The book itself is a fictionalisation of a journey by the author around rural China in 1982, not (as you can imagine) because he needed a break from the rat race, but rather because he had heard rumours that he was shortly to be denounced and brought in by the government (so you could say the trip to the country was for his health). Two main narrators, 'I' and 'You', move around the countryside, the mountains and the forests of southern China in search of Lingshan, the Soul Mountain of the title. On the way, they encounter many interesting, bizarre, sensuous and worrying people and try to document some of the disappearing customs of life outside the major cities of the east.
Gao (or his literary representatives) is searching for something, and it is really up to the reader to decide what the mythical Lingshan represents. The main character 'I' often reminisces about his childhood and seems to be searching for some remnants of a time which, if not idyllic, is certainly better than the present. This search for times past may just be a desire to escape the oppressive period he is living in, a very difficult one for a writer whose opinions do not exactly mirror those of the state. Unfortunately, he eventually realises that escape is impossible; however many mountains he climbs, the next one always looks bigger and better. In the end, it's time to return to Beijing, to go back to society, friends and warmth.
The book also portrays a search for a style of life which may be becoming obsolete. Throughout their travels, the protagonists (especially 'I') visit rural towns and villages, interview monks and shamans, attend religious and cultural festivals, request performances of old folk songs from venerable elders, and look for ancient folk songs to copy down for posterity. There is an obvious desire on the part of the author to preserve these old traditional ways in the face of both the cultural rewriting of history and the unstoppable march of modernisation and urbanisation.
Although the village scenes may appear to be unchanged from hundreds of years ago, there are many signs of the decline of rural life. Most of the bearers of the old stories and songs are old, and the new generation is not always interested in keeping the traditions alive; the government officials most definitely not.
Another threat (which has since become a reality) is the plan to create the Three Gorges Dam, a project which will necessitate the removal of millions of people and the destruction of many villages and cultural artefacts. The project is mentioned several times, usually in connection with a place of beauty or site of historical interest which will be lost under the new water level. The dam project seems to be the epitome of the aims of the Cultural revolution; the ability to wipe out all resistance in order to create a new reality, whatever the cost.
Enough description, let's turn to the criticism (and there is a lot of it). Before (and while) reading 'Soul Mountain', I did a lot of research (OK, I used Wikipedia and Google...) on what people thought about it, and, while many people loved it, there was a significant number of disgruntled readers. One of the most common criticisms concerned the use of the multiple narrators and the part they played. In addition to the aforementioned 'I' and 'You', Gao also created a 'She' (to accompany 'You') and a 'He' (when 'You' became too close to 'I' - bear with me here). At times, this does cross over into poetical lunacy, but I found the idea and use of 'I' and 'You' aesthetically pleasing and relevant to the book. 'I''s (my?) journey was more grounded in fact while 'You''s (your???) story was more mystical and slightly less connected to reality. This use of the double character enabled Gao to explore the mystical and the practical at the same time - and gave the story a lot of variety, too.
Another criticism, which I have a lot more time for, is that the book is lewd and, at times demeaning to women. Although there were obviously political issues which the writer had to face, it is very easy to interpret the story as one big mid-life crisis. The main characters seem to fall in and out of bed with women on a regular basis, and these women are portrayed as sensuous and cunning, with a hidden agenda of ensnaring a man in their web of romance. The need for women to possess a man (a desire which Gao does not appear too fond of ) is pitted against man's desire to do the deed and get out of there pronto (I paraphrase slightly). I am not the world's biggest feminist, so if I cringe slightly at certain sections, many people may find the author's treatment of relationships somewhat disturbing.
The big question though, the 555-page question in fact, is this: is 'Soul Mountain' even a novel? Several critics have answered in the negative, and, if you are expecting a linear progression with a clear ending, you will be very disappointed. Several parts of the book could be chopped up and reassembled in a random order without making much of a difference to the reading experience (which actually sounds like a fun, and rather Zen, thing to do). Cleverly, Gao anticipates this; one of the later chapters consists of a dialogue between the writer and a literary critic who throws this accusation at the author (but never quite makes it stick).
My answer would be: is it important? If the reader enjoys a book on any level, then the definition of the genre can be left to academics with time and research money on their hands. Despite the admitted flaws in the work, I found 'Soul Mountain' to be an interesting journey through a place which could soon be consigned to the pages of history and a time where writers had to be very careful about what they wrote. One thing I would add to that though is that knowing a little about the writer and the history of his country makes for a much better reading experience. The information I gathered through reading Gao's other novel, 'One Man's Bible' (no review because I read it last year: sorry!) and surfing the internet meant that my second reading of this book was a more rewarding experience than the first.