The game of Go has long intrigued me. I learned how to play years ago from a wizard who lived down the stairs. We wiled away the hours playing the game of Go. I moved away and never played again until recently. I took it up once again and discovered it had never really left me. I became reacquainted with Go because of a novel written by a young Chinese girl that sparked my interest all over again.
When The Girl Who Played Go first came out in 2003, I read a review about the book that was intriguing. I vowed to keep an eye out for it. In those days one didn’t just automatically add a book to one’s Amazon Wish list. One liked to find books the old fashioned way, serendipity. One liked to stumble across them by accident in some far flung and obscure bookstore in the Midwest, or northeast, or wherever. Years went by and I never saw the object of my desire. By then it was locked away in the recesses of my memory and I was no longer consciously looking for it at all.
Then one day in, 2007, in a crowded book store in Philadelphia, I ran across a book entitled, The Master of Go. To my imperfect memory I thought this must be the book I had long sought. I picked it up, took it home and put in a shelf where it languished a few more years. When I finally got around to reading it, I thought, this is strange. This doesn’t seem like the book I had read about all those years ago. This book, written by Yasunari Kawabata, was about a modern day Go player, in Japan. While I enjoyed the book very much, it was a realistic depiction of an elderly gentleman who was a Go master and the rigors of tournament play in Japan. I read the book and put it away and started a new book and didn’t give the Master of Go another thought; until the year 2012. I ran across another book on Go in Louisville, Kentucky at the Half Price Book store where I am wont to go. It was entitled, The Girl Who Played Go. Eureka! Sweet mystery of life, finally I found you! The Girl Who Played Go, written by Shan Sa, was my long sought after book. I immediately purchased the book and took it home and began reading. Friends it was worth the wait.
Go is a territorial contest. In Chinese the game is called, Wei Qi, which means, “surrounding game.” Go has roots in both China and Japan. Most Westerners are unfamiliar with the game of Go. It has simpler rules than chess but is far more subtle and takes longer to master. It is a game that is not structured around the theme of a small battle, like chess. Rather, it is more like a large scale war. In Go, every piece is identical: an ivory or ebony stone is played on a square grid by the contestants. Each piece has the power to turn the tide of a war. Go is powerful metaphor for the story told by Shan Sa in her novel, The Girl Who Played Go.
The Girl who Played Go is a wonderfully written novel set within the framework of the game of Go. It takes place in a small city in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1936. An unnamed Japanese soldier has been sent with his battalion to seek out the Chinese resistance movement within the region. Simultaneously, a bored Chinese schoolgirl finds solace obsessively playing Go in the local square eponymously name The Square of a Thousand Winds. In an attempt to infiltrate the enemy, the Japanese soldier joins the city’s Go players, and falls into a game and into love with the girl who played Go. The story of the soldier and the girl are told in alternating, short, chapters. Dramatic events in the lives of the protagonists are repeatedly brought together and interwoven.
The game of Go is a metaphor for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the resistance one young girl is able to mount by remaining undefeated at the game. Manchuria has been occupied by the Japanese for several years as the story opens, but there is an active insurgency movement. The girl, however, lives a relatively sheltered life. She is quickly maturing, and becomes sexually active during the unfolding events. The game of go symbolizes the play between man and woman, as well as the conflict between China and Japan.
The story is well presented with some scenes that are picture-perfect observations of life as illustrated by the following examples. “A carp pirouettes in a large jar that serves as an aquarium.” “The appeal of a prostitute has the transient, furtive freshness as the morning dew.” ” Prostitutes have no illusions and this makes them the soldier’s natural soulmates. Already damned, they dare not dream of eternity, and they cling to us like shipwrecked mariners clinging to flotsam. There is a religious purity to our embraces.” “The boys with white silk scarves around their necks, posture like tragic poets.” “In the game of Go, only aesthetic perfection leads to victory.’’ “He has the nobility of a man who prefers the turnings of the mind to the barbarities of life.” “It has taken many years for the game of go to initiate me into the freedom of slipping between yesterday, today, and tomorrow. From one stone to the next, from black to white, the thousands of stones have ended up building a bridge far into the infinite expanse of China.”
Shan Sa has an extraordinary background. She was born in Beijing, started writing at seven and enjoyed success as a teenage poet. At 18 she moved to Paris to study philosophy. She worked for a time with the artist Balthus. Writing in French, she won a Goncourt with her first novel. Her novel, The Four Lives of the Willow won the Prix Caze. In 2001, she was again awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for her novel, The Girl Who Played Go. Her works have been published in 30 languages worldwide. Since 2001, Shan Sa has continued to write literature and paint. Her works have been shown in Paris and New York, and Japan. In 2009, Shan Sa was awarded by the French Cultural Ministry, Knight of Order of Arts and Letters. In 2011, she was awarded by the French President, The Knight of National Order of Merit.