Sat, Feb 03, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Sharing the Nobel limelight

Mabel Lee, Honorary Associate Professor of Chinese at the University of Sydney and translator of Gao Xingjian's 'Soul Mountain,' talks to 'Taipei Times' contributing reporter Bradley Winterton about her 10 years of contact with the work of the first-ever Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Gao's work is literature as Jung and Nietzsche understood the term. There may be superficial differences between people created by national boundaries and cultural traditions, but Gao seeks to explore the deeper layers of the human psyche where we are all united simply by being human. And he is a man who's intensely proud of being endowed with the basic human instincts, feelings and perceptions, plus simple curiosity. I don't see any national boundaries in his writing. And the fact that he is being read now in Chinese, Swedish, French and English indicates that his writing is relevant whatever one's cultural background.

As for his work being in a wide variety of forms -- novels, plays, critical essays, paintings and so on -- I think the different genres cross-fertilize one another. He has a very clear idea of what his true vocation is. He has a holistic attitude to life and artistic creation. To insist on specialization is a Western notion. It was common for traditional Chinese scholars to be engaged in visual, linguistic and performance forms of art, although they may have excelled in only one of them. And Gao transfers insights gained in one genre to another.

For instance, when he discovered how the use of pronouns in fiction created increased psychological space for the characters, he immediately started to use them in a similar way in his plays. Moreover, the different genres stimulate him in different ways. Writing and painting, for instance, are solitary activities, whereas theater is communal in that it involves his interaction with actors and audience.

One Man's Bible, which I'm translating at the moment, is a companion volume to Soul Mountain. It's part two [of the story], and it's similar in technique.

Gao's center of interest remains human behavior, the human psyche stripped of its vanities. The book tells of his personal and psychological struggles during the Cultural Revolution.

Once again, he uses pronouns in an original way, effectively as protagonists. "He" is the Gao of those times. "You" is the authorial narrator of the present, as well as the psyche of the "he" of the Cultural Revolution days.

Both "he" and "you" have many sexual encounters with women, but they're not included gratuitously. The intention is serious -- he is exploring the reactions of human beings to terror and the fear of death. For him, sex between a man and a woman is an affirmation of life.

I have wept while translating One Man's Bible, sometimes so much that I couldn't see the computer screen. When I mentioned this to Gao, he said that he too had wept many times while writing the novel.

As for politics, Gao denounced the Chinese government's actions in Tiananmen in various media. But he is not a politician, and he refuses to write propaganda for anyone, including student politicians, no matter how noble the cause. His play Absconding, set in the early hours of June 4, 1989, after the tanks have rolled into Tiananmen, is an exploration of human reactions when confronting terror and death. It also depicts mass behavior, how ghetto-blasters and wild dancing in the square mobilized the students into a frenzy.

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