Sorry of my English
Saturday January 27, 2007
Xiaolu Guo, who lives in London, has made several films and written several books; this novel is her first written in English. The narrative device she uses is ingenious and risky: a kind of diary kept by a young Chinese woman coming to England to improve her shaky knowledge of the language. It begins: "(SORRY OF MY ENGLISH)". Right there, I think, many readers will be able to judge whether they want to go on: do they find this opening endearing, or fatally coy? Does it promise to intrigue or infuriate? I was intrigued, and read on:
Beijing time 12 clock midnight.
London time 5 clock afternoon.
But I neither time zone. I on airplane. Sitting on 25,000 metres above to earth and trying to remember all English I learn in school.
I not met you yet. You in future."
If the mangled language entertains without annoying, all is well, for we're in the hands of someone who knows how to tell a story. The story is about "I" and "you", and the title promises us love. The book keeps the promise. It is also, of course, about language, and translation, and the immense difference between thinking in Chinese and thinking in English, and being Chinese and being English, and about what can and cannot be understood between even the tenderest lovers.
A lot of this is funny and charming: the incredulity of the British vegetarian at his sweetheart's insatiable lust for pork, her incredulity at his living on roots and grass as if in a perpetual famine. A lot of it is subtle and gently troubling: her perfectly guiltless reading of his private diaries while he is away, her incapacity or refusal to understand what is important about privacy; his incapacity or refusal to commit himself to their relationship, from which he increasingly pulls away, cherishing his unshared selfhood, his precious privacy. Or the problem of manners:
"'Would you like some tea?'
'No,' I say.
She looking at me, her face suddenly frozen. Then she asking me again:
'Would you like some coffee then?'
'No. I don't want.'
'Are you sure you don't want anything?'
'No. I don't want anything wet,' I saying loudly, precisely.
Mrs Margaret looking very upset."
Our narrator says ruefully, "China not have politeness in same way," but there is more to it than that. She grew up in village poverty, with ambitious, pushy parents whose whole vision of life was to make money selling shoes, peasants fiercely determined to be bourgeois; now here among the bourgeoisie, for her the question of manners runs far deeper than mere verbal ritual, implying all the weight not only of country but of class. Her rejection of hypocrisy has a political dimension; it is both childish and heroic. Later on, when her lover sends her across the Channel "to gain experience", her ignorant indifference to local convention leads her into some very risky behaviour. She certainly gains experience, though what she learns from it is questionable.
She does learn English, though. By midway through the story, though she keeps to the present tense when possible, she can handle the past and future with some skill; and by the end, the naivety of the language is often effective, sometimes eloquent. And instead of hiding behind her solecisms and her Chineseness, her speech increasingly reveals her personality, which is brash, abrasive, open, vulnerable, exasperatingly likable. The very opposite of her indecisive, introverted Englishman.
It is a love story, and I won't give away the ending, except to say that, though perhaps a little sentimental, it rings true. The novel, though, is also more than a love story; its psychology is politically acute, and things noted lightly in it linger in the mind. It succeeds in luring the western reader into an alien way of thinking: a trick only novels can pull off, and indeed one of their finest tricks. The only element in it that rang a little false to me was the frequent reference to films. Clearly films are important to the author, and the cinema may now constitute a bridge between the cultures of rural China and urban England. Still, I found it a little hard to believe that our narrator was quite so up on the subtleties of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. For readers like myself who barely remember the movie, it doesn't function well to reinforce or explain an emotional crisis. That's the danger of leaning on a work of art to do the work of your work of art: we don't share references as we did when the world was smaller.
That, of course, is part of the irony and pathos of the book: how can we talk to one another in different languages?
· Ursula K Le Guin's City of Illusions is published by Gollancz
|© 2004 - 2006 Xiaolu Guo|