Shan Sa's third novel, her first published in the United States, at points attains the idealistic melodrama and urgent conflict of a good Hong Kong costume actioner. And like the best of those (by, say, Tsui Hark), it uses historical Chinese battles to comment obliquely on the present. At the same time, The Girl Who Played Go is a very tight literary exercise modeled after the Chinese strategic game of go, in which two players move black and white stones on a board of 324 squares. The result is a novel that leaves a curious aftertaste of tragedy and petulance, formality and the sudden crashing intimacy of hope.
Much of that paradox arises from Shan's structure, zigzagging short chapters of narration by an adolescent Chinese girl in 1936 Manchuria and a Japanese soldier shipped there as part of the Japanese push toward then-Peking. (Footnotes go a little way toward sketching in the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, which began in 1931 and ended with the Japanese surrender in 1945.) Both characters are young--the girl going on 16, the man 24--and they show their years through, respectively, self-absorbed arrogance and knee-jerk nationalism. Yet, as Shan's plot brings them together over go, in a gaming place called The Square of a Thousand Winds, the moves of their game deepen their preoccupations.
The girl was born in England, the offspring of a Shakespeare scholar from Peking and his wife/editor/secretary. A bit of a gender rebel, she excels at go and plays it publicly. She likens her girls' school to a silk factory that makes beautiful, soft things from cocoons and kills the worms inside. She meets two political rebels in a quickly squashed local uprising against the Japanese military. Moved more by impatience and lust than political feeling, she becomes the lover of one and the desire of the other. She enjoys her heady power, so different from the desperation of her married, childless sister. She plays the young men as she plays go, with aggression and wile. For a time.
The soldier arrives in backwoods Manchuria swollen with his own death. He is ready to joyfully offer it to help save China, which he feels has grown weak and witless under Western influence. Only the Japanese have inherited "a pure, unhybridized version of Chinese culture"; only the Japanese understand that "to act is to die; to die is to act." But on the snowy ground, heroism is much uglier than expected. He is shaken by the poverty of the peasants, by the deaths of his soldiers (some by "friendly fire"), and--after he comes to A Thousand Winds--by the eagerness of Japanese torturers.
The soldier's experience with women has been limited to mother, sister, and prostitutes, the latter of whom, he says, "have no illusions", which "makes them a soldier's natural soulmates." (His related experiences expose no shortage of illusions for either prostitute or soldier.) A paranoid communications officer assigns him to play go at The Square of a Thousand Winds as an undercover spy. From the start, the girl surprises him with her fierceness. Their game extends over weeks and he charts her moods through her play, her clothes, her face. She changes under the pressure of occupation (that of her body and her town), and he must change to follow her strategies.
Translated from French, Shan's language recalls the telegraphic exaggeration of fable. The nameless girl and soldier remain ciphers even to themselves: They are possibility and duty, motion and stasis, life and death--and then the one becomes the other as the game spirals down. At the end, "[t]he chequered board is a violent sea with white and black waves chasing and crashing into each other." As such tumultuous language might suggest, Shan was originally an award-winning poet as a teenager in Beijing; she emigrated to Paris at age 18, a year after the deaths at Tiananmen Square. Given her latest, metaphorical story, Shan may feel, 15 years later, that something stubbornly obedient about the Chinese national character faltered in Beijing along with the rebellious students. For she writes her fable's tragic ending as a violent but wondrous birth.