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I’m sure you’re palpitating like all get-out to get the skinny on Gao
Xingjian. Who is he? Why this year’s pick for the Nobel Prize in
literature, of course. Now, one possible reason you haven’t found his
works at your local Barnes and Noble may be his only work published in
English to date is by the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong.
“The Other Shore” is a collection of Gao Xingjian’s plays. For Gao
is more playwright than novelist, although he has a couple of esteemed
novels to his credit as well. According to the dust jacket blurb, Gao,
born and educated in China, is hailed as “the leading Chinese dramatist
of our time.” Having studied French literature at the Beijing Foreign
Languages Institute led him into playwriting, impelling him into drama
— experimental drama, shades of Beckett, Ionesco, Arrabal and the like.
In no time he’d touched off a wave of experimental drama in China,
which did not exactly win him over to the hearts of the Communist
Party. Indeed, the Party denounced him for “spiritual pollution,” a
charge not to be taken lightly. By 1987, he’d settled in France and was
busily writing away in Chinese and now French. The French duly honored
by his flattering attention to their contemporary culture, promptly made
him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1992.
Samuel Beckett, the “Waiting for Godot” man, is one thing. His
writing has a mordant, black wit and a sensibility that cuts through the
absurdist nature of the material. But Gao — some of his work
commissioned by small provincial French theatre groups — in “The Other
Shore” reads more like a parody of the French models than the real
To be fair, perhaps, you’ve got to realize these plays, and their
introduction, have been translated by one Gilbert C.F. Fong, an
associate professor at the Department of Translation of the Chinese
University of Hong Kong. Whether Mr. Fong is translating from either
Chinese or French, the result leaves something to be desired, as
witnessed in this exchange from “Between Life and Death,” written
against the background of the 1989 Tiananmen incident. On a bare stage,
a Buddhist nun cuts open her stomach, “then offers her intestines on a
The character identified only as “Woman,” speaks: “She says she must
cleanse the intestine, this big mess of filth and blood. How can they
be cleansed? After all, they are so bloody and filthy! She says she
must cleanse them whether or not they can or can’t be cleansed. She
knows there’s no way she can make them clean but why does she still
insist on cleansing them?” Why indeed, you may well ask.
And how about the last scene from the eponymous “The Other Shore?”:
“This kitten is so cute. / I think I’ve seen you somewhere. / I have a
sweet tooth, and I’m also a sucker for sour milk. / Your hair looks so
nice, is it real? / (The sound of a baby crying) Sweetie, oh, sorry, I
forgot to change your diapers! / (The sound of a car engine starting.)
How are you going to get back? It’s so bad, what kind of stupid play is
this anyway? Are you doing anything tomorrow? Shall we have dinner
Ah, how the years ripple back. I feel myself sitting once again in
one of those tiny Left Bank theatres in my black turtleneck sweater and
jeans, surrounded by scroungy young French folk going into ecstasies
about how wonderful this presentation of meaninglessness is. Actually,
come to think of it, I long instead to be back in the small Beijing
theatre seeing a performance of “The Monkey King” performed by remnants
of the Beijing Opera Company.
I suppose this kind of drama might seem like pretty hot stuff to the
Chinese, who’ve been kept out of touch with Western theatre for the last
half-century. But how about that Nobel Prize committee on literature?
Did they find Gao’s work the latest thing in cat’s pajamas just because
the French, those long self-proclaimed arbiters of literary taste, have
consecrated it? It’s all most mysterious. Come to think of it, though,
those Swedes have awarded some pretty strange authors for their literary
contributions to mankind. I mean, remember how they gave the prize for
literature to Pearl Buck, she of “The Good Earth,” once upon a time.
You want some additional fill on Gao Xingian? Go to his name on
amazon.com, but be warned — most of the material comes from the dust jacket of “The Other Shore.” If you want a really good read from a contemporary Chinese author, check out Ha Jin also on amazon.com. “Waiting,” newly in paperback, won the National Book Prize this year. And a collection of short stories — “The Bridegroom” — is fresh out in bookstores. Moving, funny, truly informative about China yesterday and today and well worth your time.