Saturday, October 06, 2007

One Man's Bible

It was not that he didn't remember he once had another sort of life. But, like the old yellowing photograph at home, which he did not burn, it was sad to think about, and far away, like another world that had disappeared forever.

Thus begins Gao Xinjiang's fictionalized account of his life as a child and an adult in one of the most tumultuous periods in China's history. Set primarily amidst Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, One Man's Bible traces the life of Gao through the labor camps, politburo meetings and party propaganda that formed a part of everyday existence in China. Also chronicled in this account is his lust for women and the varied relations that he has with them, the betrayals and the chance encounters. It's a commentary on the confusion and the disillusionment that he suffers from, which in some way mirrored the sentiments of the masses and the turbulent and chaotic times where paranoia of the present and fear of an uncertain future reigned supreme.

As the narrative twists and turns through the lives of revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, reactionaries and counterreactionaries, we get to realise the meaning of freedom in its very basic form. It's a world where an aspiring poet becomes a fisherman and then a vegetable seller. It's the story of his decadence and resignation before the 'Party'. It's a world where a mathematics buff in college is forced to herd cattle in a farm. It's the story of his dreams that never came true.

In a hotel room in Hong Kong, a Jewish German woman brings out the repressed memories of a time he had forgotten. It's a release, both on the physical and emotional level. He feels the need to express himself and relive the pain to detach himself from it.

Gao meticulously describes the working and the thought process of the 'Party' and what happened to its enemies, the Ox Demons and the Snake Spirits, as they were called. Freedom of thought, expression, and even choice was not allowed. Either you conformed to the party's diktats or faced its wrath. is a capacity and an awareness that needs to be defended. Moreover, even dreams can be assailed by nightmares.

The style of writing, itself, is something which needs to be talked about. Gao uses 'he' to refer to the period about which he is writing, the past so as to say. Whenever he is talking of the present, though, like about his Jewish German mistress, Margarethe, or the numerous Western women he beds, who in their own way inspire him to write, he uses 'you'.

You must find a detached voice, scrape off the thick residue of resentment and anger deep in your heart, then unhurriedly and calmly proceed to articulate your various impressions. Your flood of confused memories, and your tangled thoughts.....You are striving to describe in simple language the terrible contamination of life by politics....that penetrated every pore, clung to daily life, became fused in speech and action, and from which no one at that time could escape.....You are you and he is he.

He tries not to colour the 'he' with the present day 'you' so as to be able to bring out an account which is as truthful and real as if written in those times. The chapters where he writes about the need to write and the essence of writing and pure gems. I might as well quote pages after pages. articulate pain in order to alleviate pain seems to make pain bearable.

It is by cloaking naked reality with a gauze curtain, ordering language and weaving into it feelings and aesthetics that you are able to derive pleasure from looking back at it....

In the process of linguistic actualization, the present and past history, time and space, concepts and knowledge, all become fused and leave behind magical illusions created by language.

And he fills pages after pages with such thoughts.

He says that the circumstances were such that one couldn't be a fence sitter. Either you joined parties or perished. Being a silent observer was not a choice and so in all this confusion, he had to rebel. If not for anything then merely for existence. Merely because of the fact that he was a human and there was no other option left.

It's an essay on the meaning of freedom and the necessity of expressing oneself. It's about trying to find meaning in everything that happens around us, savoring life and the sufferings and delights it brings. It's a lesson on how to deal with suffering and how to overcome it.

After suffering has past, it, too, can become beautiful.

Life in itself is an inexplicable miracle; to be alive is a manifestation of that miracle. Is it not enough that a conscious physical body is able to perceive the pains and joys of life. What else is there to be sought.

Soul Mountain and now this. I'm glad I came across this author.


Captain Subtext said...

What a coincidence! I had bought Soul Mountain during my internship on an impulse, and got to it after finishing off everything else that I had got there. And I am thankful now that I bought it.

Guess the Prize was well-deserved :D

Praveen said...

After having read and given up midway some recently published novels, I found 'One Man's Bible'. In fact it came to me from a new Chinese friend, who I have been pursuading to get me something nice to read from China.
I was sucked into its fluid, gently swirling haziness, carressing strips of a free - floating delicate human feelings which seemed so harrassed and petrified by a bestial phase in Chinese history.
I read the book over many days. It was with a sense of 'cleansing' and sadness that I finished the novel. His work is very very 'evolved'!