I Am China by Xiaolu Guo
Catto and Windus, London, 2014
Fiction Review by Eniko Jakab
Published in issue 39 of The Ofi Press
I Am China is a compelling read, asking essential questions about freedom and identity, individuality, social responsibility, and the relationship between art and politics. For all its turbulent storyline, it is very much a book of ideas, first and foremost about the conflict of the individual torn between the private and the political, and the sacrifices one is forced to make.
This big-hearted, ambitious novel, encompassing decades and continents, employs a complex narrative structure to tell the story of its three main protagonists: Iona, a young British translator, rebellious Chinese musician Kublai Jian, and his former girlfriend Mu.
London-based translator Iona – named aptly after an island, and at the onset of the novel living in almost complete emotional isolation – is given a huge pile of manuscripts to translate and edit. Out of letters, diary entries and various other documents, she slowly deciphers the story of Jian and Mu, as well as a large amount of contemporary Chinese history, from Tiananmen Square to the Jasmine Revolution.
Jian and Mu seem like the perfect embodiment of yin and yang: Jian is active, decidedly political, daring, while good-natured, obedient Mu seems passive, also as regards political convictions: she deliberately withholds to the private sphere, and experiences permanent conflict because Jian chooses to live a very public, politically uncompromising life, one which culminates in his reading his manifesto to the public in a concert.
As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Jian has been forced to leave China and is now somewhere in Europe, waiting for a decision on his asylum application, and Mu has also left China. There is a dramatic transformation in the lives of the ill-fated lovers: they are moving in opposite directions. Jian, forced to wait, bereaved of his roots, and later even of his guitar, the symbol of artistic self-expression, is a free man technically – but without his roots, his identity, this freedom seems absurd, a mockery. He is still active in the physical sense, drifting through various European countries, yet emotionally, he is frozen into a situation, and he feels tragically out of time and place.
Mu, on the other hand, after several painful and tragic events in her life, learns to define her boundaries, also within her own traditional Chinese family, finds her own voice to speak out, and finally becomes a successful slam poet.
Iona’s life also changes as she reads and interprets ‘the lives of others’, and – in a rather conventional storyline – eventually comes out of her emotional hibernation.
It is impossible not to see the tremendous effort and energy put into this exciting yet ultimately flawed book. The several layers do not always feel congruous – and this affects the whole of the book.
Furthermore, there is a certain uneven quality to the writing in its use of the language, undoubtedly owing to the bold decision of the author to write in a second language. Poetic passages are followed by clumsily phrased sentences, halting the reader. In this regard, Iona’s narrative line is the most problematic: as she is a linguist by profession, the reader would expect her to be more at ease with her mother tongue, so the occasional clumsy sentences and uneven style are a painful distraction, undermining credibility: her story line simply does not feel authentic enough.
Despite its missed potentials, I Am China makes a fascinating read, demanding the reader to reconstruct and understand this rich, multi-layered story and reflect on the issues raised in it, and discover exciting intertextual and cultural references.