Reading the six short stories in Gao Xing Jian's BUYING A FISHING ROD FOR MY GRANDFATHER is like wandering into a small gallery containing six Impressionist paintings. Each story paints a quiet verbal picture of loss and gain, of change, of solitary existence and the consolations of love and family. Gao's works seem nearly plotless, vignettes which create scenes and atmosphere more than story lines. Then again, life consists of such brief moments and experiences; stories are the fictions we create to connect and give personal meaning to these separate moments.
Gao's technique varies from story to story. His opening work, "The Temple," describes the spontaneous actions of a honeymooning couple as they disembark from a train to explore a decaying hillside temple. The story, written in standard prose form, speaks achingly of history and loss, of life moving forward in spite of past tragedies. The second story, "In the Park," switches almost completely to dialog between two nameless acquaintances who meet by coincidence in a park and reclaim their childhood memories as another young woman sits crying on a nearby park bench.
The third story, "The Cramp," gives a harrowing account of a casual swimmer who nearly dies alone within sight of the shore, only to discover when he makes it ashore that no one has noticed. The next story, "The Accident," tells nearly the same story in a moment by moment account of a fatal traffic accident on a Beijing street. The police arrive and take care of the situation, street cleaners come to remove the broken bicycle and wipe the blood from the streets, and life continues on anonymously, as if the death never occurred.
The title story follows, offering a powerful account of a neighborhood no longer recognizable to its main character who had lived there as a boy. The story conveys a sense of loss and disorienting change, of a simple way of life no longer to be found.
The stories in this collection were written between 1983 and 1990, about the same time Gao was completing his novel SOUL MOUNTAIN. The writing is simple and direct, yet it creates memorable images and a strong sense of atmosphere. Despite being written by China's first Nobelist in Literature, these are not stories about China or Chinese culture. Several of these stories offer no sense of place or culture - they could be taking place anywhere in the world. Perhaps this is a reflection of Gao's status as an expatriate in Paris.
For those who enjoy modern Chinese and Chinese-American literature by the likes of Mo Yan, Su Tong, Ha Jin, and Liu Heng, Gao Xing Jian's BUYING A FISHING ROD FOR MY GRANDFATHER stands out for its daring style and its sublimation of Chinese culture to more universal settings and themes. In that respect, Gao is stylistically closer to Japanese writers like Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami than any Chinese writer I have yet encountered. Anyone who reads this book will likely be motivated to pick up a copy of SOUL MOUNTAIN or ONE MAN'S BIBLE.