One Man's Bible by Gao Xingjian

I can't say that I enjoyed this book but it did make me more aware of what it must be like to live under a totalitarian state.  In Stasiland by Anna Funder [book:Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall|226369], Funder is the narrator, an outsider viewing with shock, amusement, compassion or disbelief, but even an author as perceptive as she is cannot convey what it is like to be subject to the intellectual confusion it occasions.
Xingjian does.  His narration seems first hand, written with a sense of immediacy through dialogue between Margarethe the German Jew and Xingjian's man who has fled the Cultural Revolution.
The lovers talk in the present, and they try to get each other to talk about the past.  This dialogue is in the 3rd person, breaking into first person as the narrator reflects.  It can be irritating, this constant use of 'You say' as the narrator reports what he's said to Margarethe, but after a while I realised that the effect is to show the gulf between what is said, even in intimate moments, and what is thought.  A habit learned for self-preservation.
Chapters set in the past, in the Cultural Revolution, are written in a detached 3rd person voice.  Here the impersonal observer describes events as Funder would - not as a participant but as a disapproving reporter of the absurdity of the regime.
What does it do to a fine mind to be subject to endless propaganda, slogans, re-education sessions and capricious reversals of dogma?  Everyone lives in a socio-political world and needs to be able to comment on it somehow, but for a very intelligent person it is vital to their sense of self.  To be put in very confined spaces and forced to participate in bizarre denouncements of counter-revolutionary thought would be torture.  Xingian's protagonist craves living in a peasant village, just to have a little space.
I began to wonder if the reason the book is called 'One Man's Bible' is because it's a play on the way the Bible has permeated individual thought to become part of personal being.  Even for non-religious people, the Christian Bible is the basis of most Western cultures because of its themes of individual choice and responsibility, forgiveness and compassion.  Its stories (the Flood, the Tower of Babel etc) permeate literature; its symbols permeate art.
In the Cultural revolution, consciousness had to keep shifting to keep pace with the Leadership's pronouncements. So one had to try to maintain one's own intelligent perspective but risk sharing it with no one. Yet one also had to participate in the propagandising sufficiently well to be able to parrot the required statements and harass fellow-citizens enough to survive without becoming confused about what was required this particular week.  Imagine having to put intellectual energy into that!  How degrading!!

I read and journalled this book on September 9th 2003.
Cross-posted at GoodReads

No comments

© Read the NobelsMaira Gall