12a (I’m very superstitious) – ‘Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather’ by Gao Xingjian

Just over a week ago, I got the train into the city after my last day of work at the language centre to meet colleagues for drinks to celebrate the end of the traditional busy season. I got off at Melbourne Central, and (being a suburbanite who has no concept of how things work in the city) I took the first set of escalators I walked past and left my exit point from the station to chance. Luckily for me, I happened to dawdle past a ‘Borders’ book shop, and (being a suburbanite who lives a 40-minute drive from the closest ‘Borders’ shop), I decided to go inside and browse. Of course, fifteen minutes later, I walked out with two books, one of which I am about to review for you (aren’t I kind…).

Gao Xingjian is a Chinese writer who, having had a few run ins with ‘the party’ (including the premature closing of his play; and Broadway producers think they have it tough…), decided to change his holiday in Paris to an extended stay outside China. He’s still there. In 2000, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel ‘Soul Mountain’, and he followed this up with another novel, ‘One Man’s Bible’. I read both of these books last year, so I was happy to see virtually the only other translated work of his, a short story collection entitled ‘Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather’, on the shelves of ‘Borders’.

The book contains six short stories, most of which were written before his impromptu emigration, and it helps to have a passing knowledge of life under the Chinese cultural revolution to understand the subtle themes of the stories (or you can just read ‘One Man’s Bible’, which is more of a memoir of that time). The brief tales mostly have an underlying sense of sadness and frustration, caused by a life of having to do what you are told and needing to keep your true thoughts and actions hidden from… well, just about anyone really. The sentences are usually deceptively simple, but the viewpoint often dances around, making it difficult for the reader to keep track of individual voices and views (which may well be the point).

The title story follows the reminiscences of a man who sees a fishing rod in a shop window and wants to buy it and give it to his grandfather in the country. This event sets off a trail of mingled memories and imagination, and a vain attempt to revisit the past. The sense of longing for a simpler time is palpable; the ending expected but poignant.

However, it’s not all good with Gao. The final tale takes things a bit too far; a stream of seemingly unlinked, fantastic events bursts onto the paper and ends with a man sleeping on the beach forty pages later. The writer himself said that his works had no underlying meaning and were mainly about the language itself, but this story was everything non-literary types suspect books of being; overblown pretentious waffle.

Another area of concern was the translation. Translating novels into English is not as straight-forward as it may seem, especially if you have no desire to read a book written in a foreign language translated into another foreign language. Although the translator, Mabel Lee, is actually Australian, the language used can appear a little Americanised at times, at least for Englishmen like myself. There was also a story which interspersed commentary from a football (the round ball variety) match into the text, and I was less than convinced with Ms. Lee’s rendering of the terminology.

Gao is lionised and idolised in the West; however, in the East, his fame is not quite as unanimously accepted. I have read some commentary which criticises his writing as obscene and boring – there have even been questions asked about his standard of Chinese. It is hard to know how much of this is genuine criticism though, and how much is funnelled through official mouthpieces. Most of his works are only published in Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and I haven’t met any Chinese national who has actually read one of his books. The fact that the copies of his books which make it to the mainland are knock-offs may explain the language criticism.

Anyway, on the whole, I’m happy I got lost under Melbourne Central, and I look forward to re-reading (most of) these stories again soon. And, if you’re good, I might even tell you (one day) what the other book I bought was…

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