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Inside the Soul Mountain
Gao Xingjian and the freedom to write

A Question of Pride:
Asia's Nobel prizes celebrate reform, freedom and innovation

The individual is at the heart of Nobel Literature laureate Gao Xingjian's world. In his autobiographical novel Soul Mountain, characters are identified only by pronouns, inviting the reader to get inside the narrative like actors taking parts in a play. Sydney-based Mabel Lee, who translated the book into English, praises Gao's skill at combining traditional Chinese literary techniques with a "sparse" style. "He is an old-fashioned writer who tells a story," reckons Lee.

She is now working on a translation of One Man's Bible, Gao's novel about his experiences during the Cultural Revolution, which was published in Taiwan last year. Like other intellectuals, Gao was forced to burn his early works and spent five years in re-education. He gained notoriety in the 1980s for experimental plays Alarm Signal and Bus Stop, which was banned. Disturbed by official attacks on his work and convinced he was dying of lung cancer (after an incorrect diagnosis), Gao spent months wandering through western China. That internal exile formed the basis for Soul Mountain. His flight from Beijing was a turning point. "He was reborn and became totally committed to expressing himself and not to see what other people see," Lee explains. "He insisted on the total freedom of the writer and the reader." That unconventional credo put him even more at odds with the authorities and the literary establishment. Following a visit to Europe, Gao went to live permanently in a suburban Paris housing estate in 1987, painting to earn money to support his writing.

After the 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square, a U.S. theater group commissioned a play from him. Gao came up with Absconding (also known as Fugitives). In the one-act work, a young man and woman who were in the square take refuge in an abandoned warehouse, where they later encounter a middle-aged man, Gao's mouthpiece. After the young man leaves and is apparently shot, the woman and the older man make love. Beijing authorities dubbed the play "irresponsible," dismissing it as a piece by a writer who wasn't even in the country at the time. After his American patrons complained about the sex scene and the lack of any heroic student character, Gao returned his advance, refusing to make any alterations. There would be no compromising on his craft.

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