But it is ignored more than banned within China, and five years later, there is no sense of Gao achieving the stature in his homeland that the Nobel Prize Committee gave him elsewhere.
The political story behind Soul Mountain the book is almost as weird as its actual story, which is saying a lot. But first, the book itself. Gao Xingjian began the writing of Soul Mountain ('Lingshan' in Chinese) in Beijing in the 1980s and then completed it in Paris after emigrating to France. He was a politically sensitive individual in Beijing in the early 1980s. When he was suddenly diagnosed with lung cancer, he faced death for a while, until the doctor told him the first diagnosis was a mistake and in fact he was fine. With a second lease on life, Gao trekked off into the west of China, searching for Soul Mountain, for the spirit of China, for himself, for adventure, for oblivion – for a story to write as well? Probably.
This is a big book, thick with levels and meanings. It largely rejects the China of the 1980s, struggling to recover from 30 years of madness, but it is much more about Gao himself. It is true that Gao is a talented story teller with a depth of understanding about China's history and cultural roots that is now rare. But the story rambles too much, and the author is far too self-absorbed for this to be considered a truly great work.
While not boring, Soul Mountain is not a gripping page turner either. The writing is literate and accessible, but the story drifts along aimlessly.
So how did Gao get the Nobel Prize? This novel is one of a number of books he has written, but this is the one that stands out as being a work of significance. Still, giving the world's most prestigious literary prize to an unknown author on the basis of one rather turgid book? There's something strange here.
There are a couple of versions of what happened, but by many accounts, this was fundamentally a political decision. It goes something like this: No Chinese author has ever won a Nobel Prize for literature, and as the years went by, through the 1990s, the pressure for the prize to go to China grew. A Swedish scholar named Goran Malmqvist, an expert on Chinese literature, became a member of the Nobel academy in the 1980s and started pushing for a Chinese selection. The venerable Ba Jin was considered, but rejected. Louis Cha, the kung fu novelist whose popular works of martial arts derring-do, written under the pen name Jin Yong, have colored the imaginations of every Chinese generation since the 1960s, was proposed and was quietly supported, it is said, by Beijing. Gao Xingjian was also proposed on the basis of Soul Mountain. As it happens, the Swedish language edition of the book upon which the decision was made was translated from the Chinese by Goran Malmqvist.
Gao, as a sort of exiled minor dissident, was not favored by Beijing. When the choice of Gao was announced in Stockholm, the Beijing Foreign Ministry dismissed it as a political choice in which China could take no pride. Premier Zhu Rongji was visiting Japan when the decision was announced in October 2000 and had this to say to the reporters: "I congratulate France and the French author Gao Xingjian for having won the Nobel literature prize."
Was it the right choice? Was Gao the rightful recipient of the Nobel award? Time would suggest not. He remains an obscure author with little influence on Chinese literary trends, let alone global trends. That is not to suggest that Cha deserved the award either. But again, time would suggest he had more of a right to it than Gao. Next time, let's hope the decision is a clean one, based on literary excellence alone.
Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian, published by Perennial. Available at amazon.com for $10.20.