. . . on orders he moves from one place to the next without knowing where he is going or why. A pawn among many others. He lives and dies anonymously in the name of a greater victory. The game of go is changing me into a senior officer who uses his men coldly and with calculation: the stones make their steady progress, many condemned to die for the sake of a wider strategy.
Shan Sa (1972-) was born in Beijing. She moved to Paris in 1990 and studied art for two years under the painter Balthus. Her debut novel Les quatre vies du saule won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 1998, which was followed by the 2001 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for La Joueuse de Go (The Girl Who Played Go). Sa is also a painter who has exhibited in Paris, New York, and Shanghai.
The Girl Who Played Go (translated from French by Adriana Hunter) is a star-crossed love story set in occupied Manchuria in the late 1930s. Its voices alternate between two nameless protagonists born worlds apart but destined to collide in a cruel gesture of fate. The first is a Chinese schoolgirl from a worldly but faded aristocratic family. Nearing her sixteenth birthday, her typical teenaged pastimes take a dangerous edge as her newfound sexuality pulls her into a love triangle with two resistance fighters. The second is a Japanese soldier in his early twenties whose relentless focus on honor and national glory is turning him into a war criminal. In an effort to flush out underground "terrorist" cells, the soldier's Captain has ordered him to pose as a Chinese civilian and infiltrate the go square, which the Captain believes is "just a camouflage: it's there on that square, as they pretend to play their war game, that our enemies are putting together their twisted strategies." Both narrators are skilled at this ancient contest of will and intellect and commence a long, drawn-out game that has them seeing one another with greater frequency, even as the situation around them steadily worsens.
Sa is one of those rare authors able to speak volumes with deft, sparse prose. Every word is chosen carefully with none wasted on extraneous exposition or flowery description. Her unflinching portrayal of war cuts like a razor. Most writers would have turned this scenario into a treacly (and not to mention offensive) BRING ME TOOO LIIIIIIIFE story of a Darth Vader type who "still has good in him" and the Love of a Virtuous Woman. Sa brings us instead a pair of complex and often unsympathetic characters whose relationship is never anything grander than two strangers making hesitant contact. Indeed, the love story is actually secondary to the war itself in fitting with the game of go as a metaphor for the insignificance of the individual in life-and-death struggles for conquest and freedom. Sa sacrifices none of her realism to starry-eyed fantasy and the ending is inevitable from the beginning.
The Girl Who Played Go is a powerful work. Though not marketed as YA, older teens will relate to the girl's adolescent struggle for self-realization, which, along with the Marxist idealism of the Chinese resistance, foreshadows the upheavals of Maoism and its attacks on tradition. In fact, she is one of the strongest and most memorable female protagonists I have come across in some time. Her male counterpart is no cardboard cutout either. His chapters reveal a growing dissonance between his patriotic values and the brutalities regularly committed by his comrades. The Girl Who Played Go is a study in contrasts: the dehumanization of war revealed through a highly intimate look into the hearts and minds of two individuals. Highly recommended.
Trigger warning for sexual violence and a graphic torture scene.
Note on the translation: This is the second French novel translated by Adriana Hunter I have read and once again, her work is flawless. The first was Véronique Olmi's Beside the Sea, another dark story that will haunt its reader afterward. I will definitely keep my eye out for more Hunter translations in the future.