Soul Mountain by Xingjian Gao
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is not an easy novel to pin down, as it strives to push the boundaries of what constitutes a novel.
Part memoir, part metafiction, part travelogue, part ethnographic exploration, part political, part ecological and environmental, part history of the Cultural Revolution, part the realities of post-Mao China, part folklore, part poetry, part mythology, part nightmares and dreams, part songs and revelries, part seduction, part sexual misadventures, part aphorisms, but, mostly, it’s a profound meditation on life.
I read it on my kindle and was highlighting so often that it became almost ridiculous. So many passages that I wish I could keep in my memory forever. I’d love to post them all in here, but there’s just too much, so I’ll try to pepper in appropriate ones.
The story of four[?] people referred only to using pronouns. There is I and You, the novel told in first and second person, shifting between these nearly every other chapter, and then there is He and She, who are externals. Within the novel, it’s actually stated best, as an entire chapter is, in a way, about the composition of the novel.
–It’s just like in the book where you is the reflection of I and he is the back of you, the shadow of a shadow.–
And that sentence there sums up the whole of the characters. If you can call it a plot, it is the quixotic journey of a wanderer, referred to as I, travelling through the mountains of China, talking to the people of small villages, learning their culture, their songs, their dances. The shift into second person recounts a man wandering through the mountains and the women he encounters and the love he feels, even when he doesn’t. Eventually these narratives, which are sort of free floated and meandering become indistinguishable as the novel quagmires [in a good way] and all the threads loosen and bleed into one another, somehow making it better, making all of life captured more perfectly, more beautifully, more fully.
There are great passages of love, of what it means, of what it is, of what it wants to be and how it tries to get there. Some beautiful and some heartbreaking and some absurd and some frustrating: it’s perfect. It’s one of the most true accounts, I think, of what real love is.
–‘Don’t, don’t say anything!’ She holds you in her embrace and you silently merge with her body.–
That is the summation of sex in the novel. There’s no sensationalism, no graphic descriptions of the act, just odd moments of poetry to capture the perfection of the physical manifestations of love.
–‘Talk about something,’ she urges by your ear.
‘What shall I talk about?’
And that there, in many ways, is the center of it all, of what love is in this novel. The will to go on, without reason, just to keep talking, to keep holding, to keep being.
And much of the novel is just continuing, even after reason’s run out.
There is a powerful sense of nature throughout and the narrator often begins with a reflection on the scenery and this reflection collapses inward into his own psychology, where the mountain mist that surrounds him becomes the ghosts of his past and present closing in on him. He begins with a completely external description that gradually just kind of falls and collapses upon him. They’re truly beautiful passages and I’ve highlighted so many that it’s too much to sort through at the moment.
Wandering through the mountains alone, there is a great sense of loneliness in the novel and it is in many ways tragic, as it recounts the environmental suicide caused by bad policies since the Cultural Revolution, and then, too, all the displacement and fear caused by it.
It is, in many ways, I think, an elegy for China. The narrator is very frustrated, frustrated to the point of hopelessness, yet he keeps going. He has lost all meaning, and so he searches for it everywhere, endlessly, It is the story of a man who loves his country but has had his country turn its back on him. He is completely alone, in self-exile, partly to save his life from the government, partly because of this loss.
It is beautiful and it is epic. It is one of those rare novels that tries to capture the totality of life, and, maybe, gets there.
–Everyone has memories they treasure.
Not all memories are worth treasuring.–
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