Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather by Gao Xingjian

With the precision of a razor blade cut which only causes pain and draws blood after moments have passed, this slim volume by Nobel Prize-winner, Gao Xingjian (pronounced gow shingjen) takes its time to do its work upon you. It seems simple, even slight at times. Gao eschews both plot and poeticism (leaving some to wonder what else there is) and the resulting work is curiously opaque. If his least effective stories are still and plain but always as graceful, his most powerful are amazing and mysterious in their power. They may haunt you far longer than the time it takes to read them.

Gao (b. 1940) is a writer’s writer. Early in his career, publishers told him that no one would ever understand his work and that criticism inspired him to examine the nature of the novel even more closely. Like many writers he has suffered in obscurity, but unlike most Western writers, obscurity has been the least of his problems. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when nonconformity was a serious crime, Gao was sent to a re-education camp where he felt it necessary to destroy a suitcase full of hundreds of manuscripts which he had written without any hope of ever getting published. Though the end of Cultural Revolution permitted him to travel abroad and to establish himself as a writer of absurdist drama influenced by the likes of Beckett, his work still received vehement condemnation; one Communist party bigwig labeled it the “most pernicious piece of writing since the foundation of the People’s Republic.” Since The Other Shore was banned in 1986, none of his plays have been performed in his homeland. So, when he became the first Chinese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, few in China were familiar with his work.

His novel Soul Mountain, the winner of the Nobel, was partly inspired by a diagnosis of lung cancer he received in 1983 just as he was being threatened with arrest for his counterrevolutionary writings. In response, he left Beijing and began an epic 10-month walking tour of Sichuan Province, tracing the course of the Yangtze River from its source to the coast. Although later tests revealed that he did not have cancer, the near certainty of death combined with his commitment to the idea of individuality are examined in this novel.

Gao left China in 1986. After the massacre on the Square of Heavenly Peace in 1989, he resigned from the Chinese Communist Party and published La Fuite/Fugitive (also translated as Absconding), which takes place during the massacre. Predictably, the Chinese government was none too fond of this work, but Gao also resisted attempts by Americans to make the protesters into heroic figures. Gao espouses something he calls “nothingism” and calls upon literature to be above politics. This kind of literature he calls “cold” literature. In his Nobel address, he stressed the importance of literature as a medium of individual expression: “In literature, the people are inventions but they retain an essential belief in their own self-worth.”

In his most recent work, he continues to explore the nature of the individual within society and to play with the boundaries of space and time. The backdrop of Chinese history is always present yet never explicitly examined. In “The Temple,” an encounter between a couple on their honeymoon — “Deliriously happy: delirious with home, infatuation, tenderness, and warmth” — and an old man is retold years later by the narrator as he recalls a seemingly unimportant event. Such things as the sight of a precarious tile hanging from the wall of the temple seem rife with meaning and portent. In “The Cramp,” a man swims far from the beach and believes he might drown. “The Accident” details a bicycle accident on a crowded street and incorporates the reaction of the crowd which gathers afterward. The passage of time in this piece is rendered in excruciating detail, as if we are eyewitnesses. Then as we go about our way, the effects and the meaning of the event dissolve. Many of the stories surround the tension arising from events that are of great importance to one individual, but which are treated as mild occurrences, simple moments on the street, by others less invested.

The title story is the most stunning and difficult of all the stories, but it, along with “In an Instant,” are the two most striking of the six in the collection. In “Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather,” Gao demonstrates an astounding ability to show both the stillness and the movement of time, as a man sits watching a soccer game and thinking about his grandfather and his past. The past and present become intermingled in prose which evokes the subjectivity of the man who sits, carrying us back to his past in a village long gone.

Gao Xingjian is the kind of writer who will be noted by colleagues and acclaimed by the pallid habitues of coffee shops, assigned in English classes and cited by critics, but it is doubtful that anyone will ever make a blockbuster movie from his work or quote him in a State of the Union address. Given his personal and political philosophy, that probably suits him fine.