He says he is not a fighter–or rather, the narrator says it; he’s “an onlooker,” someone who steps aside, “frail,” “not the savior of the world,” not a “prophet,” speaking only to himself, living “his own insignificant life,” “the epitome of ordinariness,” and not even a dissident after all this. If the world is the will to power and we ourselves are this will, as Nietzsche puts it, what are we to make of the will not to have power? To somehow not extend whatever it is–idea, point of view, ethos. Is it to be believed? Is it denial, and if so, of what?

It is a position of leadership that the young narrator of Gao Xingjian’s novel, One Man’s Bible, briefly seizes during the early, most terrible and confusing period of the Cultural Revolution in Beijing. He takes the floor at a meeting of a rebel faction to speak decisively against certain Red Guards and end a stalemate. An ambiguous impulse, we learn, but overnight he is a leader drawn further in. He is looked up to as a writer employed in a Communist Party editorial office, but he is more at risk than he knows. This would seem to be 1967, when Mao Zedong’s radical purification purges had unofficially unleashed wholesale violence against “intellectuals,” party members, any or all of those targeted in antisocialist categories that were accepted unquestioningly by that time.

In the streets, thousands were beaten to death, driven to suicide, in homicidal rage of the young against their elders. But not against Mao, revered by millions of “youngsters, waving the…little red book,” who would assemble hours ahead of time in Tiananmen Square to see him pass by in his jeep, “hot tears streaming down their faces…shouting ‘long live’…. [t]hen… [going] home to smash…everything that was old–…schools…temples…” At explosive meetings behind closed doors we hear the narrator excoriate those who used blacklists to drive the discredited to their deaths. Yet his power has raised his profile. He is about to come under investigation. He has long known that party policy contaminates the truth. Every night posters go up attacking someone new.

The narrator was “crazy” in those days, he says. Around him are people who have lost their own voice. Never a convinced activist, he gives up this game in order to protect himself. Become anonymous–like the people who appear and disappear whose stories fill this novel about survival. Survival of what? An office co-worker gets a phone call that her husband has gassed himself. Without a word she tidies her desk and goes home to write up a poster separating herself by making clear that her husband has “cut himself off from both the people and the Party.” Elsewhere, the narrator’s colleague Liu sees himself instantly isolated by a poster condemning him as a renegade profiteer who has protected his reactionary father. It can happen to anyone. The narrator, who often seems damaged, wakes at dawn the next day and looks out the window at the roof tiles: He himself is “probably…a concealed enemy” and to survive will “have to wear a mask.”

It seems so even today to the traveler in mainland China. Custom? Self-censoring that continues? How well I recall those healthy workers looking out at me from posters of a traveling exhibition at a Warsaw gallery in the cold war Poland of 1966. Art direct from Red China at the threshold of another great plunge forward, the Cultural Revolution decade. Posters of pink-cheeked peasants, single-minded soldiers, as I recall, young women and men. Pictures that spoke as plainly as the words that were safe to speak in China–to explain this work of reconstruction, re-education, willed change, commune unity, to say nothing of manifold repression and want that those poster paintings translated into strength and interchangeable banality. Wordless, yet not unlike the indicting posters pasted up day and night in One Man’s Bible, shouting vengeance upon Ox Demon, Snake Spirit, “black gang” elements (the educated, in effect) or “offspring of dogs” (if the family background was wrong). Or slogans that had to come out correctly down even to the right intonation when you shouted them at meetings, if you were not to excite suspicion–assuming that certain words had not shifted overnight from correct to incorrect. Until, for Gao Xingjian the writer, language itself is suspect, though this is not only because “disaster springs from the mouth,” as it is said in China, but I would guess because in his highly original ink paintings (a selection of which is available in Return to Painting, HarperPerennial 2002, with an essay by the artist), so much is possible in the visual image alone.

“You don’t understand the dangers of the written word,” the nameless narrator of One Man’s Bible is told by a prominent writer to whom he brings the manuscript of a novel. An elderly man who, looking out the window half-paralyzed with fear, tells him to “keep it for later.” The narrator has seen an old woman with the placard Reactionary Landowner’s Wife tied with wire around her neck beaten to death in the street by teenage Red Guards. Coming home from a workplace “criticism meeting,” the narrator opens his small coal stove and burns his manuscripts, diaries, books, waiting for the scorched paper to “become white ash, before shoveling it into [a] bucket,” where he grinds it “to a paste.” Too late, he thinks to retrieve a snapshot of his parents, between them “a skinny child…eyes…round with bewilderment as if he thought a bird would fly out of the box camera.” Yet just as well, for “the way his parents were dressed they would have counted as capitalists or managerial employees of a foreign firm.”

And so you define yourself by what you are not. Is that it? Someone not brave, who doesn’t stick around but flees (unlike the great 1920s short-story writer Lu Xun, who sacrificed his career to politics). It’s a refrain in Gao’s other, more seamless novel, Soul Mountain, first published in 1990 in Taiwan but not in English until 2000, when he won the Nobel Prize. It is more noticeable here in the equally ambitious but now retrospectively or foreshadowingly interleaved materials of One Man’s Bible. Not a group person, this “loner,” yet “not a misanthrope”; “not polemical”–“very ordinary”; with “a smile like Buddha’s, although you are not Buddha”; and “not a Superman. Since Nietzsche there has been a glut of supermen.” Independence thus defined by what he is not, the narrator is divided by Gao into a present “you” investigating a past “he,” this reluctant protagonist who cannot quite stay clear of the file the authorities had on his father. His own in the end.

The one who survives a doomed family. And at what cost? Who now pieces together this alternative “file,” this narrative, years later, when everything, or almost everything, is different. Apparently provoked by a woman who tells him to write it all down, but he’s not interested. “A wad of scrap paper,” he demurs. “But Solzhenitsyn—-” she says. He cuts her short, the woman in bed beside him. That’s not me, he insists, and he’s no historian. Do we need this old framing device to get the main story going, a hotel room in mid-1990s Hong Kong (just before Britain handed it back), a woman who remembers once, years earlier, visiting him with a friend in Beijing–and a naked girl in his apartment? It is in motion, like the memory of a March wind that takes him back to another time, when he became an enemy of the state, a breathtaking night escape, a time of extreme danger, “to tell about an individual who was contaminated by politics.” And indeed, the “you” of Gao’s sometimes rambling commentary that wants to cover so much thinks also to narrow the focus to some essence of this “he,” “without having to discuss the sordid politics itself.”

It was a time when “the imaginary world of books had become taboo” and he “couldn’t find a woman.” Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress–the tightly written, charming bestseller by another Chinese expatriate in France, the filmmaker Dai Sijie, about two educated city boys sent to the countryside for re-education–could not be more different from Gao’s copious manner in One Man’s Bible. If alternating chapters of past and present give way for long stretches largely to the past, as we expected, it is not before the frame encounter has almost established itself as another novel-in-progress. Talk between these two strangers, not intriguing so much as convincing, might have worked better if Gao had not made the woman a rape victim, a German Jewish survivor. In the most natural way, however, the present changes too, and though she fades from the narrative along with her questions about other women, she has crystallized this theme, almost as if it is to women that the narrator’s alternation of past and present is due.

Two in particular, who leave him but through whom we understand who he is and where his real power lies. One, the married woman Lin, whom he loves, who

warns him of a long-ago fact in his file, a gun his father had reportedly hidden. The other, Qian, whom he had known scarcely a day and a night months before, whom he writes to join him in a remote farm village where he has contrived a second, deeper retreat to escape investigation, and where, deciding his writing doesn’t matter, he will settle down. In Qian, who arrives after traveling thousands of kilometers (of this poignant land Gao describes so deeply), the narrator has chosen an educated young woman rather than one of the village girls. They register their marriage at once. They have a home. At the end of a day walking with her in the mountains, he is writing at his desk when a violent scene of recrimination erupts. It is out of Hardy. We may find Qian troubled, neurotic, in this setting of practical compromises, but the young man has gotten her and himself into it. Is he using her? He tries to quiet her down. He goes to a neighbor’s to get a chicken. He comes back, and she has trashed their hut. Wildly angry, she has seen what he was writing–pages of sweeping skepticism against religion and utopia–and this time, though in the fragile privacy of his hut, he is indicted head-on as a reactionary. Enraged himself, he accepts it, even that he might, as she says she fears, kill her now. The next day she is gone. Will she betray him? Was it an impossible commitment to begin with?

Women, some almost more inaccessible than memory: his mother, whose last diary is almost all he has of her, whose death at 38 at a reform-through-labor camp is elusive, indelible. Women generally at a disadvantage. In the earlier novel Soul Mountain we hear of a girl out in the countryside, quite inexperienced, who binged on sex at a party, and like others was executed for it. There is a lot of sex in One Man’s Bible as well. The narrator acknowledges it, the description explicit, not fresh but practical, not especially happy, uncommitted except often to some equality of talk. Sex perhaps on everybody’s mind, connected to everything in the narrator’s transient existence. Unmarried, illegal sex. Not that its repression had been customarily so uncommon in China, but it was now formalized by the party, endemic in neighbors’ spying.

We may wonder if in the thousands of extorted confessions of skeletons in the closet of the 1940s Mao, the icon-to-be whom the narrator condemns as a false father, was undermining the old Confucian family. Now in the bizarre egalitarianism of the 1960s it is one’s “bloodline” that is scoured for rightist mistakes. The narrator must trace the incriminating pistol. His father is “overjoyed” to see him after two years; goes to the market to buy fish; is cheerful, talkative, a different person than after his wife died; cooks his son a meal, questions him about politics; and, at the climax of this scene compacting history to the humblest home and relations, the father is shattered to find out why his son has come, whose life is now threatened by “this problem.” A gun “sold…to a friend,” entered on a census form by his “too honest” mother, who didn’t know why her husband was keeping the thing, “but I had it for protection…in those times.” The son wants only to know what happened to it. From old “Uncle” Fang, hundreds of miles to the south, who had given him his gold pen when he was 8 and, like the family, thought he would be a writer, he learns that the gun was thrown into the river years ago. It will not go away.

Neither will water. Like mask, body, violence, the vulnerable land, subtle, natural touches that make an internal coherence far more authenticating than the external evidence often cited from Gao’s “life” (but aren’t all true novels in this inner sense autobiographical?), water is everywhere in One Man’s Bible: It is an icy, mind-clarifying current on the narrator’s bare feet (reminiscent of Chinese poetry and of The Sun Also Rises); it is the harbor a fugitive swam across from the mainland, submerging and breathing through straws to avoid “the searchlights of the patrol boats…[ready to] open fire”; it is the “bone-chilling river” where the narrator almost loses “the hemp bag containing the saplings he was to plant”; and another river where the narrator photographs Lin standing barefoot “with her skirt scooped up in her arms,” an image strikingly like the girl toward the end of Joyce’s Portrait, another artist exile who understood silence.

A river, too, where the mother’s bloated body was found. Remembered, however (the narrator insists), as the beautiful woman of 38, to say nothing of the woman he saw naked coming out of the bathtub with soap all over her, who taught him to write with an ink brush, and who encouraged his diary-writing so that from “that time he could not stop himself writing about his dreams and self-love, sowing the seeds of future disaster.”

Today the narrator writes in Chinese only because he doesn’t have to look up words; language, though, lacks “refinement,” and one day he will abandon it for “other media.” He recalls student plays that kept his imagination alive until the theater was shut down, as were Gao’s experimental, sometimes “absurdist” plays, banned in China since The Other Shore (1986), which typically welcomes all the actor’s performing skills, not only speech, to its theme of lost self.

In Soul Mountain an old man recalls ink-wash paintings destroyed by the authorities. Art and politics. The subject is not closed, no matter what Gao insists in One Man’s (but much more than one man’s) Bible. But it is a personal history we ponder, contemplating the cover, a painting by the author, a haunting, fluid, evidently female shape.

One forgives Gao his misunderstanding of that great questioner and liberator Nietzsche, whose “superman” can relive his life, to say nothing of the genealogies that, traced by Gao back through his reimagined China, illuminate a will to power all his own.