February 2004

David Harris


The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa

Despite being one of the two most-played games of the intellect in the world, very few Westerners have even heard of Go, the ancient oriental game. It has simpler rules than chess but is far more subtle and takes longer to master. Furthermore, it is a game that is not so explicitly structured around the theme of a small battle, like chess, that has it’s ranking pieces with different abilities. Rather it is a large scale war. In Go, every piece is identical: a stone, made of ivory or ebony, played on a square grid alternately by the contestants. And yet, each piece has the power to turn the tide of a war.

Go’s long history brings an extremely rich culture to the game, a culture typically oriental but alien to the westerner. I have only played Go intermittently over the past decade and feel that I am a raw beginner. However, I have begun to understand some of the features of the game -– enough to understand why Go is such a powerful metaphor for the story told by Shan Sa in her latest novel, The Girl Who Played Go.

The girl in the title is a teen who is something of a phenom in her small town in Machuria. She escapes the world, but also participates in it in a vitally different way through her games in the Square of a Thousand Winds. She doesn’t know her opponents, yet has a strong connection to them and begins to understand them through what she intuits from their board strategies.

In the midst of facing up to first love, peer pressure and other crises of teenage life, she meets an intriguing new partner in the Square. This player has something rather different about him but his true nature is hidden. For he is a Japanese soldier, sent to the village to spy, and attempting to ingratiate himself into the community though games in the Square. It is the 1930s and Japan is moving on Manchuria, with the relations between Manchuria and the inner territories of China still complex. This background is probably unfamiliar to many readers but a selection of footnotes in the early part of the book provide enough background to follow the elements of politics of the time.

As the soldier and the girl play, each develops their personal relationship in their own mind. Propriety prevents them from acting for a long time, the game being the only way to communicate. Meanwhile, each is in a world of trouble and the game becomes both respite and salvation.

This is a story of impossible love with great consequences. The girl and the soldier are individual Go stones on the board of war between Japan and China. Their direct interactions are significant to themselves but also influence the greater movement of armies. This tension between individual role and community role is difficult for both the girl and the soldier, especially as each interacts with others in their lives -– other loves, other relations.

Shan Sa wrote the book in French originally but the translation into English effectively achieves the feel of ancient oriental literature and poetry. This may be unfamiliar to much of Western literature, but it adds a critical and consistent dimension to the story.

As war progresses, tensions only increase and the players are forced into extreme situations, where sacrifice becomes a significant theme. The girl and the soldier move inexorably toward a shocking and frightening end. Yet, it is an ending that perfectly fits the themes in the book and we can only wonder if the players’ lives are really just a metaphor for a much more significant game of Go.

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa
ISBN: 1400040256
320 pages