Nobelist Gao abandons his characters in a tense present


During the Cultural Revolution, Gao Xingjian’s oeuvre was a palimpsest, largely destroyed before it could be discovered by the authorities. Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, the Nobel laureate’s first story collection from his years on Chinese soil (Gao left in 1987 and now lives in France), reads like a farewell to his country. “In the Park” features a man and a woman chatting on a bench in twilight, talking around politics but never invoking it. “Don’t talk like that,” the woman says. “I don’t want to listen.” Later, the man cuts her off when she brags about her new domestic life. She uses the word happiness. “I don’t want to hear that word,” he replies angrily.

A susurrous gloom cloaks these stories as if the country’s collective malaise traveled on the wind. Sunsets and mountain vistas abound, seascapes give off soft sighs, but it’s all depicted through a muted haze. The past remains a somewhat happier place—at least, many characters seem to think so. Sadly, memory fades, leaving them stranded in the present. “I feel as if I’m rummaging through my pockets,” says the narrator of the beautiful title story, who returns to his childhood village to find it razed and replaced by cement-block buildings. “I’ve taken out everything, but still can’t find what I want.”