Sunday, September 09, 2007

Exciting, virginal territory

I came to Xiaolu Guo's (pictured) book after having been bombarded with all the pre-release hype, most of it in the UK. So I knew, before I picked it up, that it's not written in impeccable English -- why, it doesn't even follow the regular rules of grammar; that it's a love story between a Chinese woman and an English man; and more solidly perhaps, that it was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize for fiction, a highbrow British prize reserved exclusively for female authors.

Perhaps it was the result of this hype that Chinese-English Dictionary took a while to have the intended impact on me. No doubt, it's an endearing work, but hindered somewhat by the farce of maintaining poor English, Guo may have compromised on narrative tautness, at least in the beginning.

The story revolves around a 24-year-old Chinese girl, Z (that's how she prefers to address herself, since the English find her real name Zhuang too damn difficult to pronounce), who comes to England to learn English. She comes from a family of peasants who now run a shoe factory in China, and wish their daughter to learn the language of globalization.

Z enrolls in a language school in Holborn and begins her training under the formidable Mrs. Margaret. These initial chapters (the book takes us through a year in Z's life, separated by months) are a source of much humor. Z realizes the contortions of English leave her in an unenviable state, not just because the language is so very different from Chinese, but also because it speaks for a culture she can't even begin to fathom ("Homosexual: strange word, I cannot imagine it.").

But Z, like any other youngster her age, dreams of finding a perfect love, and her wish is granted when she meets a middle-aged Englishman during a film screening. This "you" takes her home and so kickstarts this coming-of-age story. "You" is 44 years old, a vegetarian (as opposed to the carnivorous Z), and has only had homosexual relationships in the past (which Z seems to have little trouble with).

The growth of the relationship -- from learning the nuances of polite behavior to realizing that discord is part of intimacy -- is carried off in subtle allusions to the difficulty of sharing lived space. To the reader, the openness that the man welcomes Z with, comes as the aftermath of a life lived too fast. To him, she is the simpleton that comes after the furore. To her, however, he is the first man she has been intimate with. Which is why this email from him has her scratching her head:

"In the West we are used to loneliness. I think it's good for you to experience loneliness, to explore what it feels like to be on your own. After a while, you will start to enjoy solitude. You won't be so scared of it anymore."

Love, to her -- to the Chinese her -- implies matrimony and family. Things like privacy and identity are incomprehensible to her Eastern mind. Through the dynamics of this relationship, Guo gives us insightful peeks into how the West and East are temperamentally different. There is also the question of physical space which, in the third world, is never enough, never quite enough to nurture and cherish solitude.

As she sets out on a pan-European tour on her boyfriend's insistence, Z is given a copy of Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy, the irony of which is not lost on the reader. And yet, she learns all this and more. The west makes her see, ultimately. Heartbreak, freedom, nostalgia.

Guo is a sensitive writer, and perhaps my surprise, even my bewilderment, at her narrative technique has more to do with the novelty of the idea than any real weakness thereof. For it must be asked: how many times has the shoe been on the other foot? How many times have we read accounts of the Western gaze on the Eastern native? Countless, if I were to hazard a decent guess. Just that this time, the gaze is inverted, and it takes us into a new territory, all the more exciting for its virginity.

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From Chicago Sun-Times

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