Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian, the Nobel Prize winner, narrates the story of a man who is falsely diagnosed with lung cancer and is given only a few months to live. It is part autobiographical, part fictional. He decides that he will use this time to search for Lingshan, the mythical mountain, supposedly situated at the source of the mighty Yangtze river, a last attempt at living a “real” life. He decides to walk all the way up the river, he crosses many villages and lives, and enters and fades out of so many stories, myths, and folklore, often bizarre - and meets himself at every turn of the way.
This book shakes you up, for reasons you are not entirely sure of. It alternates between the second and first person singular, suggesting two sides to the same character, an ego and an alter ego. You are drawn into, nay dragged into the novel, at the very first sentence, and you walk along with the protagonist, across mountain ranges, streams, suffering all that he suffers, living through all his highs and lows, drowning in his desperate seeking, and coming up again, with him.
In some way, you realize he’s a brother, Someone Like You. Somewhere you are at peace, walking along with him. And the lessons we learn together on the journey teach you detachment, at the same time.
Many years later, you find yourself suddenly in a hotel room, in a cold foreign country, the windows opening on to bare treeless open dry land and a few concrete buildings, and the lights of flights taking off at the airport nearby, the only sign of life. The total isolation, the lack of friendliness in people, the absence of sunlight and trees, everything depresses you no end. You miss home, home where the sun shines all year, and the people are friendly.
And then you remember Soul Mountain. And you want to read it again. You feel that if you could only read it again, you will feel less alone in this terrible place. You need to walk up the Yangtze again.
So you order a second-hand copy off Amazon. The next day you receive a mail from a strange woman, S, with an Eastern European name, letting you know she has shipped you the book and hoping you would enjoy it. You tell her that you needed to read the book again since you were going through a tough time. And she replies:
“Oh .. sorry to hear that .. I should have added a little treat in the package or maybe wrapped it in a paper covered with happy faces.”
And in the course of the ensuing correspondence, she tells you her story:
“I came to Canada 22 years ago (where did the time go?) as a refugee from Czechoslovakia and I found the first years quite tough. Now I am one of the reserved Canadians myself, nicely settled in the community and in my lifestyle with my Canadian husband. But in your case I noticed the book was going to a hotel address and when I heard that you were going through a rough stretch of the road, my heart went out to you. It must be hard to be so far away from home. Let's hope the book makes it there soon to help you out a little. And next time you get lonely again ... feel free to email if it helps. Cheers, S”
Thus began a correspondence that continues long after you leave the country. Though you never meet this woman, and probably never will. We discuss Milan Kundera, your favorite writer, her compatriot. She tells you that she lives this strange dual life of non-belonging, between Czechoslovakia and Canada, people noticing her accent in either place, and believing she lives a charmed life, and it makes her feel pretty lonely, like “Ruth amid the alien corn”.
The kindness of strangers. Of all things that touch you, this touches you the most. You have never understood this division between the Stranger and the Friend. You go out of your way to do things for people you do not know, will never know. You are often told you are foolish. But where is the line, where is it, how are we separate, aren’t we all connected? How is anyone a Stranger? Aren’t we all alive, living on a shared planet? Isn’t that enough commonality, enough reason to be kind to another? Why should I know your name, your race, your religion – don’t we hurt the same way, rejoice with equal abandon, yearn with the same ache? "Hath not a Jew eyes?"
How is anyone Another?
Thank you, S. Děkuju, in your language, where I hope you will never completely be Ruth amid the alien corn.