Included in Granta’s latest list of Best Young British Novelists, Xiaolu Guo became a British citizen around ten years ago, after a film she made gave her ‘a political problem’ in China. I am China is her tenth novel; the fourth she has written in English (she began writing in English out of necessity, due to difficulties getting her work translated from Chinese).
I am China is a story within a story: Iona, a British translator, is assigned the translation of a bunch of love letters from Chinese to English. The letters trace the relationship of Mu and Jian, a mysterious figure who appears to be a Chinese punk musician turned political dissident seeking refuge in Europe. Over the course of the correspondence it becomes apparent that Jian has influential parents, and that the Chinese state has even more interest than usual in covering up his story. Whereas many Chinese writers tend to prefer euphemism, Guo has written unusually directly about censorship and its ramifications. I am China is an unabashedly political novel, with its release timed for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre for extra emphasis.
Mu and Jian’s deteriorating affair is framed by Iona’s ‘empty’ London life. Perhaps because of her own lack of meaningful relationships, coupled with a long term fascination with China, Iona latches onto Jian and Mu’s story, dreaming of bringing them together again.
“If you spend enough time reading someone else’s thoughts, after a while their thoughts begin to infect you. Your grasp on yourself becomes tenuous. Or you begin to see that you never were the essential you in the first place, Iona thinks to herself as she takes the bus back to Angel.”
Guo apparently didn’t have an easy time getting asylum, and her own experiences are reflected in the struggle of Jian, the main character in I am China. Guo has stated that this will be the last book she writes about China, and the asylum struggle is not the only biographical element. Like Jian, Guo’s brother demonstrated in (and survived) Tiananmen Square. Their father was imprisoned for being an artist during the cultural revolution, as was Mu’s father in I am China.
I am China is written in cold, clear, unembellished language which, although functional rather than poetic, was quite beautiful at times. On the other hand it lacks immediacy: sometimes feeling flat and a little devoid of emotion. The prose is disjointed at times, especially when transitioning between Iona’s life and the content she is working on, but there’s something progressive about the whole construction which makes this feel less relevant overall. A theme which is raised over and over again is the difficulty of translating between Chinese and English; two languages with fundamentally different structures. Similarly, when reading about China from a Western perspective it often feels like something has been lost in translation. I am China makes less effort to package itself in the way that we are used to, and in doing so is probably nearer to the real deal.
Any Cop?: An interesting novel, not just for the insider’s view of China, but also for its subtly different approach to the ‘Western’ novel format.