20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth
The Sunday Times
Jonathan Miller says he nowadays prefers not to travel more than six Underground stops from home if he can help it. The man’s a Viking. Some of us find even that a bit of a stretch. But novelist and film-maker Xiaolu Guo is one of those fearless world-citizen types. From a fishing village in south China she upped sticks for film school in distant Beijing, then decided London might be nice. While briefly there she wrote a novel in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the Orange prize. She is now in Paris on some sort of residency to do with the Cannes film festival.
20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, illustrated with her own photographs, is a new translation of her first novel, which appeared in Chinese more than 10 years ago. She has taken the opportunity to revise the book, finding the original immature. But it can’t have been too bad; it seems unlikely that outright juvenilia could be turned into the sharp, unpretentiously sophisticated piece now before us.
Like creator, like narrator, the 17-year-old heroine Fenfang comes to Beijing from a remote village where they grow sweet potatoes.
Nothing but sweet potatoes as far as the eye can see. Fenfang says that at the same time every evening you hear the same old man give the exact same cough on his way home from the fields. In the capital, Fenfang gets work as a film extra, playing “Woman on railway platform” or “Scared girl in police chase”. For a couple of years she shacks up with a production assistant, then leaves him for Ben, an American student. She doesn’t go into this much. As she says, “You can check any Chinese dictionary, there’s no word for romance. We say ‘Lo Man’, copying the English pronunciation.” She also says, “We Chinese have been collective so long, personal histories are not worth mentioning.” She does not describe, either, how she manages to find the grotty flats she lives in, usually with cockroaches: “They lingered on the rims of cups, sat in my rice cooker pondering the meaning of life.” On one occasion, she is arrested for subletting illegally. She just finds another grotty flat. She admits she thrives on insecurity, and throws in an office job after a day because she gets bored with the filing.
Her tough, fed-up persona is oddly engaging, and her world is a comic one. She jumps out of bed to answer the phone, thinking it might be Ben, who’s moved back to Boston. “It was some unknown Third-Rate Director. ‘Fenfang, how are you? This is Old Third-Rate Director, but you can call me Old Third.’ ‘Ah, hello, Old Third.’” Once out of bed, she notices the flat is freezing. “I didn’t brush my teeth, in case precious body heat escaped out of my mouth.” That, you feel, is Beijing when you’re young.
Ben does call Fenfang’s mobile quite often, but all they seem to talk about is the bad connection. “Why did we carry on . . .? Didn’t we realise there were 18,400 miles between us?” It’s nearer 6,000 east-bound, but she is apparently contemplating the westbound route via Dakha, Delhi, Tehran, Frankfurt and London, to underline the absurdity of it all and the alien westernness of America.
Since Fenfang dumped him, the production assistant has become a jealous obsessive, but while she mostly avoids him, she doesn’t resent him. Her only friends by now are two scriptwriters, both men: Huizi, who admires her “scared girl” performance in a cop-show episode he wrote, and Ben’s old flatmate Patton, who is trying to make it in Hollywood. Why he has gone to Beijing to make it in Hollywood, we never know. Inspired by Patton, who passes on Tennessee Williams’s advice that you should never beat yourself up until you’ve done the first draft, Fenfang writes a screen treatment about a man doing odd jobs in Beijing. Xiaolu reproduces it here and, like the novel itself, it makes the quotidian as gripping as any average poignant epic of love, war, intertwined destinies etc, etc.
The ravenousness of the title is not entirely to do with the youthful quest for truth and beauty. Fenfang is always hungry and the novel is good on food: noodles, carp’s-head broth, pork and chive dumplings, McDonald’s (horrible to the Chinese mind, but there’s air-con in the awful summer heat and it’s one of the few places in Beijing you can sit down). The story is not so much a slice of life as a sliver, but good things do come in slivers – Parma ham, smoked salmon or truffle-shavings, say. Xiaolu’s work is that sort of treat.
20 FRAGMENTS OF A RAVENOUS YOUTH by Xiaolu Guo, translated by Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey
|© 2004 - 2008 Xiaolu Guo|