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Book Review

Human Desires Rise Above a Regime's Terror in 'Bible'



A Novel

By Gao Xingjian

Translated from the Chinese

by Mabel Lee


450 pages, $26.95

Four nights in a Hong Kong hotel nearly puts him away. Yes, there are hours of lovemaking with a sensual stranger he meets at a writers' conference, but then, there are her taunting refusals and her taste for sadistic sex.

Worse, for the unnamed narrator of Gao Xingjian's tormented novel "One Man's Bible," his German temptress casts a wicked spell on him. Margarethe, a language translator fluent in Chinese, tells him that he should write his own story. He is, after all, a playwright, and he was raised in China during the Cultural Revolution. This is his true identity.

But he refuses. He's spent decades learning to live in the present as his way of blocking out the past. Sex is his anesthesia. Margarethe goes home to Germany and won't return his phone calls, but he can't forget her, and finally, against his will, he writes his memoir, cursing her name.

These disturbing first steps lead to a steep climb of a book, with switchbacks to the Red Terror and the reign of Mao Tse-tung, pauses in the Hong Kong of 1997--a few months before the island loses its British status--and then back to life as it was in China, under Communist rule.

The narrator, referred to as "he" in the flashbacks and "you" in the Hong Kong scenes, is an exile in Paris who still writes in Chinese. It is tempting to replace the personal pronoun with the author's name for the obvious reasons. Gao, who is also a playwright, left China in 1987 and settled in France. In 2000 he became the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. At the time he was virtually unknown among Western readers, but when HarperCollins published the English translation of his 1990 novel, "Soul Mountain," later that year, Gao's reputation spread.

In "One Man's Bible," the narrator recounts his early years in Beijing, where artists and intellectuals were redeployed as street sweepers and factories were infested with informants. He worked in a book-making factory that publishes party literature and Mao's "Sayings," and he tried, unsuccessfully, to cover up his interests in Greek classics and Italian films. Nor did it help his reputation that his father, once a bank clerk, was being investigated by the Red Guard.

For his halfhearted commitment to the new regime, the narrator is sent to a re-education camp in the provinces. From there he writes to a girl he knew in school and invites her to marry him. She answers by traveling four days by bus to see him. Without ever saying whether she will accept his proposal, she allows him to arrange their wedding. Days after they sign the legal papers, she discovers his personal writings, hidden in a drawer.

"You're a counterrevolutionary, a stinking counterrevolutionary!" she shrieks.... "You've killed me. I've been killed by you."

She leaves him, and he waits, certain that she will inform the police. The betrayal cost him his last grains of confidence.

All these years later, he doubts that he ever loved anyone. But it is not only faith in love that was stripped away in China. He grew accustomed to squelching his own thoughts. He watched old men tremble at the mention of their impulsive past. If they once owned a gun, the Red Guard might accuse them of plotting revolution. If they ever worked at a bank, they could be beaten to death as capitalist deviants.

Gao's portraits of dread are among the book's most compelling scenes. By them he measures the cost of a terrorist regime in terms of human souls. The narrator begins his own slow death as a young man working in the factory, wearing down a path from one affair to the next. Young women, some of them bundled in padded military coats, some rosy cheeked from the howling winters and the long bicycle rides that lead to his door, come to him, offer themselves and leave. Bursting with life and desire, straining against the puritanical rules, they hardly speak, except to call him "comrade" or "brother."

Despairing men and women are like dabs of color that begin to connect and finally to form a vast impressionistic novel. Their quick, incisive portraits balance on the sensual atmospherics of China's hard rains and dewy mists. In time, they begin to shimmer and, oddly enough, to imply hope, as if Gao wants us to consider these lives and desires as more enduring than the terrors of the regime.

In "One Man's Bible," Gao continues the odyssey that he began in "Soul Mountain." What was a journey through the heart of rural China, in this latest work is a broader and more critical meditation on the ravages of the past and a cautionary note for the future.

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