American Go E-Journal

Your Move/Readers Write: The Girl Who Played Go

Sunday May 27, 2012

“I saw this book today and thought the go community would be interested,” writes E-Journal reader Tina Zhang about Shan Sa’s 2003 novel The Girl Who Played Go. That sent us deep into the American Go EJournal Archive where we retrieved Roy Laird’s 7/15/2003 review:

GO REVIEW: The Girl Who Played Go
by Shan Sa; translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
280 pp.

In The Square of The Thousand Winds, a Chinese girl plays go. Serious go, toppling opponent after opponent. The time is the early 1930‘s and the Japanese are invading. Hearing that “terrorists” from the Chinese Resistance meet at the Square to plot their next moves, a Japanese soldier visits the square in disguise, to spy on them. Instead he falls into a game with the girl who plays go. They meet at the square day after day to continue this strangely compelling game. Meanwhile, we watch their lives converge toward a startling climax.

The award-winning author (at left) seems to know her Asian history and literature, and even fills us in with footnotes when the characters participate in major historical events, or discuss history. Attention to detail is so “granular” that the Chinese girl depicted on the cover is even holding authentic Chinese stones! (Chinese stones are flat on one side.) The writing is sprinkled with thoughtful little gems, but seems mostly halting and disjointed, and the occasional intrusion in the translation of Britishisms like “chivvying” is a bit jarring. Most of the chapters are only a few paragraphs long — just when we‘re beginning to immerse ourselves in a scene, it‘s over. Nonetheless, as often happens with good books, I am left with vivid memories and images, and thoughtful questions about the meaning of war. You have to admire the author‘s ambition. Through these gradually intertwining lives, one Chinese, one Japanese, she seeks to illuminate a dark era of occupation, torture and violent death, and to some degree she succeeds.

As a go player, I was happy to see the game presented as in a compelling, dramatic way. The Japanese lieutenant goes to the Square on a mission for his country and the Emperor, but finds himself hopelessly seduced by go. He confesses to his Captain, who shows his understanding by quoting the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi: “When you lose a horse, you never know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.” In the end, the game becomes the means by which two minds meet in a profound, life-altering way.

This novel takes its place in a growing lexicon of “go stories”. The ongoing, periodically adjourned game that progresses through most of the book invites comparison with Kawabata‘s The Master of Go, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. After the degrading portrayal of women in Sung-hwa Hong‘s tough, dark First Kyu, it‘s nice to see a woman who is not just the central character, but clearly the master of a her fate — and a strong go player to boot!

Most of all, The Girl Who Played Go brings to mind the classic film The Go Masters, a historic Chinese-Japanese film that has been called “an Asian ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”
- review by Roy Laird

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