Thursday, April 12, 2007

Thanks to the friendly people over at Chatto & Windus, I have been reading my way through Xiaolu Guo's A CONCISE CHINESE-ENGLISH DICTIONARY FOR LOVERS, recently longlisted for this year's Orange Prize. I'm not convinced that this book will make the shortlist, but that's not to say that it isn't an interesting and thought-provoking read. If I have one criticism of the title, it felt almost as though there were two books in one, struggling to get out. On the one hand a hilarious book about discovering a new language and culture, in the vein of David Sedaris' ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, and on the other hand a darker almost more seedy novel. Interestingly, while the first half had me entranced and laughing out loud, it is the feel of the second half which has remained with me. So although I can't say I enjoyed the second half, it has lingered on, giving me pause for thought.

There's nothing like an outsider to comment on mainstream society and Guo's character "Z" (no-one can be bothered to pronounce her name) is a delightful prism through which to view British eccentricities, while reflecting back on her own ("The day when I arrived to the West, I suddenly realized I am a Chinese"). The novel is laid out with each chapter the definition of a new word, and Z's English improves exponentially over the course of the book, as do her criticisms of the new society around her, her confused feelings for her lover, and fears about returning home to China - this really works. Half way through the book Z comments in the midst of a hilarious moment, "Your friends look at us three Orientals, like look at three panda escape from bamboo forest." There is an underlying pain here amidst the hilarity, and she gets this spot on.

Like Tsitsi Dangarembga, Guo looks set to produce a wonderfully varied output of both film and literature (her film HOW IS YOUR FISH TODAY has just won Grand Prix du Jury at the International Women's Film Festival in France). She is writing about the widespread phenomenon of the immigrant experience, the outsider looking in, and she does this without sounding worthy or patronizing.

As I regularly blog about my struggles learning Tamil, you know the angst I go through grappling bemusedly with linguistic challenges. This is the strong point of Guo's book. She is utterly believable in her portrayal of baffled language learner. Here is a taster:
proper adj real or genuine; suited to a particular purpose; correct in behaviour; excessively moral

Today my first time taking taxi. How I find important place with bus and tube? Is impossibility. Tube map is like plate of noodles. Bus route is in-understandable. In my home town everyone take cheap taxi, but in London is very expensive and taxi is like the Loyal family look down to me.
Driver say: 'Please shut the door properly!'
I already shut the door, but taxi don't moving.
Driver shout me again: 'Shut the door properly! in a concisely manner.
I am bit scared. I not understanding what is this 'properly'.
'I beg your pardon?' I ask. 'What is properly?'
'Shut the door properly!' Taxi driver turns around his big head and neck nearly break because of anger.
'But what is "properly", Sir?' I so frightened that I not daring ask it once more again.
Driver coming out from taxi, and walking to door. I think he going to kill me.
He opens door again, smashing it back to me hardly.
'Properly!' he shout. (pp.16-17)

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Blogger StuckInABook said...

Looks intriguing - does it pall that so much of the book is in 'learner's English?' Sounds a bit like the book the father starts writing in I Capture the Castle - it begins 'the cat sat on the mat, the cat sat on the mat' many times, as being first attempts of a child to grasp language.

12:19 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

I wondered about this before I started reading it, but found that while it is initially notable, you soon don't notice, partly because the charcter's english does improve, but also because you become interested in her struggles to master the words. Quite cleverly done, now that I think about it. I still don't think it should win the Orange, however.

12:23 pm  

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