UFO in her eyes

A sharp polemic where every word counts

Review by Eileen Battersby

The Irish Times, January 31 2009


A SIMPLE VILLAGE woman, a girl with neither grace nor beauty, or even a family, who has been raised by her grandfather, suddenly becomes a person of note. Having sighted a UFO, Kwok Yun, previously best known locally as a large girl of masculine dimensions, given to travelling about on her battered old Flying Pigeon bike, is the reason several unpleasant bureaucrats descend on Silver Hill Village. An investigation begins and many truths as well as personal stories emerge. Xiaolu Guo’s fourth novel is a clever satire in the 19th-century Russian tradition. In fact it goes further than this; it follows Russian political satirists, such as the great Andrey Platonov, into the 20th century.

This is a fast moving, barbed polemic. The civil servants prove a smug bunch, not overly sensitive about letting the locals know what they think of this crummy back water. The UFO might as well be a moving statue. The central issue becomes the character of the individual who claims to have seen it.

Film maker Xiaolu Guo is an exciting and original writer. Having long been based in London and, more recently, Paris, she has an interesting approach towards explaining her native country, which she does without resorting to easy nostalgia or condescension. Her first three books were to some extent rooted in her experience. A native of a fishing village in south China, she made the expected journey to the big city, Beijing, and writes brilliantly on this theme of transition.

Her first novel, Village of Stone, was written in Chinese and is the most conventional of her books, a traditional narrative possessed of immense emotional depth. Read that and you will want to read anything she writes, and this is the type of good naturedly provocative writer she has become, a writer to read. She is a natural witness and one with an instinctive visual sense, hardly surprising as it was film that brought her to Beijing and then on to London.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) made her famous. Written in English, it makes effective use of the very different meaning words can have. The central character is a young Chinese girl who arrives in England and prepares to do battle with the English language. She also acquires an English boyfriend and this proves both a help and a hindrance to her linguistic dilemma. The narrative displays lightness of touch and irony. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth was published last year. In it, the ultra-likeable heroine, Fenfang, describes her odyssey, a journey that takes her almost 2,000 miles from home to Beijing, there, as they say, to seek her fortune. Her adventures as a film extra who is also trying to make a personal life as much as a career are described with wit and more than a passing awareness of China’s changing culture, nor forgetting the east-west tensions. Each of her books to date has a specific voice and identity; she has already established a literary presence which is recognisable, different yet true to her vision, which places the individual in the context of a changing world. Her new book may well be the least personal in the sense that the voice has become fragmented. The narrative, which looks rather like a script or a plan for work in progress, consists of a series of interviews carried out with the villagers. Gradually, a portrait of life in the village emerges; the investigating team is not sympathetic and makes no allowances for the fact that they have arrived in a village that might as well belong to a different century. Instead of finding out about the UFO, they seem to think that are investigating a crime.

As the interviews progress the respective personalities of the villagers become more vivid. It is a clever book, in that Xiaolu Guo conceals its cleverness while at the same time ensuring that it is read as a polemic. Kwok’s grandfather sits and listens as the government official begins his questions: “As I understand it,” drawls the obviously bored civil servant, “you are the grandfather of the young woman who claims to have seen a UFO, Kwok Yun. Is this correct?” The old man explodes: “What do you want? People tell me that my granddaughter saw a strange plate in the sky. So what is that Bitch Bastard story all about, eh? Has everybody turned mad? I understand nothing of this modern world. I’ve never done a bad deed in my life, so don’t waste your time trying to dig anything out of my knotted brain. Besides, I stopped thinking long ago. Thinking doesn’t do anybody any good.”

Very quickly Guo makes it clear that the government and the people are two distinctly separate entities. The sighting of the UFO also brings further complications. An effort to capitalise on its new fame encourages the village chief, a progressive and damaged woman who lost both of her sons in a mining accident, to think of developing the village for tourists. The so-called progress robs the village of its sacred trees. An old butcher is put out of business after some 60 years of serving customers, none of whom died from dirty meat, while a local fisherman kills himself when his lovingly tended carp pond is destroyed in the name of progress.

Against the odds, nervy, awkward Kwok finds love and a husband. She is also dispatched to the big city. Yet Guo, a writer to read, a writer who makes every word count, concludes this sharp little book in which the legacy of the Cultural Revolution simmers and festers, with a note of controlled menace. Orwell would have approved.



Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times




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