Buying A Fishing Rod for My Grandfather: Stories

by Gao Xingjian

translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee

Published by HarperCollins

144 pages, 2004




A Patient Poetic Quest Continues

Reviewed by Tim Keane


Gao Xingjian's international bestseller, Soul Mountain, helped secure the author his Nobel Prize for Literature. That book was an intimate epic. In it he dramatized the difficulties which a secular pilgrim encounters as he investigates the ancient folk-histories and the messy contradictions of contemporary China, while his own past and his many lovers grow ever more estranged from him. In the author's new collection, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, Gao Xingjian continues his patient poetic quest, exploring through short stories and sketches how desires, daydreams and memories pass one into the other, not so much distracting from "reality" as positively transforming it.

First published in magazines in China and France during the 1980s when the author still lived in Beijing, the stories are by turns erotic and thoughtful. In characteristic style, the writing unfolds slowly and luminously, revealing how we can start down the road to our truest selves by surrendering to the messy uncertainties we too easily think we've avoided.

In the story "In the Park" we follow an aging couple as they chat nostalgically and bitterly about the missed opportunities in their shared past. Soon they are distracted by the presence of a sad woman in the park who may or may not be waiting for her lover who in turn may or may not have stood up the woman up that evening. The story suggests that clear resolutions are unimportant and illusory. So we never find out why this mysterious woman begins to weep uncontrollably, and we never learn whether the jaded couple at the center of the story ever break their emotional stalemate. What we learn -- that true love is essentially uncomfortable and incomplete -- is implied by the story's odd, Beckett-like dialogue. "You don't understand anything," the woman tells the man. "Best not to," the man answers, "Once you do, it becomes a burden." Here Xingjian is not advocating willful ignorance so much as suggesting that "understanding," or what passes for it, is a "burden" because it usually replaces mystery with banality. And, anyway, as his stories subtly suggest, aren't we mostly kidding ourselves about what we do "understand"?

In the title story, a middle-aged man wishing to reconnect with his aging grandfather after the Cultural Revolution revisits his hometown and finds he has misunderstood every facet of the place. The physical transformation is so complete that he can only make his way around the streets by way of a local temple. The recent plague of TV aerials sprouting from rooftops and the lure of scantily dressed liberated young women compete for his attentions while a World Cup football match he may or may not be watching unfolds in slow motion. The story's tensions develop from the ambiguities about whether this man has in fact arrived back in his hometown or whether he is merely daydreaming about making such a trip. Throughout the story, vivid memories of the town's rural past strike lyrical though not quite wistful notes: "You are walking on rocks that have been rounded and smoothed by the river, and, jumping from rock to rock, you can almost see the clear current. But when the mountain floods came, an expanse of muddy water spread into the city." Again and again what was once clear is clouded.

Like the expansive, ink-washed abstract paintings reproduced in his recently published monograph Return to Painting, Xingjian's stories brim with sensual clarity that has as its counterpoint an irresistible psychological confusion.

In this way the act of reading these stories parallels the experience of the desperate swimmer in "The Cramp" who, on an exceptionally gorgeous summer day, realizes that the placid blue beauty of the sea that lured him in might now be his undoing. Drowning, the man thinks, "Even if he calls out, there is only the sound of the surging waves, monotonous, never ending. Listening to the waves has never been so lonely."

In "The Temple" the radiant memories of a couple's honeymoon are shadowed by the very happiness one senses that this couple has failed to achieve. In this respect, Xingjian's storytelling is often as much about the subject's ongoing life outside the story as it is a matter of the reader's pleasure within the story. He writes, "Taking Fangfang in my arms, I gently kissed her. What's wrong with that? She doesn't want me to talk about that. So let's go back to the Temple of Perfect Benevolence."

You can appreciate why Gao Xingjian chose to live and write in Paris -- his minimalist style is most clearly influenced by the innovations of the postwar French nouveau roman. One of the challenges of that overtly intellectual approach to narrative is whether the writer who dwells so consistently within the minds of his characters can still create a tangible, recognizable physical world for his reader, let alone for his story.

Xingjian succeeds in this respect because of his painterly eye for even the smallest physical details and his magician's knack for manipulating time and feeling. Whether describing a high-heeled model posing in a subway ad or charting the trajectory of an oblivious bicyclist pedaling toward a collision with a city bus, the stories draw our attention outward while the language unfurls its menagerie of images and ideas and impulses as they flash across the characters' minds.

Nowhere is such intensity more rewarding than in this slender collection's longest and strangest story, "In an Instant," a surrealist tale in which a sunbather is taken away on a reverie of flood-tides and seagull wings, childhood street games and afternoon love affairs. The ever-changing, dreamlike prose reveals just how interestingly a single moment's mid-life crisis can be; like the overall collection, Gao Xingjian's writing is a kaleidoscope in language, engaging the naked eye, waking the spirit of someone half asleep. | August 2004


Tim Keane is a poet and novelist based in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. You can visit him on the Web at