Pushing against the open door



IN THE past decade, Chinese literature has finally started to make some in-roads into the notoriously resistant British literary scene. Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian were early successes; Xingjian's rather more surprisingly given that he did not write in English. Last year saw the publication of substantial, complex and controversial novels by Jiang Rong and Ma Jian – and in a few months time, Yu Hua's epic comedy Brothers comes out, charting the chaotic career of two siblings during the transition from Mao to capitalism.

Both Yiyun Li and Xiaolu Guo have already received several awards: Guo was shortlisted for the IMPAC Prize for Village Of Stone and for the Orange Prize for her first novel in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, and Li won the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O'Connor Prize for A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers. Both born in China, Li – who only writes in English – now teaches creative writing in California, and Guo is also a film-maker, whose work includes We Went To Wonderland. The differences between their novels are rather more striking than any similarity of background.


UFO In Her Eyes is sprightlier and slighter in equal measure. Told as a series of official documents, the story unfolds of how an illiterate spinster-ish peasant, Kwok Yun, saw a flying saucer the day after National Wiping Out Illiteracy Day. This event precipitates a farcical series of modernisations, as the village of Silver Hill tries to capitalise on its new-found fame. The comedy is neatly poised; with neither the modern multiplexed suburb nor the old-fashioned poverty-stricken backwater seeming like a viable community. Along the way there are caustic little caricatures – the butcher reliving his glory days as a Parasite Eradication Hero (and inadvertently causing the Great Famine), to the mayor's Five Year Plan for "the new Mao Swimming Pool" which will "open up our dry old ways to the dynamics of floating in a modern life".

That said, UFO In Her Eyes is less emotionally engaging than Guo's previous novel, 20 Fragments Of A Ravenous Youth, her first Chinese novel translated into English, a beautifully oblique and angry book about aspiration in the new China. Only in the final pages is there a nasty, revelatory twist that undermines the surreal rhetoric of modernity and improvement.

Xiaolu Guo's novel is a sweary, sarcastic, brash bagatelle; while Yiyun Li's is a static, fraught, claustrophobic affair – it is telling that one of her acknowledgements is to William Trevor. One wears its novelty on its sleeve; the other its sincerity.


Stuart Kelly

Scotland on Sunday, 15 February 2009


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