La Joueuse de Go Review

by Ilan Vardi

Review of "La Joueuse de Go" by Shan Sa, Folio #3805, Gallimard, ISBN 2-07-042419-7

Well, I finally read it. After about a year avoiding this painful chore, I found a used copy and decided to buy it, since it would only set me back the price of a cappuccino (about 3 dollars).

My apprehension had been based on reading the first page which allowed me to categorize this book as a typical French "intellectual" novel, that is, totally humorless and unselfconscious in its pompous pursuit of "serious" issues (Death, Joyless Sex, etc.) and meant to be consumed like medicine, which, as everyone knows, must taste bad to work. For Americans unfamiliar with French culture, the US equivalent would be art house films (not movies) in which famous actors take on low paying roles playing serial killers with white trash accents in order to get a shot at an Academy Award.

And it does work! The book won its award, Le Prix Goncourt des Lyceens, confirming its place in the Pantheon of contemporary French literature. I'm not sure which lyceens (High School students) were nominated to choose the winner, but I conjecture that the vast majority of unliterary youths would prefer Manga Hikaru no Go over this book, and I would agree with them. Comic books have a wide appeal in France, perhaps as a reaction to the distasteful French literary genre, since "BD" (Bandes Dessinees) are serious, funny, and entertaining, that is, exactly what makes good literature.

For what follows, it is important to note that author Shan Sa is of Chinese origin, but wrote the book in French, so her book can be judged by the most rigorous standard (as opposed to translations to be considered below). The book has been translated into English where it is known as "The Girl who Played Go," as well as other languages, but I haven't read any of these, so I don't know to what extent my comments carry over.

Now for the book. It takes place in Manchuria during the war between China and Japan in the 1930's. The author chose to tell her story from both points of view, with chapters alternating between a 16 year old Chinese girl and a Japanese officer. The action takes place in a relatively modest town in Manchuria in which the girl goes to high school, has affairs with boys, and regularly plays go in the town square. However, this fairly conventional life is completely upset as faces the conflict first hand, with tragic consequences. In fact, nothing much good happens to the poor girl, as befits a French novel searching for an award. The Japanese officer can speak fluent Mandarin, so is chosen to infiltrate Chinese circles by playing go in the town square. There the two meet and play a series of games. While both tell their story, they never really speak to each other, until the very end.

The short chapters and alternation between points of view make for easy reading, and the girl's story seems like a fairly faithful description of life at that time and place (write about what you know!). On the other hand, the officer's story is an insipid litany of Japanese cliché's (honor, duty, sacrifice, earthquakes, geishas) and I felt like I was reading supplementary chapters of Shogun (don't write about what you don't know!).

The style is fairly annoying, as the poetic tone is set by use of unanswerable questions such as: "where is the sun's grave?" To be fair, that part actually sounds pretty good in French: "le soleil, cramoisi, tombe, tombe. Ou se situe le tombeau du soleil ?" Worse is the constant juxtaposition of positive and negative in order to toe the line with serious French literature: "dreaming increases my melancholy," "mathematical abyss," "to do is to die, to die is to do," etc. But nowhere is this more evident and distasteful than in the explicit description of sex acts (but hey, it makes for a couple of "hot" pages). These must be joyless but intense with a hackneyed combination of pain and pleasure: "as soon as I enter her a voluptuous suffering takes hold of me..."

But the most incongruous aspect of the book is the use of footnotes to explain any term referring to Oriental culture. I'm not an expert on novels with poetic pretensions, but it seems to me that you should sustain subtlety by leaving it up to the reader to pick up the literary and historical allusions. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about even "ninja" deserves its explanatory footnote! However, as will be seen below, she didn't catch everything. Or is it they? I wonder whether this book, a probable best seller due to the author's previous success, was not worked over by editors who decided to make it more accessible. But then again, that doesn't seem right either, see below. To make things clear, I should say that I realize that I am explaining the technical terms used here, but my motivation is to write as clear a review as possible not a work of fiction.

OK, now let's get to the go aspect which was my only reason for reading this book. My first impression was not too negative, since she gives a fairly accurate description of people playing outside (later she correctly points out that such a venue is not very productive for picking up sensitive information about the war since people only care about their games). This changed a little when I read the second chapter and figured out that the narrative would alternate between Chinese and Japanese viewpoints. That's because it occurred to me that it would have been more clever for the Chinese narrator to refer to Weiqi, the Chinese name for go, and the Japanese narrator to use the Japanese term Go. I think that would have fit in well, but Shan Sa probably never considered it and it is her book after all.

However, things rapidly deteriorated. Early in the book, we find out that the girl learned go from her cousin, who, at 20 years old, is an extremely strong player who was invited by the Emperor of Manchuria (Pu Yi as in the movie "The Last Emperor") due to his skill at the game. Later on, the girl beats him in an extremely important game, no handicap being mentioned. I know that China was not up to Japanese standards back in the 1930's, but still, the top Chinese go players of the time were comparable to medium ranked Japanese professionals, which would make this girl the strongest woman player in the world. This in itself would be fine. Another clue that she is very strong is that she beats a shopkeeper giving him an 8 stone handicap. Since this person must be an older adult, and go is a popular game in China, he should be around intermediate strength at least, which would put her at strong amateur dan level. I'm sure that most go players would agree with me when I say that such progress is possible only with an enormous time investment, the work involved being comparable to obtaining a Masters or Ph.D. degree. However, nothing of the sort is ever mentioned in the book. When not playing, she never seems to give any thought to go. To seal the matter, she refers to her game in the first chapter as her 100th victory. Compare that with the go proverb "lose your first 50 games as quickly as possible." If I'm not being clear, let me just say that it seems hardly possible for someone to achieve such a level without having played on the order of 10,000 games. For a more careful rendering of a female game playing prodigy, check out the book "The Queen's Gambit," by Walter Tevis ("The Hustler" and "The Man who Fell to Earth" are his more famous oeuvres).

OK, you may say that I'm splitting hairs and you can ignore what I just wrote, I have much better stuff later on. But the cousin character started me thinking. Go Seigen, considered to be one of the strongest players of all time, was born Wu Qin-Yang in China in 1914, which would make him almost exactly the same age as her cousin. At age 12, Go Seigen was one of the strongest players in Peking with an estimated strength of professional 4 dan and at age 14 he moved to Japan to pursue a phenomenal go career. Now, given the book's dual Chinese/Japanese outlook on the war and the use of go as a metaphor for the conflict, I find it difficult to ignore this contemporary person's existence. Of course, that can be explained away by saying that it would be the subject of a totally different book, and I would respond by saying that this other book would be much more interesting. As a matter of fact, Go Seigen's story seems to have loosely inspired the 1982 movie "The Go Masters" in which Japanese and Chinese go players interact during the China Japan war (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089594/ ). In my opinion, that movie got it all pretty much right, as opposed to this book, which gets it all wrong.

So, after reading about 100 pages, I was fairly disappointed with the book's treatment of the game. However, I soon realized that Shan Sa knows almost nothing about go. All she knows are the basic rules, e.g., as explained to her before playing a casual game, and has seen people playing the same way that people see the Tour de France passing by their house. Now, I may be somewhat of a snob, but I do not expect her to know arcana like "The Carpenter's Square is Ko" or even elementary stuff like the attach and extend joseki (the first opening tactic you learn as a beginner). I do expect her to know something about the game's history and its personalities, at least what a person can find out in a couple of hours by doing an internet search, or by looking things up in an encyclopedia.

It was on page 149 that I finally realized the awesome extent of Shan Sa's ignorance. In a footnote, she explains that black starts the game, but that white is given five and a half point compensation (the technical term is komi) at the end of the game. Say what?? Shan, or Sa, however one calls you, when did people start using the five and a half point komi? Not too hard a question because a 15 seconds internet search reveals that it was in the 1955 Oza tournament. Prior to that, at most four and a half points had been used. Did people even play with komi back in 1935? Apparently so, as some Japanese tournaments started using it in 1929-1931. I find it hard to believe that this practice had percolated down to casual Manchurian games within a few years. I find it easy to believe that Shan Sa's knowledge of the rules is minimal and that she never for a second suspected that these could have evolved over the years, despite evidence to the contrary, see below.

Here is further demonstration of Shan Sa's overwhelming ignorance. The first thing that jumps out at the reader is her idiosyncratic nomenclature for go equipment: the go board is referred to as a "damier" which literally means "checkerboard" (to be completely explicit, a board on which you play the game of checkers) and the stones are "pions" which literally means "pawns" though this term is formally correct since "pion" describes a generic piece of any game, e.g., the pieces in snakes and ladders. However, French does have the more appropriate term "plateau" for "board" (it does not refer to a specific game which is not go) if one is unwilling to use the Japanese term "go ban" which is how this is usually referred to in France. Likewise, there appears to be no reason for using "pion" instead of the correct term "pierre," that is, "stone." As a footnote, careful readers will have noted the book's one time use of the term "go ban" with nary an explanatory footnote.*

The book's terminology has already been noted by French go players, but I believe that I have discovered why Shan Sa uses these incorrect terms! You see, it all comes from the book "The Master of Go" by Kawabata Yasunari, which, it turns out, has an incredibly poor French translation as far as go is concerned. Yup, this book uses the terms "damier" and "pion" for the board and stones. Since this must be the only other French work using this incorrect terminology, the mystery is solved. As a bonus, one can also confidently conjecture that Shan Sa's knowledge of go almost entirely consists of her reading this one book.

Just a little more to convince you of the horror of this translation. It all starts badly with the title "Le Maitre ou le tournoi de Go," that is, "The Master or the Go Tournament." Now anyone who knows about this book also knows that it is about the retirement match of the last hereditary Honinbo (the last representative of the institutionalized go of pre Westernized Japan) consisting of a single game against one opponent. On the other hand, a tournament, by definition, consists of more than one game against more than one player, because the "tour" in tournament refers to a turnover of players. This mistake is continually repeated in the book, as other matches against a single player are also referred to as tournaments.

There are other amusing mistakes. For example, the Kitani character (the real name of the go master's challenger) is talking about his 4 year old daughter who has learned to "put pieces in check." This is undoubtedly a translation of Japanese technical term "atari" which has no adequate Western equivalent so is the term which has been adopted (make that "dansoo" if you defer to the current Korean hegemony). This was instead translated as "check" in analogy with chess, but this is clearly wrong because in chess you only put the king in check. A correct translation is simply: "threaten to capture pieces" or the more natural and self explanatory: "she knows how to capture." Kitani goes on to say that he played his six year old daughter a game "giving her a 9 point handicap." Obviously, this is supposed to be: "giving her a 9 stone handicap," a huge advantage, as opposed to 9 points which could only mean a 9 point reverse komi worth less than a 2 stone handicap putting his 6 year old daughter at a professional level. To remove any possibility of a typo, the go master's response is: "9 points, that is quite remarkable."

These mistakes are a shame, because Kawabata was an amateur player and was chosen to cover the actual game by the newspaper sponsoring the match. The accuracy consistent with strong play and journalistic reporting should have been reflected in the technical aspects of the translation. However, I consider such translation errors to be more forgivable than Shan Sa's mistakes because the job of translation is just that, a job, and working for probable little pay with possible strict deadlines makes such oversights understandable. However, one wants to believe that Shan Sa was writing due to personal creative motivation and would not depreciate her work in order to satisfy time constraints.

Some might say that the inaccuracies I bring up do not discount a book and are the author's poetic license. In Moby Dick, didn't Melville finally decide after a 50 page discussion that whales are fish and not mammals? I admit that some of my objections can be explained away. For example, there are the games played between the girl and the Japanese officer. These are strange because hardly a game finishes. On each occasion, the girl has to leave early, and she writes down the position on a piece of paper so that they can resume play later on. I don't have a lot of real life go playing experience, but I've never heard of a casual game being adjourned like this. I'm also not sure what kind of go supplies were available in Manchuria in 1935, so I don't know if score sheets were accessible (maybe she got some from her cousin and I suppose you can draw some up easily enough). Also, if you have to leave right away, I don't see you spending another 15 minutes to write down the positions of some 200 stones. In any case, these are moot points, because if the players were at the high level as can be deduced from the text, they wouldn't need a score sheet to remember the position.

The real point is that, since the girl and the officers are destined to fall in love, it is important that the result of the games are suppressed, in order to minimize the confrontational aspect of the game. The score sheet is just a literary device to achieve this.

Shan Sa's description of the games can also be considered poetic license, though the arbitrary quality is consistent with vivid descriptions people make of things they completely fail to understand. One is treated to ravings about endless spirals, or something of that nature (I am making an effort to forget these offensive passages).

Despite this, the komi and terminology mistakes are just too serious to discount. They clearly show that she has made almost no effort investigating the game in her title, and pays little attention to detail. Since effort and attention to detail characterize the game, it shows that she has not only failed to capture the facts of the game, but its spirit.

The conclusion is clear. Shan Sa wanted to write a tragic love story set during the China Japan war, and after reading "The Master of Go," decided that the game would be the thread to tie her story together. Apart from reading this one book, her go experience was limited to casual observation of people playing in parks and having the basic rules explained to her but she made no further effort to know anything more. The easy way to avoid catastrophic errors would have been to ask some go player to check out her manuscript and anyone familiar with the go scene in France will know that it isn't very hard to find strong erudite players willing to do this for little or no pay (this seems to discount the editors as responsible for the promiscuous footnotes).

For me, the most egregious blunder is failing to make sure that what she wrote was consistent with what she knew. She forgot that the game in the Master of Go, played in 1938 (after her story ends), finishes with a 5 point win for black. Eh, San, no half points there. And, if you don't remember the result of the game, what are you left with? Answer: "La Joueuse de Go" in which games are left unfinished, if they disturb the story.

* Though it is hard to believe that anyone who doesn't know what a ninja is will know about go bans.


Well that's my review. Sorry I can't say anything more positive. My sincere hope for this book is that it gets made into a movie and that some high powered producer gives it the High Concept treatment, kind of like this: "Hey, we can combine the intellectual aspect of "A Beautiful Mind" (that was just a reworked version of ``"Shine" and the public and the critics ate it up! Didn't the guy play go in the movie? Sam get back to me on that!) with the oriental Matrix-like special effects of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and make a mint. Those other movies won Academy Awards, right, so this should be a clean sweep."


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