One Man’s Bible
In my previous post, I wrote a brief analysis of the traumatic mechanism in Alain Resnais’ and Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima Mon Amour . This post will continue to explore another traumatic experience displayed in Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible (1999) . The comparison between the two will further clarify the operation of trauma and the efficacy of self-narrative.
In this autobiographical novel, the protagonist ‘you’ is an established Chinese playwright and novelist in political exile in France. He travels to Hong Kong to attend the premiere of his play and encounters a German woman, Margaret, who saw him once when he was still a political prisoner in China. The narrative unfolds with the present ‘you’ and the past ‘he’, and the change of perspectives happens between each chapter. As recognised by many critics, the particular narrative style seems to suggest the impossibility of being an individual ‘I’ under political conformity even after the protagonist’s fleeting from the totalitarian regime.
The short affair with Margaret brings back the artist’s memory of the horror and cruelty of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During their sexual intimacy, Margaret persists on asking the artists details about the Cultural Revolution; thus, the protagonist is forced to recount how his life was distorted to a state of deprived privacy, ideological control, class struggle, and distrust even between husband and wife under the surveillance of the omnipresent Chinese Communist Party.
The protagonist becomes increasingly intrigued by Margaret’s obsession with pain, bodily and psychological, which, as she later discloses, is related to her traumatised past. Her unusual parentage, a German father and a Jewish mother, burdens her with the collective memory of the Holocaust and its aftermath; moreover, the rape in her early adolescence leads to her rejection of her feminine body. After the confession, Margaret asks the protagonist to thrash her with a belt. Interestingly, by inflicting physical pain on each other in the closest moment, the sadomasochistic act seems to become an emotional catharsis. We see death, desire, and rebirth merge into one.
Moreover, throughout the novel, the protagonist’s constant affairs always end in failure, indicating that a genuine relationship between two human beings is doomed to be inconceivable. Therefore, the past ‘he’ can only migrate from one woman to another. The protagonist’s self-account of the Cultural Revolution does not end when Margaret left him. Instead, he continues to reflect upon his sufferings and to savour his remorse until he can finally distance himself from his hatred and resentment of the political oppression enforced on him. In chapter 53, for example, ‘he’ embarks an imaginary dialogue with Mao, whose body is securely located in the crystal coffin in Tiananmen Square. When facing this dictator who was once in control of millions of lives, ‘he’ finally dares to speak out that only he can be his own ruler. This imaginary renunciation is to be considered as the liberation from ideological control, and thus comes the name of the book, One Man’s Bible. It is not the Bible that missionaries hold in their hand when they convert heathens in Africa and Asia; it is his personal bible, where he is God and apostle, appealing to no one but himself. It is noteworthy that the narrative style of One Man’s Bible seems to echo this declaration of absolute individualism. The lapse between each chapter, the obscure plots, and the excessive use of pronouns, all seem to reject any imposed order.
In Hiroshima Mon Amour and One Man’s Bible, both texts suggest that while subjects can, paradoxically, become forgetful of trauma because the experiences are too emotionally overwhelming to grasp in subjects’ consciousness, the body has deeply inscribed the memories in its own way and these can be triggered when it is least expected. For example, the French actress’s unconsciousness associates her trauma with the photos in Hiroshima. In One Man’s Bible, Margaret’s appearance reminds the Chinese writer of his life as a political prisoner. However, the present sexual scene between the Chinese writer and Margaret is replaced by another intimate scene between the Chinese writer and his past lover, demonstrating Margaret has switched on the working of his unconsciousness and thereby connected the present with the past. After the prelude, the subject is forced to re-visit his/her trauma by the persistent interrogator; the Japanese architect in Hiroshima and Margaret in One Man’s Bible. It is important to note that the interrogators are from different cultural backgrounds, but the texts must be distinguished from common interracial romance stories. The interrogators are not innocent intruders of the subjects’ deepest secrets, but also bearers of traumatic memories. The heterogeneous cultural background of the interrogators, therefore, implies the universality of traumatic memories, and perhaps, of human atrocity. It is through the constant inquiries that the subject is compelled to convert his/her experience into words, which is the first step to ‘make sense of’ the trauma. However, in terms of the therapeutic function of such self-narrative, One Man’s Bible appears to be more optimistic than Hiroshima. While there is only a glimpse of the French actress’ recovery, the Chinese writer has exorcised the horror of political oppression, and his self-narrative has become his own bible.