a novel by Xiaolu Guo

REVIEW by Dr. Edward Vickers

Over the past fifteen years, more and more work by modern Chinese writers has become available in English translation. Much of this has chronicled the trials and tribulations of the author (or a fictional proxy) against the backdrop of the violent upheavals of twentieth-century China. Accomplished and absorbing as some of this writing is (Wild Swans, Half of Man is Woman), Western readers might be forgiven for supposing that China's artists and intellectuals remain collectively obsessed with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, Mao, Tiananmen Square and so on.

Even if this ever was the case, for the younger generation of Chinese writers nowadays, politics is, to paraphrase one of Mao's slogans, no longer 'in command'. As yet, relatively little contemporary Chinese fiction has been translated into English, and some of those authors whose works have made it onto British and American bookshelves (such as Wei Hui, with her soft-porn Shanghai Baby) have perhaps owed their success in part to qualities other than literary merit.

As her picture on the dustjacket reveals, Xiaolu Guo also possesses some of these qualities, but in this case the product does not disappoint. In Village of Stone, she tells a moving story of childhood and young adulthood in a China of vast contrasts and rapid transformations. This is a first-person account of the life of Coral, a twenty-eight-year-old woman who works in a video rental stall in Beijing. She lives with her feckless, frisbee-mad boyfriend 'Red' on the ground floor of a large modern apartment block. Then, one day, the mysterious arrival of a package containing a dried eel prompts her to recall her childhood in a remote fishing village in the south of China - the 'Village of Stone' of the novel's title.

The story then alternates between drab contemporary Beijing, and the quaint but oppressive society of Coral's home village. As a child, she lives with her mutually-estranged paternal grandparents, until one day her grandfather commits suicide by swallowing a bottle of pesticide. She is sexually abused, and finally kidnapped and raped, by the diabolical village mute. Later, as a teenager, she seduces her young Chemistry teacher, becomes pregnant, and undergoes a painful, botched abortion.

Meanwhile, the grown-up Coral in Beijing becomes pregnant once again, prompting her layabout boyfriend to start looking for work, and even to propose marriage. The novel ends with an intriguing and touching twist that effectively reconciles the worlds of Beijing and the Village of Stone, and enables Coral to make peace with her troubled past.

This is a charming, spontaneous and idiosyncratic tale, told in evocative and often lyrical prose - a tribute to the talents of the translator, Cindy Carter. Some feminist critics may balk at several of the observations Xiaolu (or Coral) makes regarding gender ('Torrid man and temperate woman definitely present two very different attitudes to the world. Red, as temperate man, is almost always cool and collected.') but other readers will warm to the emotional honesty that characterizes her writing.

The weaving of folk myths and legends into the story is wonderfully effective, and highlights the spiritual gulf that separates the 'old' China of the village from the brave new world of Beijing. This contrast between the anomie of modern Chinese urban life, and the ancient but fast-vanishing traditional universe of the countryside, is a theme that Xiaolu has also explored in her award-winning documentary films(Far And Near 2003, The Concrete Revolution 2004), but here as in her films there is no soft-focus nostalgia for a lost Chinese Arcadia. As Coral reflects at the end of the novel, 'It makes no difference how far we travel or where we go, but it is important to be perfectly clear about where we come from.' While acknowledging our origins, however, there is no suggestion that we can or should attempt to return to them.

Despite the heart-wrenching and disturbing incidents with which it is peppered, the mood of this novel is surprisingly upbeat. The raw material is here for a 'Jude the Obscure with Chinese characteristics' - squandered opportunities, trampled hopes, wasted lives, over-educated rural youth with aspirations above their station - but Xiaolu ensures that her main characters are ultimately spared the ravages of inexorable fate. Her own recent documentary about rural migrants working in Beijing’s construction industry (Concrete Revolution) suggests that, in reality, poverty, frustration and disappointment are more frequently the lot of those who toil at the bottom of the heap. But her writing has a freshness and an almost guileless optimism that perhaps is to be hoped for from an author who was only twenty-eight when this novel was completed. The tortured pathos can wait until she has become sufficiently old and embittered.

The main attraction of this book undoubtedly lies in the stories of life in the Village of Stone. Reading the Beijing chapters, I found myself skimming through the somewhat tedious reflections on frisbee throwing and dried eel in my impatience to get on to the passages set in the fishing village. The Beijing sections are in general far less satisfying from a literary and emotional point of view than those about Coral's childhood - though no doubt this is partly a consequence of the attempt to convey the alienating nature of life in the modern metropolis.

Nonetheless, it is well worth dodging the eels and ducking the frisbees for the sake of the hauntingly evocative passages about the Village of Stone itself. With these, Xiaolu paints an original and moving portrait of a China that, for better or for worse, will soon be lost to history.






  © 2004 - 2008 Xiaolu Guo