Sunday, August 31, 2014

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo

Iona is drifting through the world.  She left Scotland to get an education and then stayed in London after getting her degree in Chinese history.  She makes a living working at home translating Chinese documents, usually long and boring business works.  She sees no friends and her love life consists of momentary assignations with men she meets in bars and has no interest in the next day.

Into this lonely world is dropped an assignment that starts to wake Iona up.  She is given a mishmash of documents and asked to translate them by a publisher.  The documents are all mixed together.  There are journal entries, letters, song fragments.  There are two authors. 

As Iona starts to work her way through the documents she finds that they portray the lives and love of two Chinese young people.  Jian is a young man who was raised in a wealthy, influential family but with little love.  He directs his anger into his music and becomes a famous punk rocker in China, his concerts filled with other disillusioned youth.  Mu is raised in the rural countryside and her focus is her love of Jian and their young son.  She is fearful of Jian's involvement with politics and fears that he will throw away their lives by getting noticed by the government. 

Jian does just that, using his concerts to advance his political visions.  He is taken to prison then forced out of the country.  He is moved from place to place as he attempts to get political asylum.  He tries to write to Mu and keep their relationship but he doesn't know if she gets his letters.  Mu also changes and moves between school, back home, off to America as a poet who is part of a band, and then another reincarnation as a businesswoman in London. 

Iona becomes entranced with the pair's story, even though validating any of it is very difficult due to the Chinese government's attempts to write the pair out of history.  As she documents the couple's attempt to find themselves and make a difference, she starts to find herself also. 

Xiaolu Guo was named one of Granta's  Best Young British Novelists in 2013, after moving to London in 2002.  Her novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and 20 Fragments Of  Ravenous Youth was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.  Her work deals with the alienation and disconnects that modern life can deal its occupants, and their search for love as a way to connect to the world.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.