“Freedom is not a human right conferred by Heaven. Nor does the freedom to dream come at birth: it is a capacity and an awareness that needs to be defended. Moreover, even dreams can be assailed by nightmares.”
– Gao Xinjihan (One Man’s Bible)
When you read a novel you half-expect a narrative these days. Narrative itself is becoming a thing of the days bygone; and linear narratives are, well, evaporated into oblivion. In his famous autobiographical novel One Man’s Bible Gao Xingjian does let us through not one but two parallel linear narratives.
One man’s bible is written in a fashion crafted especially by Gao. He has used the pronouns ‘YOU’ and ‘HE’ in alternate chapters, both to refer to himself, one to address his past self while the other to reminisce the self he left behind. Using He to refer oneself in one’s biography is not new. We have read Coetzee’s work built in similar fashion, referring oneself as ‘he’, taking the view of an objective almost uninterested witness and story-teller. Gao doesn’t follow suit to that known pathway; rather his ingenuity reminds us of his magnum opus ‘Soul Mountain‘ where he used different pronouns almost interchangeably to refer to himself. In many ways, One man’s bible is bound to remind one of Soul Mountain as I have read in my earlier article and since I read One man’s bible first, years before soul mountain, I would rather refrain from this comparative study.
In this epic tale of a personal journey from nowhere to nowhere, Gao sketches the world little known in the Western Hemisphere, the exotic world of China with all its struggle with tyranny and modernity. The political affliction of the nation, how it devours the aspirations of the multitude and the individual is truly depicted in this novel. While describing the horrors of cultural revolution Gao does not refrain from giving the account of the day to day ordeals, thus keeping in mind of his readership outside China, and at times the horrors and blood-baths are taken to the realm of magic-realism. In places the writer’s agony are acutely personal, while another moment he very much resembles an everyman smote by the autocratic regime. It is impossible to pin down when the parallel story arc of the past self is merged into the story of present; how the asphyxiating want for freedom merged into today’s burden of rootlessness. At times like this, the world revolving around Gao seems so insignificant, that one might just forget of its struggles and outcries and try to find solace in the simple language of the master story-teller.
I don’t know if it was the work of the translator (Mabel Lee, who translated all the works of the author in English) or the author himself to use a very simple almost ascetic language, but it works. The author’s clinging to small short sentences, haunting in the aftertaste, reminds us of the semi-biographical work of another story-teller afflicted by a similar political regime and finding a way out at the finality: Herta Muller. For some unknown reason, I cannot dissociate One Man’s bible from The land of the green plums: both novels great in their own right and very dissimilar in story ark and otherwise. For me, both of them will be the tales of, not hoarse outcry of indignation, but the silent resistance of human condition in the face of utter in-discrimination.