The Girl who played Go, the first of Shan Sa’s books to be translated from French into English – is set against the brutal backdrop of war-torn Manchuria in the 1930s, a prelude to World War II. In the Square of a Thousand Winds, snow falls as 16-year -old Chinese girl beats all-corners at the game of go, the ancient Chinese board game that requires artful strategy and skill to attempt to surround the opponent’s stones. One of the opponents is, unknown to her, a young Japanese officer of the occupying power, rigidly militaristic, imbued with the imperial ethic, but far from home and intrigued by this young opponent.
Every day the town folks mostly, amidst the impending Japanese invasion, bring along their tea pots and wait for anyone for a game of Go (a sign of placing the tea pot in different position indicates whether you are waiting for a specific person to play with or anyone will do!). The girl (whose name are not revealed until the end of the book) played a game of Go, they do not know each other’s names, they do not speak during the game. At the end, the girl will record the state of the game, and continue the next day.
Their encounters are like the game itself, restrained, subtle and surprisingly fierce.
Each move sees my sinking soul take another step downwards. I have always loved the game of go for its labyrinths. Each stone’s position evolves as you move the others around it. The relationships between them become more and more complex; they alter and never quite tally with what you conceived. Go makes a nonsense of your calculations, and defies your imagination, each new formation is as unpredictable as the alchemy of clouds and it is a betrayal of what might have been. There is no rest, you’re always on the alert, always faster, heading for some part of you that is slyer and freerer, but also colder, more calculating and more deadly. Go is a game of lies; you surround the enemy with monstrous traps for the sake of the only truth – which is death. – ch.85
The book contains alternate chapters narrated by both the Chinese girl and the young Japanese soldier. The interplay of two youngsters and two empires drives the narrative, allowing the author to counterpoise the Japanese story with its Chinese counterpart. This Japanese boy comes to her as an enemy soldier maintaining his father’s samurai ethic and his country’s pride; she comes to him as a member of an aristocratic Manchu yellow-banner family that has served the Qing emperors in Peking. His side is on the rise, hers in decline. But as their two stories unfold, the Japanese army moves inexorably through their huge land, in the vanguard of a greater war, leaving blood and destruction in its wake.
My brother, after my first battle the only thing I now worship is the sun, a star that represents death’s constancy. Beware of the moon which reflects our world of beauty. It waxes and wanes, it is treacherous and ephemeral. We will all die some day. Only our nation will live on. Thousands of generation of patriots will together create Japan’s eternal greatness.- The Boy
At my age, one friendship wipes out another, flaring up like a fire then dying down; they’re never constant but each glows fiercely. – The Girl
Although translated from French, Shan’s voice is unmistakably Chinese — feminine but hard, finely tuned and precise. Not a word is wasted, no excess of emotion shown. Shan Sa writes very lyrical and poetically. Her dialogue has a staccato rhythm with sharp prose. The structure of her tale is very clever. Shan has created two wide-eyed, adventurous youths who came from different cultures, fast forward to adulthood in their own ways (one became a soldier, another morphed from a girl to a woman) before their time, cheated of a full youth and the critical years when they might have discovered their humanity, eventually shattered in a hellish war that carries them and millions like them to early deaths.
The only thing that brings them together was the game of Go. The love was not prevalent until towards the end of the book, as the Chinese girl caught up with her own betrayed love. The tale is also symbolic in reconciliation between two cultures in animosity since WWII. I learnt so much from Shan about little culture and history of Japanese, even-handed in her treatment of both main characters, she allows a reader to see the richness of both Japanese and Chinese culture, making us imagine how they might each enrich the other once again.
My only criticism is that it ended in haste and abrupt. The development of the feeling for each other wasn’t that memorable or deep enough to warrant such self sacrifice act at the end, I finish the book feeling somewhat cheated. Even if you don’t understand the game of Go, it doesn’t stop you from enjoying the book. Overall it’s a beautiful and well craved story. Read it and understand the intricacies of both Chinese and Japanese culture.
Paperback. Publisher: Vintage [first published in french as La Joueuse de go 2001, this edition 2006]; Length: 280; Setting: 1930’s Manchuria. Source: Library Loan Finished reading at: 16 Jan 2010
About the Writer:
Shan Sa was born in Beijing, China, to a scholarly family. Her real name is Yan Ni Ni; she adopted the pseudonym Shan Sa, taken from a poem by the Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi. At age 8, she published her first poetry collection, and went on to obtain the first prize in the national poetry contest for children under 12 years, an event that created a public upheaval. After graduating from secondary school in Beijing, she moved to Paris in August 1990 after obtaining a grant by the French government. Settling there with her father, a professor at the Sorbonne University, she quickly adopted the French language.
In 1994, she finished her studies of philosophy. From 1994 to 1996 she worked as a secretary of painter Balthus. Thereafter she published her first two novels and a collection of poetry, meeting with great critical acclaim including the 1998 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman (Prix Goncourt for first novel) for Porte de la paix céleste. In 2001 she reached the top of her success with the publication of her most famous book so far, The Girl Who Played Go (La Joueuse de Go in French). The book received good feedback from readers and was awarded a number of prizes, including the 2001 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (Prix Goncourt of the High-school students), the fiction winner of the 2004 Kiriyama Prize. The Girl Who Played Go (translated by Adriana Hunter) is also available in 19 other languages, and is being adapted for film.
The rules of the game, see here: The Game of Go