Title: Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather
Author: Gao Xingjian
Translated By: Mabel Lee
Genre/Themes: Translated Fiction, Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Nobel Prize for Literature Winner
Blurb from Goodreads
Written between 1983 and 1990, these translated stories take as their themes the fragility of love and life, and the haunting power of memory.
In “The Temple” the narrator’s acute and mysterious anxiety overshadows the “delirious happiness” of an outing with his new wife on their honeymoon.
In “The Cramp” a man narrowly escapes drowning in the sea, only to find that no one even noticed his absence.
In “The Accident” a bus hits a cyclist and, as in stop-action film, the chaotic aftermath gives way to a calm, ordinary street comer with no trace of the previous drama.
In the title story the narrator attempts to “unburden myself of homesickness” only to find himself lost in a labyrinth of childhood memories.
Everywhere in this collection are powerful psychological portraits of characters whose unarticulated hopes and fears betray the never-ending presence of the past in their present lives.
In 2000 Gao Xingjian was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. There’s a copy of his book “Soul Mountain” sitting on my mum’s bookshelf at home. I’ve always picked it up whenever I visit but for some reason have never actually begun to read even though I like the sound of it. So I thought I might first try some short stories by him to get a sense of what I might expect whenever I do take the plunge with “Soul Mountain”.
This English language version of “Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather” contains just six stories (the original collection contains seventeen).
There’s a very interesting translator’s note at the back of this collection that quotes Gao Xingjian as saying the following:
Gao’s fiction does not set out to tell a story. There is no plot, as is found in most fiction, and anything of interest to be found in it is inherent to the language itself. He proposes that the art of fiction is “the actualisation of language and not the imitation of reality in writing”.
This would have set the alarm bells ringing for me if I had read this note BEFORE I read the short story collection.
Above all else, I value storytelling. I think a story should be just that, a story. If you want to evoke feelings and emotions purely from language and writing, then to me that is poetry. So go write that! Short form poetry, long form poetry…whatever floats your boat.
Poetry to me is pure human emotion expressed through language and I am very much a fan of it. And I absolutely believe that human emotion can be expressed through storytelling and fiction writing in general too…but for it to be considered a story, I need some semblance of a plot. I need something to cohesively connect together the beautiful words and emotions they can evoke, rather than simply having beautifully phrased words together on a page.
What immediately follows are my initial reactions to each of the stories BEFORE I read the translator’s note.
STORY 1: The Temple
Upon reaching the end of the story I exclaimed ‘what the actual heck was that?’ I didn’t like how the main character kept talking to the reader. Breaking the fourth wall so to speak. I was waiting for the language to evoke some genuine feeling in me or to give me a true sense of a blissful day with this honeymooning couple in their supposed blissful happiness… It just never happened for me.
STORY 2: In the Park
This was strangely enjoyable. Almost all of the story was in the form of a conversation between two old, unnamed friends with the briefest of interludes describing the sights around them as their conversation had natural pausing points. I was immediately intrigued by what was happening between the two central characters and what has gone between them in the past. This was very much a story where you could read between the lines and attempt to decipher what it was they weren’t actually saying to each other.
STORY 3: Cramp
Powerfully written and very emotive. Brought tears to my eyes
STORY 4: The Accident
An accident occurs and its impact ripples through the passing strangers until it becomes almost mythical…almost like the old game of Chinese whispers where the original message gets ever more distorted as the story is related by more and more people. It’s a perfect snapshot of how people are just simply that, people. However, towards the end of the story the narrator started conversing with the reader, as in the first short, which I don’t like but by that stage my emotions had truly been stirred.
STORY 5: Buying a fishing rod for my grandfather
The title story. I found this to be nonsensical almost. The plot bounced around between memories, imaginings and what was the current day…. And my eyes started to glaze over pretty quickly. This one wasn’t for me.
STORY 6: In An Instant
Oh go away already book!! Yes, great…it’s a beautiful idea. How so much “life” happens in an instant but spare me the ‘oh isn’t it poetic’ malarkey and give me an actual story!
It’s funny right?
Exactly what the author said I shouldn’t expect as a reader from his stories is what I most longed for.
Especially in the short called “In An Instant”. I can appreciate what Gao Xingjian is trying to achieve with his writing. And clearly he has been incredibly successful! I mean hands up who here has been awarded a Nobel prize for literature…….
Yup…… I thought not!
So I guess he knows A LOT more about writing than I could ever hope to as a humble reader. So while I am not unhappy that I read this collection I think it just has shown me that perhaps this is not an author to my taste. We have very different opinions about literature and I guess we will have to respectfully agree to disagree!
And finally, a mention should be given to the translator Mabel Lee.
The work of translators is an absolutely awe inspiring skill. To try to get into the author’s head, their soul. Feel what it is they were feeling, what it is they want the reader to feel and to somehow translate that to a whole other language….
Especially when so many times there just aren’t direct translations for colloquial sayings, how different languages structure sentences differently, what do you give prominence to?
When I was reading these stories the language felt so natural. It felt like I was reading exactly the words the author meant me to be reading. At no time did I wonder was this something that could have been lost in translation so I think a massive amount of credit should go to the success of the translation.