Knopf, 2001, 320 pages
In a remote Manchurian town in the 1930s, a sixteen-year-old girl is more concerned with intimations of her own womanhood than the escalating hostilities between her countrymen and their Japanese occupiers. While still a schoolgirl in braids, she takes her first lover, a dissident student. The more she understands of adult life, however, the more disdainful she is of its deceptions, and the more she loses herself in her one true passion: the ancient game of go.
Incredibly for a teenager - and a girl that - she dominates the game in her town. No opponent interests her until she is challenged by a stranger, who reveals himself to us as a Japanese soldier in disguise. They begin a game and continue it for days, rarely speaking but deeply moved by each other's strategies. As the clash of their peoples becomes ever more desperate and inescapable, and as each one's untold life begins to veer wildly off course, the girl and the soldier are absorbed by only one thing - the progress of their game, each move of which brings them closer to their shocking fate.
Okay, I'll be honest: a book whose description includes phrases like "intimations of her own womanhood" is... not something I would normally read. It was the promise of a go-related story that captured my interest. I have always loved go, and even spent a little time reading go books to learn strategy when I was younger. Sadly, it's like any other demanding and highly intellectual pursuit: it takes serious time and dedication to become good at it, and I never progressed beyond a rank amateur. But I know just enough about the game to understand the metaphors used when go becomes a literary device.
The Girl Who Played Go is a literary novel, originally written in French. I don't usually like it when books are described as "lyrical" since it doesn't really say much and seems to be an all-purpose word to mean "pretty writing," but I found the English translation to be lyrical and poetic, but mostly lacking in pretension. Shan Sa writes with eloquent brevity and the story moves briskly in short chapters.
The Girl Who Played Go has two main characters. The chapters are only a few pages each, alternating between the first-person present tense voices of a Chinese girl and a Japanese soldier. Since everything is told to us in their own words, you could almost read the entire book without realizing that we never learn either of their names.
(This is why I will refer to them only as "the Chinese girl" and "the Japanese soldier," because while they tell us the names of their friends and other people they interact with, they never tell us their own.)
The Chinese girl lives in a small town in Manchuria. At this time, Japan occupies Manchuria, but they have not begun their wholesale occupation of greater China. As far as the Chinese girl is concerned, things are still relatively peaceful and the Japanese occupation is a political matter that only older people and a few radicals at her school care about. She comes from an old aristocratic family, now impoverished and surrounded by the nouveau riche. She soon winds up in a love triangle with two boys from school, who naturally turn out to be among those radicals. As she juggles her would-be lovers, she watches her sister and her friends become ruined by their own entanglements with men.
Meanwhile, the Japanese soldier is a young officer posted to Manchuria; like the Chinese girl, his family has a noble lineage of which he's very proud, even if now he's just more fodder for the war machine. He's sent to the Chinese girl's town as part of the garrison forces, where the Japanese quickly settle in to marching, drilling, whoring, and occasionally capturing and torturing to death Chinese rebels. The soldier is an arrogant prick, as one might expect, humanized only slightly by the letters he exchanges with his mother and little brother, full of censor-friendly patriotic expressions while secretly he just wants to tell them he's scared and lonely and he misses them. He has no stomach for torture and he is able to sympathize to a limited extent with the Chinese, but basically he's a loyal Imperial soldier. (He believes Chinese civilization has become degraded and inferior and Japan is "saving" the Chinese from themselves.)
When a paranoid superior officer learns he speaks Chinese with near-native fluency (thanks to a Chinese nanny he had as a child), the Japanese soldier is sent on what he at first believes to be a wild goose chase of a mission. In the middle of the town is a plaza called the Square of a Thousand Winds where the town's go players come to play. The paranoid captain thinks this gathering of old men playing go is a hotbed of anti-occupation conspiratorial activity, so he asks the soldier to go there, pretending to be Chinese, and listen in on their plotting. Unable to refuse, the soldier takes up his duties as a go-playing secret agent, and the first opponent he is drawn to is a startlingly young girl, alone among all the older, male players.
He hesitates for a moment and eventually sits down. It's obvious that this stranger has no idea of my reputation. Like many stupid people, he is deceived by my appearance.
I push the black stones towards him noisily.
"Over to you."
He puts his first stone down in the north-west corner. His pretentious behavior earlier is still niggling at me and I decide to play a nasty trick on him. I reply by sticking a white stone alongside it. You never start the battle with such close combat. That is one of the golden rules of the game.
Disconcertedly, he looks up at me and sinks into thought for a long time.
The Girl Who Played Go really is more of a young woman's coming-of-age story than it is a go story. In fact, the go segments are rather sparse and incidental; there are the expected scenes where the go board becomes a metaphor for the main characters' relationship, for the gathering forces about to break into all-out war, for each character's state of mind, but go never really does seem to be that important to the girl. She tells us she can lose herself in the game, and she keeps going to back to play the mysterious stranger while the rest of her world is falling apart around her, but go doesn't actually figure as much more than a MacGuffin; the soldier doesn't seem to regard it as anything more than a game, and an excuse to keep seeing the girl.
As usual, she says nothing-silence is an impenetrable mystery of all women, but hers particularly stifles me. What is she thinking about? Why does she not talk to me? They say women have no memory ... Has she forgotten everything already?
It is true that yesterday evening as we walked down the hill I lacked the courage to take her in my arms. She expected from me the love that a Chinese man would show a Chinese woman. But how could I open my heart without betraying my country? How could I tell her that we are separated by a looking-glass, going round in circles, each in a world hostile to the other's?
Her stones are soaring now. Her moves come faster and faster. Her varied stratagems multiply, filling me with awe.
Suddenly, her rhythm slows.
What saves it from being a regular coming-of-age story, or a real romance, is that it's all taking place as Japan prepares to invade China in earnest, and we all know how that story ends. If the ending feels a tiny bit contrived, it also feels inevitable -- really, there's no other way it could have ended.
Verdict: The Girl Who Played Go is a finely written, nice little piece of art. It is not the most compelling or original story, and it fails to deliver what I thought it was promising, but I'm more literal-minded than literary-minded. Despite not being my usual cup of tea, I enjoyed it and would probably read another book by this author if the story looked somewhat interesting. And if you like doomed lovers and downer endings, this is probably just the thing for you.