I Am China By Xiaolu Guo; book review


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Xiaolu Guo’s new novel begins in April 2013, the same month as she was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Guo had already published seven novels in both English and Chinese, including the Orange Prize-nominated A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), but many readers, including me, were unfamiliar with her work until last spring. The extract from I Am China, which appeared in Granta Magazine, hinted at a novel of global scope and topical themes. That’s exactly how it’s turned out but whether it delivers on its promise in terms of quality is another matter.

Iona Kirkpatrick is a 31-year-old translator who drifts around London having one-night stands. Do SOAS graduates, who bear a “striking resemblance” to Winona Ryder, really go online to arrange “unsaid sex” or drag gormless men home from grim pubs? Little here persuades me that they do. I don’t wish to spend my review of a novel about love and exile discussing clunky pashing but it’s difficult to trust novelists who write tin-eared dialogue and fail to create convincing scenes. A wider problem is encapsulated in this view from Millennium Bridge: “The great gash of river whose waves spread wide the legs of the capital.” 

This distracts attention from the story of Kublai Jian and Deng Mu, the estranged Chinese couple, whose fragmented correspondence and diaries Iona is translating for a British publisher. Born in 1972 (Year of the Rat), Jian became a protest singer in response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which occurred 25 years ago this week, and was imprisoned following the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. He fled to Europe, from where he writes to Mu, his partner of 20 years and the mother of his deceased child, describing life as an asylum seeker. Mu remains in China before touring America as a performance poet with a manager who wants to exploit Western curiosity about dissident artists.  

Iona’s translations reveal lives marked by bloody history, a culture where “man is the first order, woman is the second” and self-expression is nullified. Jian believes art should agitate for a freer society and argues: “Ideology is a slaughterhouse.” Mu, who’s tired of protest, wonders: “Where is the place for life?” Their experiences alter Iona’s outlook as she tries to discover what’s become of Jian and attempts to reunite him with Mu. Such promising material only makes I Am China frustrating. I didn’t buy the revelation about Jian’s mysterious father or the depiction of Jian and Mu as bereaved parents.

The translator’s job, Iona believes, is to “bring out something from another world into our world”. Guo, who moved to Britain 10 years ago and writes in Chinese and English, tries to achieve something similar. I Am China celebrates individual perspectives from a place where collectivism is the excuse for tyranny. I looked forward to reading it, not least because I thought it might help me consider the mysteries surrounding my own ancestors’ experiences under Maoism, but Guo’s tepid prose makes China as opaque as ever.