Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The line of new books about China stretches away to the horizon, as endless as the Great Wall itself. Plenty are useful and perceptive; some, from self-appointed Western experts, emit a nasty whiff of sycophantic power-worship, with titles in the vein of "Why China will run the planet and how I plan to get rich helping it". Novelists as well try to ride the boom, with even such a tough mass-market trouper as Tony Parsons choosing a Shanghai setting for his latest yarn. With Parsons on the Bund, can a McNab skirmish in Shenzhen be far behind?

As ever, the best cure for this bookish rash of foreign devilry comes from exposure to the writers of China itself. This spring, two landmark Chinese novels arrive in English: Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem and Ma Jian's Beijing Coma. In the meantime, we can catch up with what the irrepressible writer and film-maker Xiaolu Guo did before first Village of Stone (in translation) and then A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (in English) made her feisty and fearless presence felt here.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (Chatto & Windus, £12.99) was the first novel that Guo published in China. Now, she has revised Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey's translation so that this edition layers the mature author's insight on top of the beginner's pizzazz. If, in this book, it never quite scales the heights of bittersweet lyricism in Village of Stone or tender cross-cultural comedy in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary..., Guo's literary voice remains a breath of the freshest air imaginable. She cuts through the smog of hype and platitude, whether in Haidian or Hackney.

Half a loveable klutz à la Bridget Jones, half a questing existential heroine out of Marguerite Duras (whose work she reveres), young Fenfang comes from a forlorn sweet potato-growing village in south China to the cold bright lights of Beijing. She wants to make it in the movies, just like all the other "brown-skinned peasant girls from yellow sandy provinces" who work as day-rate extras in parts such as "scared girl in police chase". As she bounces from boxy flat to boxy flat, dead-end job to dead-end job, from her over-intense Chinese lover Xiaolin to her too laid-back American chum Ben, Fenfang suffers all the sharp edges of boom-town Beijing: "a city that never showed its gentler side".

She runs foul both of old-style party hacks and new-model sleazebag entrepreneurs, such as the memorably gross "Comrade Loaded-with-Gold". Yet her cussed individualism wears Fenfang down. Behind Guo's deliciously mischievous take on every sort of bombast and bullshit within the Beijing city limits lies a lost girl who knows "I wasn't my own friend", even as she curses the "Heavenly Bastard in the Sky" for a streak of lousy luck.

One true writer from China is worth a thousand business-class consultants. To hear the voice of another kind of literary free spirit, we can also savour the essays of the leading poet Bei Dao, an exile after 1989 but now based in Hong Kong. Midnight's Gate (translated by Matthew Fryslie; Anvil Press, £10.95) collects 20 vivid and readable pieces on the places and people the vagabond poet meets, from the scary frenzy of New York to the peace of Durham and the secretive tolerance of Paris; from the boisterous businessman "Mustard" (a character straight out of Xiaolu Guo) to the hard-drinking "Uncle Liu". A humane and humorous delight, Midnight's Gate offers the friendliest possible introduction to a giant of Chinese culture. Yet it reaches us thanks only to a small press whose ability to bring out books like this may well not survive the cut in its modest public funding now proposed. This is no time to be building greater walls between the thoughts and words of East and West.

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