From China's Nobel laureate, the story of a writer who survived the Cultural Revolution and the price he paid to do so.
If Gao Xingjian, author of the fictionalized memoir “One Man’s Bible,” worships at the altar of any god, that god is freedom: freedom to love, freedom to explore, freedom to express and freedom to live.
And also, the freedom to remember.
“It was not that he didn’t remember he once had another sort of life,” Gao begins. “But, like the old yellowing photograph at home, which he did not burn, it was sad to think about, and far away, like another world that had disappeared forever.”
These remote, sepia-colored ghosts of another era — another self — grow increasingly vivid as Gao, now a successful writer and artist living in Paris, allows himself to surrender to the memories of his life in China just before and during the Cultural Revolution.
Reluctantly at first, but encouraged by a lover — a German Jew with a penchant for excavating pain and suffering — and a visit to Hong Kong on the cusp of the hand-over, Gao begins to conjure the hazy images of his former life. He gingerly fingers and releases the memories of the women he loved and with whom he was forbidden to consort, the members of his family who died off as symbols of a discredited era, the friends he saw tortured and killed.
Slowly, he confronts himself in this terrible context — the choices he made, the people and principles he betrayed, the drive to save himself at great cost. And as he remembers, he contemplates the very process of remembering and of trying to convey that memory to others.
“You seek only to narrate your impressions and psychological state of that time, and to do this, you must carefully excise the insights that you possess at this instant and in this place, as well as put aside your present thoughts,” Gao writes, casting his protagonist’s past and present selves as two different individuals, “he” and “you.” “His experiences have silted up in the creases of your memory. How can they be stripped off in layers, coherently arranged and scanned, so that a pair of detached eyes can observe what he had experienced? You are you and he is he. It is difficult for you to return to how it was in his mind in those times, he has already become so unfamiliar.”
In order to gain the distance to observe and listen to this past version of himself, Gao concludes, he must “turn him into fiction, a character that is unrelated to you and has qualities yet to be discovered.”
Yet fictionalized though this memoir may be, it rings true, pure and deep, revealing astounding insights about human nature under duress, the dueling urges to express oneself and preserve oneself, and the tremendous value of freedom, life, emotion and self-discovery. It is a frank, unstinting look at one man by that same man, many years and many experiences later.
It is as if the writing of the book itself is an act of defiance, an act of freedom. And it is this urge to examine and express to which Gao attributes his hard-won escape from oppression.
“It is this consciousness of your self, this awareness of your own existence, that is to be thanked, for it is through this that you were able to save yourself from your predicament and suffering,” he writes. “A person cannot be crushed if he refuses to be crushed.”
So perhaps, in the last analysis, the god of “One Man’s Bible” is not freedom, but an awareness of self — and the urge to communicate it; this is what frees us. And if there was something liberating in the writing of this book, so too is there something exhilirating in the experience of reading it.
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