27 December 2007

Shan Sa, The Girl Who Played Go, 2001

Set in 1930s Manchuria in a town that lies in the path of the advancing Japanese army, a young girl who is unusually adept at the game of Go finds herself falling into the circle of some young Chinese revolutionaries determined to repel their country’s Japanese invaders. Told as both her own first-person story and that of one of the invading Japanese soldiers, the two opposing viewpoints eventually meet over a long and protracted game of Go after he is asked to disguise himself as Chinese and look for signs of insurrection in the town. Both characters are less wise than they think they are, she in her naïvety about love and he in his belief in the correctness of the Japanese invasion when comparing his rigid culture to that of the more easy-going Chinese. Go is a boardgame about defending and claiming territory from your opponent, so while their game mirrors the invasion that is defining both their lives this rather obvious metaphor fortunately never becomes too overbearing.

Chinese author Shan Sa has already won several French and Japanese literary awards for her two previous novels, and she is certainly able to build a convincing backdrop for her story’s theme and subtext. It has other important subtleties, and is also insightful into both Chinese and Japanese opinions of each other in that particular era. This novel ultimately takes on the dimensions of a love story between the two protagonists – albeit a rather curious and tragic one – and while it draws you along very nicely, nevertheless the odd and ultimately illogical (though probably inevitable) ending will very likely have some more literary types raising an eyebrow or two.   PY

  The Girl Who Played Go won the 2001 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens and the 2004 Kiriyama Prize for fiction.

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