The Girl Who Played Go

“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 someday. Only our nation will live on.” (–the soldier in a letter to his brother)

I know that I’ve seen The Girl Who Played Go at the library before, as well as the other novel by Shan Sa; they are small books (size, not length), almost square in shape. My policy is usually that if I find a book a second time it means I should give it a try.

The Girl Who Played Go is set in 1936 in a small town in Manchuria, China, which was occupied by the Japanese at that time. It is told in alternating chapters by two unnamed narrators, a sixteen-year-old Chinese school girl and a Japanese soldier. This is never made explicit, but the first switch is blatantly obvious, and after that you just expect it every for each new chapter. I didn’t feel like I got to know the soldier very well. He is a bit of a cynic and doesn’t seem to believe in much except fighting for honor. He gets caught up in the glory of war but still has a small streak of fear in him.

The girl comes through the pages much more easily. Her town is affected little by the occupation. She goes to school with her friends, and plays Go most days at the tables set up in the Square. It is unusual for a girl to play, but she learned at a young age from her cousin, and he encouraged her because she showed exceptional talent. One day she meets two young university students who are both interested in her, named Min and Jing. The two are best friends but opposites, and she is not sure who she is more attracted to. The girl doesn’t have a lot of models of love in her life, because marrying for love was not the norm at the time. Her parents don’t openly show affection to each other, her sister’s husband is unfaithful, and her best friend has an arranged marriage waiting for her at the end of the school term. Though timid at first, she recklessly rushes forward with a relationship that she’s not quite equipped to handle.

Eventually some of the Manchurians, especially the student crowd, start staging revolts. The soldier knows Mandarin and Go from his childhood nurse, and is ordered to spend time in the Square posing as a Chinese traveler in the hopes of overhearing information. He ends up with the girl as a partner, and their lives become intertwined over the next few weeks as they play their game. He has mixed feelings about posing as the enemy, while she has much else to occupy her mind. Both Min and Jing are involved in the revolution, and she is worried for their safety. The uneasy peace cannot last, and when the parties actually clash all hell breaks loose.

I was expecting all the angst of Summer of My German Soldier, which my mom loves and I hate, but it’s surprisingly much different. The best way I can describe this is that it would make a very good opera. The love/war themes of the plot, and the inevitable ending, have all the dramatics that you would find on stage, though belied by the matter-of-fact prose. Every surrounding character in the female narrator’s life is primed for tragedy—her sister, her best friend, her cousin Lu. She herself starts out as a day-to-day normal girl, but soon falls into the trap of tragedy as well (which the jacket does hint at). I could see this having a similar impact on stage as Miss Saigon. Maybe this is just because I’ve been on an opera kick lately, though; I’ve been listening to a CD of the classics and keep having to stop and look up all the plots. This one definitely fits in with all the rest.

I didn’t know anything about the game Go before reading this, and still don’t, but it pretty much comes across as chess on steroids. I also realized that I know hardly anything about Chinese and Japanese history (well, really all of Asia), other than when it overlaps with our own. For example, I’ve heard of the movie The Manchurian Candidate but never knew it referred to a place. Why does Western Europe get all the focus post-Middle Ages? I guess there is so much information that the curriculum has to pick and choose.

This is my first book in translation this year (and also in a long time). The author is from China, but actually moved to France when she was 18, and this book was first published in French.

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Published in: on July 21, 2012 at 9:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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