Soul Mountain – Gao Xingjian

What does it mean to win the Nobel Prize for literature? Alfred Nobel was a scientist, should we therefore assume that it will be for science fiction? The literature prize, even more than the peace prize (but perhaps not as much as the economics prize) seems relegated to some odd set of criteria which globe-trots through posterity much like Late Junction does through world music.

So what does it mean that Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain won the Nobel Prize for literature? Nearly all of the judges would have read it in translation, if they read it at all. Is it really possible to judge all of the worlds literature against each other?

You have probably guessed that this preamble is warming up to me saying that despite the prize, I did not like Soul Mountain. Not strictly true. There is something beguiling about the novels complete lack of focus and structure. It is tempting – as I am sure it was for the Nobel panel – to tie this down to the mysticism of Chinese religions which is often brought up in the book. This would be a mistake though, as Chapter 72 acknowledges, an argument between a critic and Xionjian about the status of Soul Mountain as a novel at all. The critic suggests that by having no characters beyond the itinerant narrator and various undefined pronouns, and consisting of about seventy dialogues, folk tales and musings that this does not have a coherent story. Xionjiang’s made up critic defends him from actual critics, not that this bothered me. It is a pleasant book to dip into, wistful about the vanishing past, possibly autobiographically questioning. But it is not a million miles away from being the Little Book Of Eastern Curmudgeonliness. Why did it win the Nobel Prize?

Prizes like this are political. It could be that there had not been a Chinese winner for some time, if ever. The cynic in me smells the liberal noting the potential implied criticism of the Chinese State in some of these tales and hence the bravery of an author under such a restrictive regime. The line ‘Written in Beijing and Paris 1989’ should put a lie to some of these suggestion of the plucky artist under the jackboot. A worthy winner? Of a prize that means little – probably. As Chapter 72 ends: ‘Reading this chapter is optional, but as you’ve read it, you’ve read it.’ The same could be said about the Nobel Prize for Literature: winning it is optional, but as its won it, they can put the sticker on the cover.