Author: Xiaolu Guo`s latest novel
Author: Xiaolu Guo`s latest novel

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.”

Author Xiaolu Guo : I am China
Author Xiaolu Guo : I am China

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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Deepti Kapoor: Bad Character The Novel

Deepti  Kapoor`s first novel Bad Character
Deepti Kapoor`s first novel Bad Character

Vogue India described it as the “literary fiction debut of the year.” The Observer described it a “slender, mysterious and only fleetingly overwrought novel offers vivid insights into what it means to be a middle-class woman in 21st-century Delhi.” Deepti Kapoor`s first novel Bad Character has  peaked the attention of literary critics and scooped up some plaudits in the process.
Its central character Idha ,is a twenty year old college student living with her exasperated aunt in a stifling but  comfortable confines of a middleclass lifestyle. To make matters worse, she is constantly being paraded as the next suitors prize by her aunt labouring under the impression that marriage would be the  panacea for her worries and the social nirvana for Idha.

Yet dissolutioned and disenchanted by her existence ,Idha makes her visits to the coffee shop to escape her rigid, ninety degree angled and orderly existence. Written in the first person, Idha says “… here you could forget the city, its ceaseless quarry of people. You could feel safe” . There she meets an older boy/man who certainly seductively wears the years of life experience. He is disapprovingly dark, both in mood and appearance, someone her aunt would never accept, and this makes him all the more alluring and all the more forbidden fruit.

She begins a heady affair and is drawn into a world where she sees  the dark  underbelly of the capital. Idha`s character hooks us in and the reader is fully engaged through her own narrative voice. She soon  makes a modern-day Faustian pact with the boy and her idea of self is completely attacked, forcing her to succumb to carnal and somehow feral desires. The story seemed to be a modern parable on that old adage of be careful what you wish for ……….

Kapoor`s writing is very evocative and so uncompromising in its portrayal of the less then salubrious sides of Delhi, the pollution, the over-crowdedness, the sounds and smells, that you can almost taste it. She captures Delhi with all its glorious soundscapes and leaves you with the image of a city positively trembling under its own colossal weight , a living, breathing church for those lowly types who scratch for a living and the high executives who subscribe to the capitalists` school of money making. It was refreshing to see how Kapoor wends us through the innards of Delhi and delivers a warts and all image of the capital rather then the romanticised chocolate box image of the city, so often found in prosaic and embroidered Asian novels.

Delhi Capital
Delhi Capital
Novelist Deepti Kapoor

Idha is a young student who feels that her middle class existence leaves her with a malaise and a desire for freedom, so desperately unfulfiled.  Yet her regular café visits seem to suggest that far from wistful or desperate about her turbid life, she is a calculated thrill- seeker and not just one of life`s ambulance chasers.

While India races ahead in the economy stakes, chasms in economic inequality and gender inequalities still exist throughout India, There is certainly a rising middle class and without dout a growing number of independent female professionals as well. Yet  women are still  sexually objectified and subject to the slavish male gaze. Kapoor is acutely aware of the presence of less then respectful attitudes towards women today.

Idha not exactly burdened by her gift that is beauty, and simply acknowledges that being the focus for a woman in modern India, is something of an occupational hazard. Her interior monologue describes  male reactions  as she travels around Delhi.” Ive been stared at a lot of course ; its what men do. Everyday from door to door, on the buses, stepping through rubble on the edge of the road, in the car struck in traffic , at red lights. Stares of incomprehension, lust rage, sad yearning, so vacant and blank sometimes, its terrifying, sometimes pitiful. Eyes filling the potholes, bouncing down the street liked marbles., no escaping their clank. Eyes in restaurants, in offices…… “ Her experiences are nothing new of course, they could be indicative of women across India.

 Is she a thrill seeker ? Or someone living for the high in  merely skirting with the possibility of breaking social taboos?  Her inner voice belies someone who is totally in control but she descends into a series of noxious relationships, masking the fact  each relationship is a one-night stand on a continuous loop, where love and commitment are strange bed-fellows. We learn early on that as a child, her father had started spending long periods “working” in Singapore. Absconding for a  life in Singapore, he is  mostly an absent father and a reluctant husband. Is the fact that she sees men now as  tools for escapism, an inability to form stable relationships with men, suggest a deep-seated  disenchantment , or even understandable “hatred ” of men as a result ?

As you engage with the novel, expecting it to be the story of one woman`s odyssey into the unknown and descent into the darker side of human psyche, Kapoor on occasions,cleverly departs from the linear novel and deploys  non-linear story telling. Idha ends up suddenly describing past moments which you think are real and lucid but maybe  just motes of her imagination where fact crosses fantasy.The slight downside is that the non- linear writing  interrupts the story`s flow and sometimes  proved to be a circuit breaker for your engagement with the novel.

The novel `s own energy seemed to deplete near the end and it felt that the story had run out of track. As a reader, you expected some form of finality or resolution. Yet there is no redemption from her less then perfect life or indeed any dramatic turnaround . She is older now and her character is fully crystallised now with all its fault-lines, perhaps mirroring real life.

Nevertheless Kapoor delivers a stylised and accomplished novel with real insights into the human condition. It leaves you fully immersed and packs  a powerful punch on your senses. She portrays a woman, hot wired in her desire for freedom ,fighting the ever lapping existence of the ever omnipotent male gaze.

Published by Jonathon Cape Random Hse. http://www.vintage-books.co.uk.  Priced £14.99.

Also available at www.amazon.co.uk.

South Asian Book Club (London based) will be reviewing Bad Character on 30th August. Places are limited. Free entry. For details email globooks@hotmail.com