Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather is a slim book of short stories by the Nobel Prize winning Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian. Not much of his work has been translated into English. He is known more for his plays, which tend to be absurdist – is it a wonder then that he is also a noted translator of Beckett? He was born in 1940 in Taizhou, Jiangsu but emigrated to France in 1987 and was granted French citizenship in 1997. During the Cultural Revolution in China, he was sent to the country to do farm labor and at one point, burned a suitcase packed with manuscripts in order to avoid persecution.
The stories in Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather were written between 1983 and 1990. They all have a spare, yet poetic style in which what is not said often looms larger and is more important than what is said. The past and present also mingle, making it difficult at times to determine when and where an event is taking place.
In the titular story, a man buys a fancy fiberglass fishing rod for his grandfather who has only ever had homemade ones made from bamboo. It is a beautiful rod, and the narrator is prompted to remember fishing with his grandfather when he was a boy. But it turns out that the grandfather is long dead, the village the narrator grew up in has changed so dramatically that he can’t even find the street he lived on as a boy. The lake has been filled in and the creek is dry due to a dam being built far upstream. The entire story takes place in the memories of the narrator as he sits in his city home watching a football (soccer) game on TV. He did buy the fancy fishing rod, and it is in the bathroom laying across the back of the toilet. His wife is annoyed at him for buying an expensive and worthless item. There is nowhere in the city to go fishing. But this modern piece of equipment is an attempt to recall a simpler past as well as a peace offering to the dead grandfather for a bamboo rod that the narrator broke when he was a boy. There is also a sense of being unmoored, of there being a loss of meaning and purpose, of barreling into the future and paving over what was for the sake of modernity. It is a sad and touching story.
In “In the Park” we meet a couple who have not seen each other in many years. When they were young they fell in love but they went different ways. Every time they get close to talking about their past one of them declares “I don’t want to talk about it.” They seem emotionless and numb on the surface, there is obviously a lot between them, but they won’t allow themselves to express it. Meanwhile, while they talk, there is a woman on a bench in the park just down the path who appears to be waiting for someone. Her emotions as she waits are clearly on display and from start to finish of the story, it is she who plays out the emotions that our couple are unable to reveal.
The story “The Temple” is about a couple’s honeymoon trip to the country. Told from a future viewpoint we discover, the couple’s insistence on how happy they are begins to look a bit false and little things become ominous omens of a future the couple does not yet know about.
“The Cramp” is about a man who almost drowns while swimming in the ocean. This one was kind of hard for me to read because I grew up spending many an afternoon swimming in the ocean. Myth or not, there was the ironclad rule that we were not allowed to swim for at least an hour after we had eaten, better to make it two hours if you’d had a big meal. If you went swimming with a full stomach you’d get cramps and put yourself in danger of drowning. So when I read that our narrator had a big meal and then went swimming in the ocean and got cramps, part of me said, “oh no! it’s true” and the other part said, “serves him right for not waiting two hours before swimming.”
“The Accident” is a rather disturbing story about a cyclist being hit and killed by a bus. And “In an Instant” is a somewhat surreal story possibly being dreamed by a man laying in the sun on a beach chair, I am not entirely sure and should probably read it again so I can figure it out.
The stories are good, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. The stories are not long and so much happens in them, they are extra concentrated, and I found that I had to pay close attention or I’d miss something important and be instantly lost. The book is so slim one could zip through it in an afternoon but I wouldn’t recommend it. I read one story a day which gave each one time to sit and sort of seep in. I’d like to read more short stories by Gao but I don’t think there are any others that have been translated. Perhaps I will give his novel Soul Mountain a try sometime.