Whenever I stumble upon a good book or interesting narratives by a writer in terms of voice and writing style, I think of getting another copy of the book as I am so excited about the find that I want to give a copy of it to a friend.
Storytelling is an essential part of our collective understanding about humanity. Be it through fiction, non-fiction, writers translate facts, figures, ideas, perceptions and experiences into empathy and understanding. When a story is being told, it is the writer’s voice that engages a reader’s attention.
This year I picked up the novel I am China from Borders and then I picked up 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth from an independent bookshop that sells used and overrun books. I had unwittingly picked up two novels by XiaoLu Guo click without realizing that both novels were by the same author. Guo’s writing style comes across as a hybrid between Chinese and English. Twenty Fragments was originally written in Chinese, then when it was translated into English, Guo rewrote in English on top of the translation.
After reading books by writers whose native language is English, Guo’s voice offers a breath of fresh air and a certain charm. Her voice is authentic, instinctive and effective.
20 fragments of a Ravenous Youth reminds us of the frailty of youth and modern city living. The story is about Fenfang, a young film extra who has travelled 1800 miles to seek a life outside her sweet potato fields back home. She wants to have those shiny things in life. When she is in urban Beijing, she works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer’s movie threatre, falls in love with unsuitable men and her dinner is UFO noodles when she is dire straits.
“ Heavenly Bastard in the Sky” is Fenfang’s favourite phrase. Betty Blue -37’2 le matin is Fenfang’s favourite film.
‘ Even after 15 times. I could never forget the end. Betty was dead and her man Zorg was writing alone at a table. Suddenly, his cat jumped on the table and stared at Zorg. And then it spoke. Oh, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky. The cat started to speak and it was Betty’s warm voice asking Zorg, are you writing now? Zorg looked at the cat. And that was it. The End. Heavenly Bastard in the Sky! Even just thinking about this made me want to cry.’
The novel is written in twenty fragments in the protagonist’s voice and each fragment is a segment of her youthful experience. It is a coming of age story.
In Fragment Seven, Guo writes,
‘I HAD ALWAYS WANTED TO LEAVE my village, a nothing place that won’t be found on any map of China. I had been planning my escape ever since I was very little. It was the river behind our house that started it. Its constant gurgling sound pulled at me . But I couldn’t see its end or its beginning. It just flowed endlessly on. Where did it go? Why didn’t it dry up in the scorching heat like everything else?’
‘I used to imagine the source of the river. Some faraway hidden cave that was home to a beautiful fairy. From there, the water flowed through our world to yet another world, a magical place close to heaven where lucky people lived, or animals perhaps-foxes maybe, or rabbits, owls, even unicorns. Wherever it was , it was not a place the people from my village could ever enter.’
In Fragment Nine, Guo writes,
‘ Kafka said, anyone who can’t come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to wave away his despair and the other to note down what he sees among the ruins. I thought about the diary I used to keep. I wished I still had it. By now I would have had a whole library of my thoughts to look back on. But I stopped writing it when I was with Xiaolin. He treated it as his evening newspaper. He would leaf through its pages when he was bored, looking for stories. So instead, I kept my true thoughts , desires and dreams hidden deep within. I became a person who was very good at hiding her emotions. Maybe that was why people thought I was heartless. Apparently my face often had a blank expression. Huizi, my most intellectual friend, would say, ‘Fenfang, yours is the face of a post-modern woman.’
20 Fragments of A Ravenous Youth is melancholic yet hopeful. I have been to a few big cities in China and I find that Guo’s narratives about modern China are insightful and aptly descriptive.