Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather

Book review

Six Stories by Gao Xingjian, translated by Mabel Lee.

Gao Xingjian won’t carry you down rivers of luscious prose. His writing style is like crime reportage, spare, placing the world of China inside you as a cluster of fragments, snapshots using words. Gao has said that the art of fiction is “the actualization of language and not the imitation of reality in writing.” His prose may be intended to affect the reader as poetry does, by invoking sensation beyond narrative pathways.

Gao Xingjian was born in 1940, soon after the Japanese invaded China. He completed his studies in the People’s Republic and wrote prolifically during the 1960s and 70s. During the Cultural Revolution, with ever diminishing options for hiding his work and exhausted by the ever-looming threat of heavy punishment, Gao burned all of his writings. Then, in 1979 and 1980 he was able to travel to France as a member of writers’ delegations. He came to prominence in the 1980s as a writer of experimental fiction, drama and literary theory that stepped beyond party-dictated boundaries. Gao left China in 1987 and did not return. He eventually settled in Paris and became a French citizen. In the 1990s he won several prestigious French awards, and in 2000 was the first Chinese writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is also well known for his large black and white ink paintings, with which he largely supports himself.

The first five of these stories were written in Beijing between 1983 and 1986. The last one was written in Paris in 1990. The fifth story, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, acts as a bridge between the lean, survivalist psyche of the first four stories, and the sixth story, one flooded with the messy complexity of unconditional imagination.

The book is like a small gallery with six paintings on its walls. The first four stories are short scrolls preparing the reader for the two larger ones that follow.

The Temple: A young couple is on a hard-won honeymoon in the provinces. They get off a train at an unscheduled stop and decide to wander. They see a broken down temple on a hill, just outside of town. There they meet a rugged old man and a small boy with him. They share cake and melons. Gao sketches a fragment of perfect happiness.

In the Park: The story unfolds as the sun is setting. It’s a chatty back and forth between a man and a woman strolling. It could be dialogue from a sentimental drawing room play. Gao draws our eyes away from the couple deeper into the picture. A woman with a red handbag sits on a bench. In the distance a number of people are walking towards us down the path. The exposition darkens. The man was forced into the countryside to be a woodcutter.  A forest fire once spread swiftly and with a vengeance, he tells her. The woman on the bench is becoming restless. It seems she is waiting for someone. It has grown dark. The couple talks about love and luck. A youth carrying a canvass satchel wanders down. The young woman on the park bench begins to cry. This is not the man she has been waiting for.
The story carries the mood of a Chinese water color, or a melancholy beach scene by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.

Cramp: A swimmer worries about cramp. His vision shoots to the middle distance; the almost empty beach at dusk, stars, the grey black sea, the ink-green water. Gao’s short gasps of prose are repetitive and cinematic. He describes the panic of open sea and the claustrophobia of worry. This could be a millisecond in a drowning man’s life. He latches onto the sight of a young woman in a red swimsuit on shore. The sun sets behind the beachfront pavilion. He reaches the beach and gets back to the hostel where the poker players ignore him. A man can only rely on himself. A man can face, and escape death, and still nothing changes. He wanders back down to the beach and sees a couple with a small child. They’re laughing and swigging from a bottle of wine, ready to jump into the water for a swim. They leave their child behind to mind the bicycles.

The Accident: Again, Gao writes prose as though setting the scene for the opening of a play. Early spring. Early evening. A gust of wind. A swirl of dust. A radio repair shop. A small pale green car is trying to overtake a trolley bus on a not yet busy street. An aging man pedals a bicycle bearing a rosy-cheeked child on the back. He’s crossing diagonally. The trolley bus is closing in like a relentlessly moving wall. There’s gentle singing from the radio in the repair shop.
“You may remember our meeting in the mist, under the broken bridge . . . ”
There is a crash. The man on the bicycle is killed. Is the baby dead? Was this a suicide? The busy urban world swirls around the accident. It’s a play now, a whirlwind of speculation about relationships, as though a hundred pieces of a smashed mirror were flying through the air catching reflections from every angle. If you don’t die in an accident you’ll die some other way. Was the balding man with a child on the back of his bike the author of his own misfortune? Probably. The facts are a hard black line drawn swiftly from one corner of the page to the other. The nature of the world is the fog of wash swirling around the background.

The first four short stories are clearly representative of a twentieth century Chinese way of coping with life. The freedom he has here is the psychological freedom of a single person living in a world that is totally controlled as well as harshly unpredictable. His mind moves methodically in survival mode, employing the observation necessary to take each step forward.

The last two stories in this small gallery are longer, and drift, or plummet, into a different realm of language.

The fifth story, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, anticipates Gao Xingjian’s European experience. It expresses his flight from the necessity of fighting the daily absurdities of life with spare fact and observation. An individual who lived linearly, realizes his freedom to dream. This tale of the narrator’s grandfather and the narrator’s childhood home is woven around the purchase of an imported fishing rod. Gao goes deeper into memories as though abseiling down a set of cliffs, resting for a sentence or two, here and there, on an outcrop.
Memories combine and transmute. He is lying on a beach, digging his hand into the sand. He cuts his hand on the tail of a dead fish. He digs further. He strikes the remnant of the wall of the courtyard of his childhood home. He’s in the middle of the ruins of Loulan, an ancient city in the Taklamakan desert. He is observing the desert from a flight thousands of feet up while watching a game of Soccer on the video. He is back in the ruins of Loulan, attacked by mythical creatures all named Zhang the Third.

The last story, In an Instant, steps completely off the narrative road. It is a palette of shifting images. A man sits in a canvas deck chair, his back to the beach. There’s a strong wind. The sky is bright. The dazzling sunlight reflects against the sea. Gao shows us big wet iron doors. We hear a police siren. We see a woman’s back in a dark passageway. With these fragments Gao begins to spin a web of development and recombination, as though the story were a symphony of human leitmotifs and abstract language, or like one of Anton Webern’s brief sonic galaxies. A man is utterly free in a free world, and the world is chaotic. The story is an expressionist painting, or a dreamy collage of arty French cinema clips. In this last story the writing is almost as intense as the lush phantasmagoria of William Burroughs. But Burroughs squirts on colour until it slides off the page and onto your lap, while Gao suffices with several strokes of water and ink.

Character development seems slight in these stories, but Gao Xingjian imprints memorable impressions of the human condition. The stories move toward the unconscious. There is a powerful sense of release in each of them, in which you discern an evolving psychic freedom. You get a sense of what Western humanism shares with enlightened Confucian thought: a clear ethic of humanism and reciprocity. You sense this Yang dancing with a strain of deeper knowing, and the alchemy of language expresses a natural and simple inner disposition, the Yin of Dao perhaps. Read these stories, and then tackle Gao Xingjian’s large autobiographical fictions, Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at


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