sometimes witty book reviews
Iona is a Scottish translator of Chinese who does mostly dry, corporate work and has a very dry, corporate approach to her love life. She is presented one day with a pile of photocopies of handwritten diary entries, letters and ephemera by a big publishing firm. She sets about translating and soon becomes enveloped in the two diary writers’ lives.
One writer is Kublai Jian. A Chinese punk rocker who forever regrets missing the Tian’anmen Square Incident. The other is Deng Mu. A Misty Poet (genre of modern Chinese poetry) enthusiast who pines for Jian to come to his senses and find herself after the death of their very young child, Shu. The two are pulled together by politics, poets and punk rock as students and thrown apart by bitter disillusionment. Two decades on, Jian mysteriously ends up in a Dover detention centre as Mu watches her favourite parent die in southern China. Iona rides the tumultuous waves of Mu and Jian’s decades long love-hate affair with each other, their art and their country.
Xiaolu Guo’s style is elegant yet cuts to the quick. Likening her precision of prose to the movements of a surgeon at work would not be unkind nor unrealistic. Through dreary London to sweltering Cyrus, simmering Beijing to the dusty halls of Havard, Xiaolu leads Iona, and us, on a wild chase after the fate of Mu and Jian. This eventually has the Chinese government trying to hack the publisher’s records as Iona plays at being detective.
To top it off, Guo includes a concert at a Coca Cola factory, a letter from Queen Elizabeth II and a few lesbian strip show scenes. It mayn’t surprise you that book is banned in China.
It’s a novel idea. Or at least one that I haven’t encountered before. Telling a story through the eyes of a translator and thus the story of the translator through how she chooses to translate is initially a bit befuddling. But, like great writers before (a little like Woolf but far more clinical), Xiaolu has the reader rise to her style. I was only too happy to meet her.