Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
A book entitled Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather would naturally grab the attention for summer reading. When the typical nostalgic images of summer include fishing and/or spending time with family, it goes without saying that my attention was hooked. A small book of six short stories by Gao XingJian, the 2000 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was thus in my hand to be checked out of the library.
Gao XingJian won the 2000 Literature Nobel “for an æuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama.” On some occasions a particular work by an author is referenced when discussing the basis for the award, in Gao’s case it is his epic international best seller Soul Mountain. Gao was the first Chinese author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Gao was born in Ganzhou, Jiangxi, China. His mother not only influenced his exploration into theater, writing and painting, but also his choice of higher education. He graduated with a degree from the Department of French at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. All of the biographical sketches make reference to the impact of the Cultural Revolution on his psyche and the resulting destruction of some of his manuscripts. He felt the need to pack a suitcase with his writings and set it on fire. He ultimately immigrated to France and was granted citizenship in 1997. His works are celebrated in the West while China has decided otherwise, banning performances or reading enjoyment.
The book opens with a story entitled: The Temple — a curious title that nods at a couple’s adventure while celebrating a marriage while honeymooning. “We were deliriously happy: delirious with the hope, infatuation, tenderness, and warmth that go with a honeymoon.”
The title In the Park sets the scene for a conversation between two people reflecting on their past. “I haven’t strolled in a park for a long time. I never have the time to spare, or the inclination anymore.”
Cramp is the perfect title for this engaging story about a swimmer’s experience with a debilitating cramp. — “Cramp. His stomach is starting to cramp. Of course, he thought he could swim further out. But about a kilometer from shore his stomach is starting to cramp.”
The Accident opens with: “It happened like this … A gust of wind swept up a pile of dirt from the roadwork outside Xinhua Bookshop on the other side of the road, swirled it up in an arc, then dumped it everywhere.”
The fifth story carries the book’s namesake for its title, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather. The narrator delivers a delightful and literal walk down memory lane while visiting (or maybe day-dreaming about visiting) his hometown. “I walk past a new shop that sells fishing equipment. The different fishing rods on display make me think of my grandfather, and I want to buy him one.”
In an Instant is the final title in this series. It illustrates the curious literary nature by which this story is presented. “He is alone, with his back to the sea, sitting in a canvas deck chair on the beach. There’s a strong wind. The sky is very bright, without a trace of any cloud, and in the dazzling sunlight reflected against the sea, his face can’t be seen clearly.” A simple opening paragraph to a “formal experiment in simultaneity,” as one reviewer described it. This story contained the most intriguing question: “He is sitting at the computer with a cigarette in his mouth. A long sentence appears on the screen. ‘What’ is not to understand and ‘what’ is to understand or not is not to understand that even when ‘what’ is understood, it is not understood, for ‘what’ is to understand and ‘what’ is not to understand, ‘what’ is ‘what’ and ‘is not’ is ‘is not,’ and so is not to understand not wanting to understand or simply not understanding why ‘what’ needs to be understood or whether ‘what’ can be understood, and also it is not understood whether ‘what’ is really not understood or that it simply hasn’t been rendered so that it can be understood or is really understood but that there is a pretense not to understand or a refusal to try to understand or is pretending to want to understand yet deliberately not understanding or actually trying unsuccessfully to understand, then so what if it’s not understood and if it’s not understood, then why go to all this trouble of wanting to understand it.”
The final punctuation to the series is the translator’s notes written by Mabel Lee.Lee’s professional academic career focused on Chinese intellectual history and literature during her tenure at the University of Sydney. She met Gao XingJian in 1991 and they began a relationship which culminated in her translation of several of his works, including Soul Mountain. She relates that Gao himself selected the six stories in this English version published in 2004, as “it is his view that these stories are best able to represent what he is striving to achieve in his fiction.” All but In an Instant were written in Beijing between 1983 and 1986 and subsequently published in various Chinese literary magazines.
The postscript to the literature is Gao’s skill as a painter. Not only are his paintings exhibited internationally, but he also illustrates the covers for his books.