I AM CHINA written by Xiaolu Guo is a cautionary story of exiled Chinese musician and former Chinese Punk Jian and his girlfriend Mu. The title comes from Vassily Grossman’s magnum opus, Life and Fate, the epic novel of human survival under totalitarianism and the closing line of his own manifesto .
Iona Kirkpatrick is a 31 year old translator tasked with making sense of the letters given to her by her publishing company. Slowly but surely she perseveringly pieces together a love story across the ages. Layer by layer,she gives us a backdrop to the love affair, which is a politically harsh, angular regime which never-endingly excoriates its citizens.
This a book which takes you on an odyssey, a love story across continents that spans the generations and is written in the first person of the character Iona. Guo presents something of a detective story and invites our curiosity, cleverly hooking the reader in from the beginning to end. The translator seemingly unlocks secrets from the past and decodes the story hidden between lines of language. As the story unfolds before us, we get glimpses of the character`s past and their seemingly disparate lives. Guo has a gift for being allegorical without feeling as a reader you are being clubbed on the head with meanings or sign-posted for themes. There are clearly over-arching themes of cultural displacement, distance, and how we stead-fastly remain wedded to our beliefs to a fault; that they can shape us perhaps even hijack us and prevent us from changing in an ever-changing world. In a letter to Jian, comparing America to China, Mu talks of how America is the land of living and live clichés and points to the stark comparison with China. She writes; Its like ideology, you are told to believe some stuff and you are not supposed not to give it up ! Maybe that’s the difference with China. We struggle like buffalo all our lives and we still don’t become someone.”
Just as Jian is in exile thousands of miles away from his own country, there are parallels with Iona who is also someone who has become a reticent London resident. Iona herself is from the isle of Iona and it could be argued is culturally displaced. Yet as she was growing up, she wanted to escape the confines of her small island upbringing. Describing Iona`s childhood, Guo writes; her childhood was about waiting, wondering and the promise of what lay beyond the sea.”
It`s a complex love story which at times is laconic, brutal, uncompromising and laced with Guo`s ironic humour, that is at times bitter-sweet but never saccharine. There’s a juxtaposition between Mu`s rhythmic life, full of life’s nuances and Jian`s life of physically being trapped at the detention centre and trapped by his own beliefs. We see Iona who is emotionless, grasping for human contact in meaningless sexual one off encounters.
In one part of the book, we have Kublai Jian penning a letter to the Queen during his detention in a Lincolnshire Psychiatric Hospital in the vain hope that he can appeal to what he thinks is the highest law in the land “In China we say that if you can talk to the boss then don’t talk to the boss`s secretary and if you can talk to the boss`s wife then no need to talk to the boss. So dear Queen you are the boss lady, you are the top one! Whilst not actually a prison, it has a semblance of one and the oft-quoted line. “detained at the majesty`s pleasure taking on a
whole new meaning.
There is a literary play-off between the adventurist Mu who leaves behind her native Beijing to go to the States to pursue her dream of being a performance poet, persuaded by her manager that she should off-load her name and adopt the hip name of Sabotage Sisters. She becomes part of the touring group Beijing Maniac. There’s almost an ironic wink to the American Dream and a literary homage to the road movie as they tour from state to state. There is a boldness, a courage, and this contrasts to Iona`s life of existing on “a loop” living. Yet Mu feels a strange disconnect with her new life. She writes “Is that me? I feel that I am wearing a disguise – underneath I am a hundred percent Chinese daughter of the countryside.. its as if Im pretending to be someone else.”
Guo however simply falls into the trap of polarising the free and righteous West with the politically harsh China rather then presenting a 21st century view with its grey areas and political nuances. We hear that the publisher has to pull Iona from the translation task as he cannot risk possible ramifications if he goes ahead and publishes the book following a sinister call from the Minister of State Security that he should not publish anything in relation to Kublai Jian who is the son of a high ranking Chinese politician, fearful of any media publicity. Iona`s character felt listless and it felt there wasn’t enough substance to lift her off the page. However in an ending befitting of a novel that is epic in its story telling and fluid in its prose, I AM CHINA will certainly be on your must-read list for this year and beyond.
I AM CHINA published by Chatto and Windus.
Philip Chadha – Founder of http://www.globooks.net – Destination Point For Foreign Fiction Fans
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