Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather: Gao Xingjian

Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather

If you are in Hamilton, Ontario, I would strongly recommend you go to this bookstore. I have been there a total of two times (in relation to this book I edited that you should totally get because it is funny and fun), and both times I walked away with more than one new books in my bag. It’s a used bookstore, one of those great places that always manage to collect all the books you were thinking of buying but missed out on when they were new on the shelves.

Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather is one of those books for me. It was definitely on my to-buy list when it came out, but I was living in Japan back then and my access to English books was generally limited to whatever they stocked at Tower Records or that one Kinokuniya with the good English book selection. And this Xingjian title never appeared on those shelves, and so it never made it to my shelves. Unlike his two other books that have been translated into English (also by the same translator, Mabel Lee), Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible, which hold coveted positions of deep and undying love on my shelves. I could read Soul Mountain over and over and over and still want to read it again. The lyrical, flowing sentences, the shift between voices, the sudden merging of the voices, it is all too beautiful and just remembering it now is making me want to read it again. 

One Man’s Bible was less magical for me, but still deserving of many caress-filled reads. (Fun fact: When I am really in love with a book, I will occasionally caress its pages in moments of sadness when I realize that the book will have to end at some point.) So it is more than apparent that I had high hopes for Buying a Fishing Rod and only its non-availability stopped me from poring over it like a Chinese lit fangirl. Which is why I squealed with delight when I happened upon it at J.H. Gordon during the book signing event for Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies. I admit, I was paying more attention to the books lining the walls than to the authors and their zombie tarot readings. After all, I have read their book about a million times in the course of editing it. But walls covered with books that I have potentially not read? You know where my loyalties lie.

The thing I love about Xingjian’s work is the emphasis on the moment, on the flow of time and personalities over narrative and anything resembling a “story”. Because, you know, I love a perfect moment and this man is a genius at creating them. His translator even notes in her afterword that he says he “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 in the language itself.” Reading that, I can only wonder what it would be like to read his work in his native Chinese. The thought is almost enough to motivate me to learn Chinese.

Because even through the lens of a translator, his use of language is unadorned and incredible. There’s a complete lack of artifice, a simplicity that is somehow deeply revealing that amazes me. Sentences like “We wanted the conductors on the platform and the countless pairs of eyes on the other side of the train window to look at us with envy.” Sentences that are practically stories in and of themselves. Sentences that remind me of watercolour sketches, barely there and yet fleshing out a whole world.

At the root of so much of his work (in English, of course) is the experience of being sent to the country to do farm labour and other work due to the Down to the Countryside movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A bittersweetness pervades so many of the happy moments in his work, like the honeymooners in the first story in this collection “The Temple”. The narrator’s delight at finally being married to his sweetheart is as much because of the fact that marriage allows them to finally escape their country lives as it is because of his love for her. The insistence on the legitimacy of their love now is sad and sweet, painting a picture of the years that they have overcome, even though the only event portrayed within the story itself is their visit to a country temple.

In fact, the first two stories feel like they are more about what happened before the start of the stories and what will happen after they end than they are about what happens in the time period portrayed in the actual story. “In the Park” sees a man and a woman reunited after separation due to the same Countryside movement. But these former lovers do not end as happily as those in “The Temple”; the woman has married another man because it was the only way she could survive. They walk through the park together, but can’t shake the past they shared.

“Cramp” is the most in the moment of all the stories. A man swims out into the chilly ocean and cramps up. He struggles to overcome the cramp and make it back to shore. The majority of the story is taken up with his sensations and his struggle, without too many hints of a troubled past.

The last and longest story “In an Instant” is the one that worked the least for me. A series of loosely connected instants, I felt that they were just too loosely connected and I had trouble following. The scene changes from paragraph to paragraph and while the language is the same evocative lyricism that brings the other stories to life, there is not enough of any particular instant to tie these moments together. Still, I read the whole thing and enjoyed puzzling through it.

My biggest criticism though, is probably the cover. Why does a Chinese author have to have some Chinese ink painting on the cover? I know Xianjian does ink painting so if it was one of his works, I could probably understand it. But it’s not. And none of these stories are even remotely “traditional” in the sense of queues or bound feet, and yet he gets this very traditional style cover. It just looks like a big old “gong” to me, like advance warning that you are about to read a book by a Chinese man. Beware!

2 thoughts on “Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather: Gao Xingjian

  1. I read this collection when it came out, and really enjoyed it, to the degree of putting the two novels on hold for future enjoyment. I’m completely in agreement about the issue on covers, I know there’s the old adage, ‘never judge a book…’, but some content/cover relationship is sometimes welcome..

    1. I personally am a judger of books by the cover. I know it shouldn’t matter, but there are so many books to read and if the publisher has put some effort into a cover that looks appealing and represents the content of the book in an appropriate way, it tells me that they care about what they’re doing and that the content of the book will not be a giant mess. Covers to me are representative of the amount of effort put into the whole endeavour. So I think it’s unbearably lazy for Flamingo just to slap a Chinese ink drawing on this cover just because the author is Chinese and call it a day.

      But I’m glad you liked this collection enough to go for his novels. They really are worth your time!

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