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Author Shan Sa at a book reading in Seattle. (AR Photo/Andrew J. Weber)


From The Asian Reporter, V13, #51 (December 16, 2003), page 17.

Life, death, and strategy

The Girl Who Played Go

By Shan Sa

Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

Hardcover, 312 pages, $22.95

By Andrew J. Weber

A decade before Pearl Harbor, Japan flexed its expansionary muscle with the invasion of Manchuria. Set in an occupied town, The Girl Who Played Go pits a teenage Manchurian girl against a young man whom she meets in a public square to engage in the ancient game.

But as so often in times of war, nothing is what it seems. The young man is an idealistic Japanese soldier in disguise, sent by his superiors to identify and eliminate local terrorists who resist Japanese rule. The girl, unnamed until the climatic scene, discovers her sexuality at the hands of two students, brothers connected to the shady Manchurian resistance the Japanese are seeking to destroy.

The anonymous girl is a prodigy in the traditionally male-dominated world of go and has played her way to the top of the local competition, but finds an equal in the skilled Japanese soldier. Mirroring the ebb and flow of the game itself, the fates of the two players become more and more deeply intertwined as their public and secret worlds collide.

The histories of China and Japan have been similarly linked for thousands of years; the Japanese invasion of Manchuria was merely the latest in a long series of bloody chapters. The Japanese justified their conquest as a re-establishment of their "purer" culture into Manchuria, a heritage that the Chinese had lost. In the novel, go proves this nationalistic view; although invented 4,000 years ago by the Chinese, it took the Japanese to elevate it beyond game to high art.

At least, thatís what the Japanese soldier believes. He envisions himself a modern-day samurai, with no greater glory than dying for the Emperor. Like his warrior idols, he plays the territorial-conquest game of go, the strategies on the board evoking life on the battlefield. For her part, the Manchurian girl confronts the Japanese superiority myth; whether on the board or off, the victor has yet to be determined. It is said that history is told by the winners, but this history is not yet written, and two widely divergent narratives of the same events are still competing for dominance.

Author Shan Sa knows all about such conflicting worldviews. After fleeing her native China for Paris after the Tiananmen massacre, she became aware of the world as seen through the eyes of the West. Shan later studied painting under Balthus and wrote two novels in French, winning the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and the Prix Cazes. Straddling the two worlds of her own life, she read only in Chinese and French during a recent Seattle appearance, despite The Girl Who Played Go being her first work available in English.

Shan structures the novel so that the girl and the soldier alternately narrate chapters; the story itself is a game of go. Beneath the visible moves of the characters lie deeper strategies, schemes, and motives, a potent mix of secrets swirling just below the surface. The Japanese soldier sends letters to his mother, maintaining a collaborative fiction about the nobility of his actions and his possible death to glorify the Emperor. "I will not tell her that I shall also die for her glory, and she will never admit that my death will destroy her," he confesses.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the alternating narrative device might seem contrived and distracting. However, the story deftly switches from one side to the other without loss of momentum or focus, and proceeds inevitably through opening, middle, and endgame to its shocking conclusion.

The chapters are short and poetic, each a simple slice of perceived events. But the poetic style belies the gritty and brutal realities of life during wartime; rape, murder, betrayal, and torture are the all-too-real elements of these charactersí lives, and no amount of operatic prose can mask their ugliness.

The Girl Who Played Go is ultimately a delicately told tale of decidedly non-delicate matters. Often as simple as a haiku, it nonetheless explores some of the most lasting elements of the human condition: love and passion, honor and glory, war and death. These themes spring from the heart of human nature and have endured, like the game of go, for thousands of years. Our own hearts, Shan shows us, are also like a game of go; a dizzying mix of black and white, filled with secrets buried far below the surface.


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