If I could go back in time I would have paid attention to studying history when I was in school. I enjoy reading historical fictions but I get caught up with trying to get my head around with the timeline and background of the story so as to understand the characters a little better. Politics is also not my cup of tea thus I tend to be oblivious to what is happening throughout the world but in this unsettling time, I realise that I should be more aware of what is going on.

I am China written by Xiaolu Guo is an interesting read. It is multilayered and it explores politics and culture across China, Europe and America.

There are two parallel stories. Iona Kirkpatrick who hails from a small place in Scotland works as a translator living in north-east London. The editor at Applegate Books has handed her some Chinese letters and diary entries written by two lovers , Deng Mu and Kublai Jian who have been driven apart due to forces beyond their control. This bundle of documents including Jian’s letters and diaries from a long time ago, some more recent were given by a mysterious Chinese woman to Jonathan Barker, the publisher at Applegate Books in January 2013 at an international literature festival . They span nearly twenty years- there are dark spots from greasy fingers, smudges and ink. Jonathan hands them to Iona in the hope that he may uncover something big and that a book might be fashioned from this collection of personal papers.

Jian is a punk musician and he expresses his political beliefs through his music and he writes political manifestos and he was forced out of China after he distributed his manifesto at the last rock concert that he held.

Words, symbols, verbal gestures. Sometimes clear, sometimes obscure. Iona struggles, unable to gauge their depth in the parallel of world of Mu and Jian. But she tries, and at the same time she shuffles around the pages, trying to arrange them in the right order.’ Iona strains to understand Jian’s texts which are full of old, formal idioms as well as text written in a very colloquial way such as ‘ old bastard sky‘. Jian seems very angry and Iona has difficulties ‘trying to produce some sort of stylistic coherence in the translation!There are so many basic difficulties in translating Chinese into English, Iona thinks. No tense differentiation: no conjugation of verbs ; no articles, no inversion in questions and I have to invent all this and add it to fit the translation.’

Iona finds the contents intriguing, there is the prison and there is Kublai Jian with his manifesto and he seems to have serious issues with his father who sounds like an important official in the Chinese government. Kublai Jian could be a stage name for his music and there is reference to the album Yuan v Dollars but they cannot find more information and their internet searches are fruitless. There is also reference to ‘Life and Fate’ a Russian novel by Vasily Grossman. Iona gets a copy of the novel to understand the characters as Mu makes reference to the novel.

Here is an excerpt from the novel.

It is 29 December 2011, Jian is waiting for the plane to take him away. He is about to be exiled from China.

Dearest Mu, you know what I am saying. It repeats itself in my mind. It repeats itself because of this split in me, that’s still there after all these eighteen years of us being together. I have loved you so long — you are my only family in this world. But you say you never really understand politics. You were not there in 1989. You could not understand.

I remember that May, a month before the massacre. It was the week when Chairman Hu Yaobang died, and I had just discovered the first Chinese translation of “Howl,” that one we used to read together. All the students in Beijing’s universities started to worry about the future. It’s hard to believe it now, but we were almost depressed! He was the last good leader of China. We sat and argued in cafés, somehow studying seemed so unimportant. Is there any hope, we wondered? And that same week the socialist Polish government held its first democratic election. Everyone in the West was talking about democracy vs communism. But China was uninterested. Nothing would change. We knew that. I was only seventeen-years-old, but I felt like an old man already, sad and depressed. Where was my faith? And the balls and the belief to achieve something in politics? But then I thought, forget about the politics, there was only one good thing in all this. It was the band, of course. I had just formed my first band. That band you came to like so much. And you know how it felt for me then — I was going to start the new century with music — the first real Chinese rock n’ roll band. And this is what it came down to: I would rather burst eardrums with my guitar than fight with it at the barricades.

So, in that June, when the student demonstration started in the Square, I was feverishly in love with rock and roll. I reckon I had already decided that a musical revolution was better than direct action, while all my classmates were out protesting and on hunger strike. On the 3rd of June, after spending two hours in the square and raising banners and flags, I have to confess, a weariness overcame me. Mu, did I ever talk about this weariness? I returned to the campus alone. I should have stayed. It should really have been my event. It’s like my defining life moment happened without me.

The pile of letters before Iona seems to be a never-ending mystery and Iona is surprised to find the letter written in a totally different style and she figures that is Mu’s writings. Mu who is a poet appears to be grounded and she disagrees with Jian about all his convictions but she loves him. Her handwriting is neat and legible compared to Jian’s which is messy and hard to decipher. Against all odds, Mu chooses life as she writes in her letter to Iona: ‘ I know that the infinite world is there beyond trivial ideologies or politics. And we only have one life to live. ‘ She takes life in her stride, whatever that turns out to be. She is a realist. When she is in London, she mails to Iona pages of Jian’s manifesto. Here is a manifesto by Jian translated by Iona.

The perpetual revolution is the revolution that even revolutionises itself. Perpetual revolution is complete freedom. Art is complete freedom. And love is complete freedom

Aside from unfolding the story between Jian and Mu, the author weaves the story of Iona who is single and lonely. She has a striking resemblance to Hollywood actress Winona Ryder but she is shy and she prefers to retreat into words.

The author wrote,

‘For Iona, there are two modes of expression that bring her to life. One is the sexual act. All it takes to rekindle her sense of being alive is that small breath of a decision. The decision to leave a pub with an unknown man and go back with him. She takes pleasure in entering a totally new world in the pitch black of night. The next day she can live with ease.

Her other world is through words. To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of her life. Perhaps this , most of all, is what enables her to connect. As a teenager, driven crazy by the boredom of living on a small Scottish island inhabited largely by sheep, she found herself longing for foreign words :the alien sound, the unknown syllable, the mysterious sign. Learning languages consumed her. She stuffed herself full with them, and went to university for more. Perhaps a foreign language would offer her an escape…..’

Excellent storytelling with a vivid description of the characters, historical events and places. While Jian  gives you a melancholic and bleak feel that you can probably resonate with real life when you feel frustrated, trapped and  betrayed yet you may also be like Mu who will find this ray of hope and light  that makes you want to live well and  make the best of your life. It is an interesting read with thought-provoking narratives. 

Named as one of Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013, Xiaolu Guo is also a filmmaker. She hails from South China and presently lives in London.


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