buying a fishing rod

BY SEAN CLARK

Author: Gao Xingjian, translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee

2004, HarperCollins

Filed under Literary, Short Stories

Gao Xingjian is apparently an important and influential Chinese literary figure. He lived through the Cultural Revolution before expatriating to France. He has since earned a Nobel Prize in Literature, for his fiction, poetry, and drama.  His stature, history, and skill are evident in his writing. However in this book they seem to overshadow the storytelling. There are only a few stories contained within this book, and none are particularly long. And while I quite enjoyed this as a collection, no one story really stands out. It’s definitely not the type of collection to pick and choose from.

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather follows a consistent thematic thread. These are essentially stories about people who cannot connect, with others or with their world. In each story the characters are surrounded by many others just like themselves, and in each story there is a noticeable lack in social understanding, or even communication. Selfish egocentrism reigns, and empathy is nowhere to be found.

I am regrettably ignorant of modern Chinese culture, though I’ve read that Gao Xingjian is critical of his native society (not to be misconstrued as unloving). This book contains a lot of characters solely interested in their own selves; it is a book populated by “me”s. The main character in the title story, for instance, sees his grandfather much less as person than as a figure in his own life.

This is perhaps most noticeable in “The Accident” where people speak over the corpse of a man hit and killed by a human vehicle as if he were little more than news, thus dehumanizing him and realizing him merely as a part of their own existences. Of course this is really no different than the turned heads at an accident in any country, so Xingjian clearly isn’t criticizing solely the Chinese. The newlyweds in “The Temple” partake in one sided conversation with a villager where they are honeymooning, much as the former lovers in “In The Park” both speak at each other while neither listens.

Still, the writing is strong, with plenty of exposition that carefully dips into the emotional undercurrent of each story and utilizes descriptions efficiently:

The lid of the coffin is open and he almost guesses that the corpse in the coffin, with its head wrapped in the shroud, is himself. Apparently confused, he turns and looks around, although he doesn’t know what it is he is looking for. However, he sees behind him two big heavy doors that are half-open, and outside in the sun, on the stone steps, a little wooden bucket with peeling paint. A lizard is crawling on the stone step in front of the wooden bucket.

This is a very short collection that builds a strong emotional swell,  and well worth the read. However much of its strength resides in what the stories speak to contextually and how they work as a collection, so no singular story within stands out as particularly great. If you’re up for a collection of quick and heady short stories, definitely give this a read in a sitting or two, but if you are looking to nibble on a story or two between other readings, this may not be your best bet.

Similar reads: Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (Kawabata), Twilight of the Superheroes (Eisenberg), The Diving Pool (Ogawa)

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