Instead of traditional story-telling, author Gao Xingjian has used quick brush strokes to write 500 pages of short sketches and assembled them in non-linear fashion. The result is a work which looks at several themes: searching for individual freedom in a regimented society, the relationship between men and women, trying to connect with childhood memories, and seeking the cultural heritage of a modernizing nation which seems to value Kentucky Fried Chicken more than its own rich history.
Since the 1960s the author has produced works of individual expression, a defiant act which led him to burn his own manuscripts during the Cultural Revolution 30 years ago. But even after the end of that Chinese nightmare, there was only a short period of artistic freedom. By the early 1980s Gao Xingjian again was suffering because of his writings and a prison sentence was rumored.
At the same time, he heard from his doctor a death sentence of lung cancer. Reflecting on this, the author concluded, "I realized that I had not lived properly. If I did have another lifetime, I would definitely live it differently, but this would require a miracle." The diagnosis, however, proved to be wrong; so did the author's prediction.
To find himself again, while also escaping the authorities, the writer set out in 1983, at age 43, on a five-month, 10,000-mile journey along the Yangtze River, all the way from the Tibetan Plateau to the China Sea. The result of this wandering voyage is Soul Mountain, written in Beijing and Paris between 1982 and 1989 and first printed in Taipei in 1990. A year later the English translation was published.
The physical and spiritual journey which the author takes begins when an "expert amateur" recommends he seek Soul Mountain, a rocky peak which is the source of the You River. Concurrently, the book begins an extended dialogue between two urban travelers, He and She, hiking in the wilderness. The intertwining of these two stories comprises the first part of the book.
He is a long-winded, carnal-lusting adventurer while She is a manic-depressive eternal martyr. The description of their passionate, bitter, in-the-end futile relationship weaves throughout the early chapters of Soul Mountain.
Meanwhile, the author is searching for several things on his journey in quest of Soul Mountain. This, even though an elderly Buddhist monk has told him, "The true traveler is without goal, it is the absence of goals which creates the ultimate traveler."
In his own way Gao Xingjian looks for the quickly disappearing culture of China by traveling to visit the Miao people, a minority group which is trying to stay alive in a world the majority Han Chinese dominate. He visits small villages to document their authentic folk songs. He seeks to connect with the Chinese history and mythology of ancient imperial dynasties and the events which shaped them. He wanders in search of the Wild Man, a half-beast, half-human possible self-portrait. He becomes lost in a forest of trees which have eyes. All of these episodes are described in impressionistic, easy-to-read fashion.
After exhausting the story of He and She, the author turns his attention to his own future. At the beginning of the book, he had wondered, "When a man gets to middle age shouldn't he look for a peaceful and stable existence, find a not-too-demanding sort of a job, stay in a mediocre position, become a husband and a father, set up a comfortable home, put money in the bank and add to it every month so there'll be something for old age and a little left over for the next generation?"
Along the way to answering that question, Gao Xingjian seeks to reconnect with the physical memories from his childhood, some of which was spent along the Yangtze as a refugee from the Japanese during World War II. He finds mostly new buildings, new factories and new communities on the economically booming river corridor.
However, looking deeper, he discovers, "Sometimes, in some small lane which city planners had missed, or couldn't be bothered with, or had no intention of doing anything about, or which they couldn't do anything about even if they wanted to, you suddenly see an old house with the door open, and you stop there to look into the courtyard where clothes are drying on bamboo poles. It is as if you have only to enter and you will return to your childhood and those dim memories will be resurrected."
The author also questions his lack of a son and his decision to lead an individualistic life in a society which demands conformity. But he concludes he was born that way. "To start with you came fearlessly shouting and yelling into the world, then you were stifled by all sorts of customs, instructions, rituals and teachings. Now finally you have regained the joy of shouting with total freedom."
During his travels, Gao Xingjian considers the status of the writer in society and the role of women in a male-dominated culture. He compares the outward attractiveness of a secluded religious life with its inward realities. But it is the issue of the individual living in a repressive environment to which he returns repeatedly.
In the end, Gao Xingjian never reaches Soul Mountain. But the author has looked for it in a way which raises questions in every reader's mind about their own choices for life's journey.
Gao Xingjian, who has lived in Paris since 1987, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature last year, primarily because of Soul Mountain.