Astute decision by the academy or deliberate provocation of China?

March 16, 2001

Having campaigned relentlessly for a Nobel for literature, China was outraged when one was awarded to dissident Gao Xingjian. Howard Goldblatt reflects on a controversial award.

It has been said before, but it bears repeating, that the selection of Gao Xingjian as the 2000 winner of the Nobel prize for literature came as a surprise to nearly everyone - in China, in the West, just about everywhere. But maybe it should not have.

For years, the Nobel prize for literature -awarded by the Swedish Academy -has been something of an obsession with Chinese writers, critics, academics and the general population, not to mention those of us outside China who read, teach, translate and work with its literature. Published comments on the subject have run from indignation (one Hong Kong essay asked the question: "Iceland Has One, Why Doesn't China?"), to despair, to outright denial of the likelihood of its ever happening. I told a group of foreign correspondents in Hong Kong two years ago "Why a Chinese Writer Isn't Going to Win the Nobel Prize for Literature". So much for educated guesses.

The absence of a Chinese laureate -Pearl Buck, the 1938 winner who spent much of her life in China, was the closest they had come and is one many would like to forget -has intrigued observers for years. The academy must have had that in mind when it elected to their body Goran Malmqvist, emeritus professor at Stockholm University and a specialist in Chinese literature. Malmqvist said in 1987 that it was the "major reason" he was elected.

Many Chinese writers and poets have been nominated since Malmqvist's appointment -the expatriate poet Bei Dao, the nonagenarian novelist Ba Jin, and Shen Congwen, whose unexpected death in 1988 probably cost him the prize -yet I know of no published lists that have included Gao, even though he is one of a handful of writers Malmqvist translates into Swedish.

Why then was Gao honoured? To answer that question, we need to look briefly at the prize. While questions attend the selections in all fields, for sheer controversy, the literature award is rivalled only by the peace prize. No one believes that the laureate of the year is by definition, even acclamation, the "best" living writer not yet to have won the prize, assuming that determination were even remotely possible in the first place.

Many factors are involved in the selection, from diversity -in terms of literary genre, geography, gender and the like -to international visibility, to naked politics. Politically, the official Chinese reaction has been that the selection of Gao, as a French citizen whose works have been banned in China for years, was a deliberate provocation by the Swedish Academy and could not have been less deserving. The unofficial reaction was far more positive, if generally uninformed.

It should not be held against Gao that the Chinese government and its media organs have mounted a vilification campaign against him - a recent Guangzhou newspaper article calls his work "awful" and says his selection makes "a big joke of the Chinese" -or that Taiwan and Hong Kong have gone gaga over a writer hardly anyone in either place had ever heard of, let alone read. For he is a dedicated, multitalented writer who views his responsibility as a novelist and dramatist as both passionately personal and non-ideological.

Gao first drew attention in China for his plays of the early 1980s, less than a decade after the end of the cultural revolution. Influenced by the European modernists, whom he studied and translated, he sought to capture both the suffering and the inanity of that and other calamitous political campaigns that have stifled creativity and deadened the spirit of the Chinese people.

Bus Stop , which appeared in 1983 during a campaign against "spiritual pollution" by China's propaganda organs, was denounced. The play portrays a group of people waiting for a bus that never comes. During the ten-year waiting period, itself a metaphor for the cultural revolution, the riders reveal their dreams and desires. Bus Stop was viewed by Gao's detractors as a criticism of the Communist Party, which had failed to take the people into the city, the symbol of prosperity.

Subsequent plays, such as The Other Shore (1986), in which the Buddhist concept of salvation is subverted when the main character, Man, finds that the "other shore" is but a continuation of the oppressive nature of life ("this shore"), and Fugitives (1989, the year China declared Gao persona non grata ), set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen massacre, only increased the enmity with which he was viewed in his native country.

But it is Gao's fiction that will be the standard by which his selection is evaluated by most people. Malmqvist has called Gao's Soul Mountain the greatest novel of the 20th century. While that characterisation will surely not resonate with everyone, it is the sort of thing the champion of a writer's candidacy for the prize is expected to say. Hailed by the Swedish Academy as "one of those singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves", it is a work of remarkable complexity, dexterity and depth. Essentially created out of the author's search for meaning in life, following a misdiagnosis of lung cancer and attacks on his plays, this long novel memorialises a ten-month sojourn in China's southwest outposts and is a sort of spiritual voyage.

In his quest for the mystical Soul Mountain, Gao incorporates local legends and supernatural tales from Chinese and minority traditions.

One of the qualities that place Gao in the ranks of respected Nobel laureates and differentiates him from a great many Chinese writers, is the universal appeal of his works, distinctively Chinese, yet transcending national boundaries. Among his favourite themes is the relationship between the individual and the collective entity. That is the case with Soul Mountain and with his latest novel as well.

Like Soul Mountain , the heavily autobiographical One Man's Bible deals with one man's life during a turbulent era of recent Chinese history as he searches for truth and values in the face of human cruelty, trauma and manipulations of memory. But unlike many cultural revolution novels and memoirs, it is not so much an attempt to condemn the large-scale persecutions so prevalent in recent Chinese history as it is a sincere and sometimes brutally honest examination of the human psyche. And like Soul Mountain, One Man's Bible forces the readers away from the plot and into the author's reflections on larger issues. As such, it can resonate with readers everywhere.

Whatever its flaws, real or perceived, the Nobel prize for literature celebrates Goethe's idea of w eltliteratur (universal literature) in ways that the Booker, Pulitzer, Tanizaki, Goncourt and other national literary prizes cannot do. It also points a spotlight on literary translation, which opens windows into diverse literary traditions and cultures. In the words of one translator, it "can prevent a literature from becoming too nationalistic or too provincial".

Thanks, in part, to his many translators, Gao, a Frenchman and a Chinese, has helped illuminate the human condition for people throughout the world in ways that bring credit to him and to literary endeavour.

Howard Goldblatt is professor of Chinese literature at the University of Colorado and co-editor of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature , published by Columbia University Press, price £33.00.

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