Making every word work

by Eileen Battersby

the Irish Times, Saturday 12th January 2008

Fenfang has ambitions; she wants a life far removed from digging sweet potatoes in a field. Since she left home at 17 to conquer Beijing, success has proved elusive. But, after four years of menial work, she is now poised, aged 21, to begin her youth: "Be young or die."

From the opening paragraph, yet again the seductive Chinese magician, writer and film maker Xiaolu Guo lures her reader on to a lively narrative that is both personal odyssey and insightful commentary about modern Chinese society and life itself.

Not for a moment does Fenfang forget that she is a peasant. She uses this awareness as a form of protection; no one is going to have to remind her of her origins. She may well have begun changing her life by leaving her native village as well as her parents to whom she never really spoke, to travel 1,800 miles to Beijing, but the defining moment began when she filled out an application form. By taking the first step towards becoming a film extra, Fenfang, more battle-hardened than weary, has decided on a life beyond mere existence. Her struggles then begin in earnest.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is about all kinds of hunger; the search for love and for personal fulfilment, and also for food itself - Fenfang enjoys eating and Guo often includes details about meals. Yet nothing is ever superfluous in her work. Few writers are as incisive and as clear-minded. For all the ease and apparent randomness of her three narratives published to date in the UK, Guo makes every word work. This is why her fiction is so exciting. This new book adds yet another dimension to the fascinating study of one girl's life begun in Village of Stone (English translation 2004) and continued in the bestseller, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers (2007). It should be made clear, however, that the narrators of each of these three books are separate individuals with different stories to tell. Yet in essence Guo's thesis is one girl's life.

The new book was, as Guo explains in an author's note, first written in Chinese more than a decade ago. Guo has virtually rewritten her original Chinese text and this in turn has now been translated into English. Guo wanted her youthful narrator to sound young and she does. The text also catches the immediacy of a life being lived. Central to all of this is the heat and dust and extraordinary claustrophobia of modern-day Beijing.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is based on a diary she once kept, and was written in - as she tells us - "deliberately bad English". It is remarkable for its emotional candour. In it, the narrator, who decides it is easier to call herself Z, arrives in England for one year to learn English. Her parents are shoemakers and see English as the best way of ensuring their daughter's future. A novel written in deliberately bad English may seem a gimmick. Yet, aside from the initial laughs, and there are many, Guo is witty; this is a serious, often profound love story about need, dependency, experience, the birth of love and most importantly, its death. Z meets up with an older, somewhat defeated English man who helps her with her English and appears, for a while, content to share his home with her. Sex becomes a kind of barter; he sees it as a release, she sees it as evidence of love and security.

As the months pass, her vocabulary increases and so do her expectations and the pressure she places on a confirmed emotional drifter who finds himself drowning in her intensity. It is brilliantly pitched; Guo sustains a tone of longing that is at times convincingly hard-edged, but always sympathetic and perceptive about language and meaning as well as cultural and social nuance. Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, written in 20 tightly structured and vivid episodes, including a screen play that later proves vital to the plot, is sharper yet no less appealing. A comic exasperation underlines the narrative tone, which itself says a great deal not only about present-day China, but also about modern society. Guo is wise though never knowing.

SHE IS BRILLIANT on the sheer aimlessness of life, the crazy detours and digressions, the ways in which ideas flounder and the ever present attraction of flight as the surest escape from reality. Her first book published in Britain, Village of Stone, of which Doris Lessing said, "I think people are going to like this book very much", is different from Guo's two other books only in that it is darker. Its narrator, Coral, now living in Beijing, receives an enormous dried eel in the post. It acts as a surreal reminder of her past and the small fishing village where she grew up. Not only does the fish feed her and her lover, a guy called Red who plays frisbee while she works in a video rental shop, it prods her memory.

Living with her grandparents, who are estranged from each other, Coral had experienced intense loneliness and also fear as the victim of ongoing sexual attacks from a local mute. Village of Stone is a gentle but often graphically terrifying work. Again, Guo evokes not only the terror of her narrator's childhood, but the intense claustrophobia experienced by her and Red in their cramped flat, in the ground floor of a 25-storey block. Coral's story, for all its horrors, achieves a tentative hope by its conclusion. If this makes it a fairy tale, albeit one founded in realism, so be it. The other two books are less grim, but no less compelling and equally realistic.

Xiaolu Guo is an instinctive, humane witness, her atmospheric, unusually physical narratives are alive and attractively insistent, inspired variations on the theme of quest. Fenfang, the narrator of 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, has moved a stage further on from Coral: instead of working in a video shop, she is appearing in films. Coral's reflective tone contrasts with Fenfang's jaunty exuberance. Guo's observations will make you smile and remember; she will also nudge the reader towards thoughts about language, culture and the very business of living.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times




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