An artist's struggle against Mao

China's Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gao Xingjian

In 1942, Mao Zedong took time off from battling the Japanese to give a talk on literature in his headquarters in Yanan. "Books cannot walk," he said. "Reading them is a great deal simpler than for a cook to prepare a meal, far easier for him than to slaughter a pig. He has to catch the pig. The pig can run. He slaughters him. The pig squeals. A book placed on a desk cannot run, neither can it squeal."

The image and spirit of that passage proved an all too accurate forecast of Mao's murderous imperium, with its anti-intellectualism, its bogus elevation of "real" manual labor over "unreal" mental work, and its peculiar savoring of the slaughter of beasts – human beasts, enemies of the people.

It is no wonder then that, in Gao Xingjian's second novel to be translated into English, the narrator instinctively turns to animal imagery to explain to Margarethe, his uncomprehending lover, how he survived this period:

"Do you know what 'to simulate' means? When an animal is in danger, it pretends to be dead or else it puts on a fierce look. It does not panic and it does not lose control. But, in your case, you had to be very calm as you waited for a chance to escape."

"So, you are a wily fox?" she laughed softly.

"Yes. When the dogs were all around hunting you, you had to be more wily than a fox or they would have ripped you to shreds."

Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, was unknown in this country before the appearance of his masterpiece, "Soul Mountain." In that novel, the combination of memoir, travelogue, and dialogue created a melancholy ode to a strange old China that had disappeared beneath the Communist flood.

Gao resists every ideological stance, evidencing a strong sympathy with the ancient Taoist notion of "primitivity" – a state of spontaneous freedom and creativity that can be captured by shedding certain false civilized norms. Among those norms, for Gao, is politics, which is poisoned at its very core by an inordinate concern for power. Like many of his countrymen in China today, Gao is a postpolitical man.

His new novel is a narrative of escape. It is composed of two levels, keyed to two different aspects of one protagonist: one is "you," and one is "he." The "you," of course, is a dodge for the usual narrative "I," as in the sentence, "The telephone wakes you and you wonder if you should answer it."

The protagonist is a playwright (as is Gao) who has come to Hong Kong in the period before its annexation by China in 1997 to oversee the production of one of his plays. He meets a translator, Margarethe, a German Jew with whom he spends a lot of time in bed. The trajectory of that time is predictable: from the passions of lovemaking to the cooler passions of dialogue. Margarethe presses her lover to divulge his history: Why does he refuse to return to China? How did he survive there?

Answers, of a sort, come from seeing him on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, presumably in 1966, when he is dangerously engaged in an affair with Lin, the wife of a highly placed official. When the Red Guards swarm into his place of work, he acts decisively to protect himself, burning all his papers and forming his own Red Guard faction.

With all of his precautions, however, he is eventually sent to a May Seventh Cadre School, and only escapes being spun off to a more sinister station in the Gulag by a clever trick: He volunteers to become a peasant in a village at some distance from Beijing.

Presumably, the details of Gao's biography correspond approximately to this protagonist's life. The fiction here is more a matter of style than of imagined fact.

Gao has a very elastic sense of form, jumping between interior monologues, allegory, and naturalistic story-telling. He has developed a style that advances with a sort of entranced energy, like a pumped up sleepwalker. It is difficult to encapsulate without extensive quoting, but it carries the reader with surprising swiftness through passages full of action and passages full of self-reflection. When Gao recounts the events that his protagonist manipulated to escape the reeducation camp, his telling is straightforward. But when he recounts more pedestrian events, ones that are out of sync with his dreamer's sensibility – for instance, his short affair with Margarethe – the telling and the tale are out of joint. Margarethe remains a frustratingly sketchy figure for a woman who plays such a crucial role in the book.

Despite these problems with character development, this novel is a remarkable achievement. It's true that if you set this book upon a table, it won't run away, but reading it will do something of slightly more moral importance: It will transform the faded squeals of history's victims into real flesh and blood events.

• Roger Gathman is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.

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