“If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch
A piece of literary work that is set in a certain political climate always runs into the danger of being taken as a representation of a certain culture at a certain time. It may seem absurd, but that is how it often is.
Reviewing a literary work that spans a whole or part of a calamitous life is a precarious process. One is posed with the dilemma of whether one is to review it from the perspective of the writing or the philosophical, emotional and spiritual journey that the writer has gone through. In this case, I refer to the Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s latest novel, One Man’s Bible, which is a fictionalized account of his life just before and during the Cultural Revolution in China.
One Man’s Bible is one man’s journey in search of freedom, and ultimately, an ordinary life, as Gao says repeatedly through the book. To be left alone to do the things that one really wants, to lead what one perceives as an ordinary life, is too high a demand in a totalitarian regime, as it was during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s China. The book relates, in fictional form, Gao’s own participation in the Revolution and his rejection of its goals. In order to speak from the distance of an observer, he travels between the “he” of the past and ‘you’ of the present.
The novel begins in Hong Kong at the cusp of its handover to China. The year is 1996. Gao fears that his hotel room is being videotaped. He is with his German-Jewish lover, Margarethe, who persuades him to let his painful, long repressed memories of the Cultural Revolution emerge from beneath the mask that he has successfully donned for many years. Thereafter, the reader learns about how it is to live under a repressive regime where friends can become enemies to protect themselves, and anything you or someone in your family said 10 years ago could be used against you as “having capitalistic tendencies.” Suspected counterrevolutionaries are denounced and publicly humiliated, often flogged and transported to “reform-through-labor” camps, monitored by people who may be your friends, thrown from windows to fabricate suicide. To save himself, Gao must conceal and even destroy his writings, and he must pretend to worship at the altar of Marx’s philosophy.
During the Cultural Revolution in China, Gao had to burn his manuscripts to save himself and was sent to a re-education camp. In the 1980s however, he was allowed to publish and his plays were performed widely. But in 1983, after his works were declared as “spiritually polluting,” he fled Beijing for the fear of being sent to a prison farm, and spent 10 months wandering over 15,000 kilometers in the mountains of Sichuan. His epic Soul Mountain is based on this. Gao won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000 for that work and is the first Chinese to have been awarded the prize.
Gao himself is a firm believer that word embellishments will not substitute for the truth that a writer tries to portray. In his Nobel speech, he said “It is a writer’s insights in grasping truth that determine the quality of a work and word games or writing techniques cannot serve as substitutes.” He also said “A writer does not speak as the spokesperson of the people or as the embodiment of righteousness. His voice is inevitably weak, but it is precisely this voice of the individual that is more authentic,” thus making him a reluctant political writer.
One Man’s Bible has pockets of beautiful writing, but at times the writing is tedious. I don’t know how much of this is due to the translation process. Many have called it a stream of consciousness style. Gao is obsessed with the theme of lust (including the oedipal kind). Even so I cannot fail to recognize certain insights the novel offers into human beings under duress, including relationships that are redefined in an environment of daily paranoia and fear. The novel would have been altogether more appealing if it were about a hundred pages shorter.
I wish I could recommend One Man’s Bible more enthusiastically, but I can’t. Even if I am willing to overlook his attitude towards women, (he says of his lover, “She’s? too intelligent to be a woman”), I cannot say whole-heartedly that it offers the profound insights that it seems to promise. It does, however, offer insights into how life was during the Cultural Revolution, and how art was supposed to be restricted to serve the masses. At best, it would be an introduction to one’s understanding of the life of a person who is an artist under a repressive regime.
But to be fair, Gao doesn’t make any such claims. If anything he claims the opposite. In the most beautiful chapter in the novel, which is about writing, he says “Your writing is not in the cause of pure literature, but neither are you a fighter using your pen as a weapon to promote truth. You don’t know what truth is, but you don’t need someone else to tell you what it is.”
In the final analysis, that’s what One Man’s Bible is. It is the process of discovering the self through the past.