him an enemy of the state. "But during the Cultural Revolution, it was perceived as something entirely different. Why? Because the authorities lack humor," he says, smiling mischievously.

"He's trying," Lee explains, "to force people to think."

"Soul Mountain" has received mixed reviews. The glowing ones compare Gao to Thomas Mann, Herman Melville and even Henry David Thoreau. The translation has been criticized as wooden. Other reviewers have grumbled about how its use of pronouns is confusing. Gao divides the author's self into "I," "you," "he" and "she," and each chapter has one of these narrators.

"I wanted," he says, "to move away from characters and to emphasize the loneliness of the narrator. There's a great deal of loneliness in Communist China. Let's say the situation in China exaggerates human loneliness, which exists everywhere. This is because at various times you were afraid to speak freely."

There is a great sense of freedom in the book and a strong feeling of what Gao calls "primitive" loneliness. "I never expected it to be published," Gao says. "I had begun to censor my own work, and I wanted to write something without self-censorship." After "Bus Stop," government officials began to carefully scrutinize Gao's work.

In 1983 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that killed his father. After two weeks of quigong exercises (Taoist exercises not unlike tai chi), the tumor disappeared. Gao began a six-month journey, 9,300 miles into western Sichuan and the forests of Yunnan, following the Yangtze River like a pilgrim through metasequoias and linden, maple and plum trees, looking for Lingsham (which translates as "soul mountain").

"I was looking for the other China," Gao says. "The China of dragons and colors and stories." State culture, he has written, is soul-killing. Micro-cultures are soul-enhancing. Gao traveled among Daqi people and Miao, through the Ba kingdom and the Haiba in Tibet. He listened to dream sacrifice songs and watched dragon-boat ceremonies. "In the end," he wrote, "to forget one's ancestors is a crime."

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