In a remote Manchurian town in the 1930s, a sixteen-year-old girl is more concerned with intimations of her own womanhood than the escalating hostilities between her countrymen and their Japanese occupiers. While still a schoolgirl in braids, she takes her first lover, a dissident student. The more she understands of adult life, however, the more disdainful she is of its deceptions, and the more she loses herself in her one true passion: the ancient game of go.
Incredibly for a teenager-and a girl at that-she dominates the games in her town. No opponent interests her until she is challenged by a stranger, who reveals himself to us as a Japanese soldier in disguise. They begin a game and continue it for days, rarely speaking but deeply moved by each other's strategies. As the clash of their peoples becomes ever more desperate and inescapable, and as each one's untold life begins to veer wildly off course, the girl and the soldier are absorbed by only one thing-the progress of their game, each move of which brings them closer to their shocking fate.
In The Girl Who Played Go, Shan Sa has distilled the piercing emotions of adolescence into an engrossing, austerely beautiful story of love, cruelty and loss of innocence.
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October 11, 2004
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Excerpt from The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa
In the Square of a Thousand Winds the frost-covered players look like snowmen. White vapor billows from their mouths and noses, and icicles growing along the underside of their fur hats point sharply downwards. The sky is pearly and the crimson sun is sinking, dying. Where does the sun go to die?
When did this square become a meeting place for go players? I don't know. After so many thousands of games, the checkerboards engraved on the granite tables have turned into faces, thoughts, prayers.
Clutching a bronze hand-warmer in my muff, I stamp my feet to thaw out my blood. My opponent is a foreigner who came here straight from the station. As the battle intensifies, a gentle warmth washes through me. Daylight is dwindling and the stones are almost indistinguishable. Suddenly someone lights a match and a candle appears in my opponent's left hand. The other players have all left and I know that Mother will be sick with worry to see her daughter come home so late. The night has crept down from the sky and the wind has stirred. The man shields the flame with his gloved hand. From my pocket I take a flask of clear spirit which burns my throat. When I put it under the stranger's nose, he looks at it incredulously. He is bearded and it's hard to tell his age; a long scar runs from the top of his eyebrow and down through his right eye, which he keeps closed. He empties the flask with a grimace.
There is no moon tonight, and the wind wails like a newborn baby. Up above us, a god confronts a goddess, scattering the stars.
The man counts the stones once and then twice. He has been beaten by eighteen points; he heaves a sigh and hands me his candle. Then he stands up, unfolding a giant's frame, gathers his belongings and leaves without a backward glance.
I stow the stones in their wooden pots. They are crisp with frost in my fingers. I am alone with my soldiers, my pride gratified. Today, I celebrate my one hundredth victory.
My little mother barely comes up to my chest. Prolonged mourning for her husband has dried her out. When I tell her I have been posted to Manchuria, she pales.
"Mother, please, it is time your son fulfilled his destiny as a soldier."
She withdraws to her room without a word.
All evening her devastated shadow is silhouetted against the white paper screen. She is praying.
This morning the first snows fell on Tokyo. Kneeling with my hands flat on the tatami, I prostrate myself before the altar of my ancestors. As I come back up I catch sight of the portrait of venerable Father: he is smiling at me. The room is filled with his presence--if only I could take a part of it all the way to China!
My family is waiting for me in the living room, sitting on their heels and observing a ceremonial silence. First of all, I say good-bye to my mother, as I used to when I left for school. I kneel before her and say, "Okasama,* I am leaving." She bows deeply in return.
I pull on the sliding door and step out into the garden. Without a word, Mother, Little Brother and Little Sister follow me out. I turn and bow down to the ground. Mother is crying and I hear the dark fabric of her kimono rustling as she bows in turn. I start to run. Losing her composure, she launches herself after me in the snow.
I stop. So does she. Afraid that I might throw myself into her arms, she takes one step back.
"Manchuria is a sister country," she cries. "But there are terrorists trying to sour the good relations between our two emperors. It is your duty to guard this uneasy peace. If you have to choose between death and cowardice, don't hesitate: choose death!"
We embark amid tumultuous fanfares. Soldiers' families jostle with each other on the quay, throwing ribbons and flowers, and shouts of farewell are salted with tears.
The shore draws farther and farther away and with it the bustle of the port. The horizon opens wide, and we are swallowed up in its vastness.