To move a Mountain can take a Nobel

March 16, 2001

In China, his writing made him an enemy of the state. In the West, he barely sold enough books to buy cigarettes. Karen Gold profiles the enigmatic Nobel-winner Gao Xingjian.

It is a good story: a dissident writer slips down the Yangtze River just in time to evade arrest, discovers the ethnological riches of rural pre-Confucian China and embarks on an Odyssean novel that - after 15 years of obscurity and exile - wins him the Nobel prize. Unfortunately, it is not quite true. Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel prize for literature, had already made several journeys to the southern fringes of China before he retreated from the political spotlight for five months in 1982.

Motivated by anthropological interest and self-discovery as much as by the need to lie low, he then returned to Beijing - where he continued to be published for another three years. He remained in China another two years after that, and even now, he does not call himself a dissident writer.

Gao is 61, small, wiry, sporting a sleek Paris suit, quite different from the acrylic jersey and bemused expression he wore when the Nobel prize was announced and the world's press photographed him in his down-at-heel Parisian apartment.

To understand his apparently relaxed transition from obscure playwright to literary lion and bestseller on an international lecture tour you have to understand that Gao's adaptability has been crucial to his survival.

He was born into a middle-class family in Nanjing, eight years before the communists came to power. His father worked in the national bank and both his parents were widely read, his mother - educated in a Christian missionary school - extraordinarily so. He grew up with Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola on the bookshelves. He began to learn the violin at five, to paint soon after, and when he was eight years old, his mother insisted he write a journal every day.

He studied French at university in Beijing, where he ran the student drama society until it was closed down by the university authorities because its productions were not revolutionary enough. On graduating he was allocated work as a translator. At the same time, he began to write. By the start of the cultural revolution in 1966 he had written "kilos and kilos" of poems, plays, essays and stories. As the Red Guards closed in, ransacking every house in every street, he realised he would have to destroy his work. "Growing up in the family that I did, it was impossible for anything I wrote to have been politically correct. They could just pick up a piece of paper and condemn me as a political reactionary." He burned it all.

He was dispatched to the countryside, as his parents had been a few years previously during the Great Leap Forward. His mother drowned in an accident, his father died of lung cancer and his wife denounced him. He spent time in a re-education camp and working on the land. Tentative inquiries about this period are - understandably -frustrated by a series of barriers: language, cultural reticence, bitter experiences that no westerner can share. What he will say - beyond the brief and brutal anecdotes of the cultural revolution in his novel Soul Mountain - is that, like the novel's protagonist, who continues to tell stories long after his listeners beg him to stop, he went on writing, even in the camps and fields.

When in 1979 Chinese politics took an apparently more liberal turn, he came back to work as a playwright in Beijing. He began to introduce European ideas of experimental form, modernism and absurdism, mixed with traditional storytelling and acrobatics, to Chinese audiences who had never encountered Samuel Beckett or Eug ne Ionesco.

It was too much for the authorities. His 1981 play, Bus Stop , in which optimistic passengers discuss their lives while waiting ten years for a bus, was denounced not only as a slur on the Chinese transport system, but also "the most pernicious piece of writing since the revolution". He was forced to make a public self-criticism: there were rumours of another re-education camp.

He was already making anthropological expeditions to China's southern fringes, and he had a brush with death in the form of a misdiagnosed lung cancer. It was time to get away. "I wanted to understand myself more. It is the driving force behind my writing, when I question myself and my relationship to culture. Also, because the history of China has been written by power, I wanted to find a history of Chinese culture that had not been written by power."

He came back with stories of shamans and village gangs, priests and prostitutes. He also brought back an experimental form of narrative, used throughout Soul Mountain , in which a single storyteller refers to himself in three different persons: "I", "you" and "he".

It is tempting to read into this a kind of writer's split personality, the product of 20 years of fear, uncertainty and compulsory self-criticism. Gao explains it more mechanistically. "When I write in the first person, the things I describe were actually witnessed by me. When I use 'he', what I describe might not have really happened. 'You' is imagination and recollection. The benefit of doing this is that you have a distance from yourself. Even when all three are saying the same thing, there are different psychological emotions behind them."

Back in Beijing, he continued to write, until in 1985 his work was banned. He also began to sell his large-scale pen-and-ink paintings abroad, to individuals and foundations. He was offered an eight-month writer's fellowship in Germany: from selling paintings he knew he had enough money to survive for three years.

After the fellowship he moved into a two-room apartment in a scruffy Parisian suburb. His paintings continued to sell, he continued to write - though not for money. "Before the prize, my books sold miserably. The sales could hardly pay for my cigarettes. But still I had to write."

He wrote mostly plays, in both French and Chinese. Drafts of Soul Mountain , which he had brought from China, lay unfinished until the day in 1989 when news broke of student protesters killed in Tiananmen Square: "After Tiananmen I knew I should finish the novel because I would not ever be able to go back to China. It gave the book a new lease of life."

Soon afterwards Jung Chang's Wild Swans was published, igniting the western market for books about suffering under Chinese communism. Gao could have cashed in. Instead, when an American company offered to put on his play Fugitives - about Tiananmen - but wanted the rebel student's part rewritten more heroically, he withdrew the play. "I have been writing for myself all my life. Why should I write for the market now? I think in comparison with other western writers I cherish this freedom much more, because it did not come easily.

"I am not a dissident writer. I am far more than a dissident writer. That label works for the media because it pigeon-holes people. But the majority of my work has nothing to do with politics and nothing to do with China. I am fed up with politics, not only the politics of China but any politics. I am for a literature that is ideologically free."

Since the Nobel prize, his work has been far more widely published and performed. He has plays in production in Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, France and Argentina. Hong Kong University Press is about to publish a collection of plays, The Other Shore . His second novel, One Man's Bible , will be published by HarperCollins in Australia at the end of this year.

His plays are written in French, his poetry and fiction in Chinese. Perhaps this switching between languages gives him the kind of reclusiveness he sought along the Yangtze but has found instead in the West. "I think the best thing for an artist is to stay at the margins of society. We cannot detach ourselves completely, but on the margin we have a distance that suits me best.

"The geography of China does not interest me, because I have been away for 12 years. But I do not feel cut off from Chinese culture. My Chinese culture lives in me."

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