The history of literature confirms Plutarch, who wrote, You will find few of the wisest and most intelligent men buried in their own countries. A great many of the best writers have lived abroad. My bookshelves are a veritable shrine to homelessness: Hemingway, Nietzsche, Milosz, Naipaul, Vidal, Buck, Conrad, Wharton . . . and now Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and a long-time resident of Paris. China, he says, gives him a headache.
Precious little of Gao's oeuvre is available in English: a few plays and the monumental novel Soul Mountain, which documented the disastrous repercussions of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). His new and long-awaited novel One Man's Bible relates in fictional form his own participation in the Revolution and his ultimate rejection of its goals.
The novel begins in Hong Kong. The year is 1996. Or is it 1984? Gao fears that his hotel room is being videotaped by his nemeses in Beijing. And as his lover forces him to recall life under Mao, the reader visits a real version of Orwell's totalitarian nightmare.
Suspected counterrevolutionaries are denounced in a fashion reminiscent of Orwell's Two Minutes Hate, publicly flogged and humiliated, transported to reform-through-labor camps, monitored by seeming friends, thrown from windows to fabricate suicide. History is constantly revised for political expedience. To save his skin, Gao must conceal and even destroy his writings, and he must pretend to fawn over Marx and Lenin. Searched and questioned before departing China, Gao realizes that home is now elsewhere. Only reluctantly is Gao a political writer. Politics is merely an obstacle to living well. This includes the creation of art: before winning the Nobel, Gao supported himself largely as a painter. It also includes sexual indulgence. For Gao, as for Orwell, sex is the ultimate defiance of an increasingly regimented world. Indeed, the novel's most compelling scenes involve two strangers sharing a night of love, trust, and abandon amid a climate of hate, suspicion and control.
One Man's Bible is a profound and liberating testament to the human spirit, whatever as Gao might say with an ironic smile that may be. And while he admits that happiness may be unattainable, the pursuit of happiness is well, you know, inalienable.