I Am China, by Xiaolu Guo, is the story of Kublai Jian and Deng Mu, a couple from Beijing who have been separated by both circumstances and ideological differences, and Iona Kirkpatrick, the youngish Scottish Londoner who gets tasked with translating their correspondence. As the story progresses, Iona becomes preoccupied with wanting to reunite the estranged lovers – but will she make it before time runs out? The novel is written in third person, much of it from Iona’s point of view, but increasingly drawing on Jian’s or Mu’s instead. It’s interspersed with excerpts from their letters and journal entries as Iona translates them, non-linear and confusing – sometimes dating back to the early 90s when they first met as students, others from within the past few months. Iona is presented with a dual mystery – firstly, how did her publisher end up with this jumble of personal documents from ordinary citizens? And secondly, what happened to separate Jian and Mu, who seem so in love in their early entries?
For a long way into the book, I wasn’t sure what on earth Iona was seeing in the correspondence to make her invested in the relationship. Jian is – or would at least like to be – a prominent figure in Beijing’s underground punk scene. He’s an interesting character, but also seemingly a bit of a jerk: he’s very involved in political activism and committed to something he calls his “manifesto”, which brings him into conflict with the Chinese authorities. The exact nature of his beliefs is left ambiguous for most of the novel, but it’s clear from the outset that he is anti-authoritarian and opposed to the Chinese Communist Party. This activism, while very principled, preoccupies him and draws his focus away from his life with Mu, a poet and editor. Mu herself seems to have grieved the end of the relationship and moved on. As the novel progresses, though, it becomes apparent that Iona’s drive to reunite them has at least as much to do with Iona herself as it does with the protagonists of the story she’s building out of scraps. She becomes completely invested in the story, in the mystery, at the expense of engaging with her own life.
This was quite a slow read for me, and it took me a while to get into it, but once I was engrossed I enjoyed it. The love story didn’t do it for me, but I loved the way that each little mystery that gets solved leads to several more: who is Jian’s father? Why have all mentions of Jian’s band seemingly been scrubbed from the internet? Where is Mu now? I was also fascinated by Iona’s stray thoughts about the difficulties of translating, especially from a language so different to English – for example, apparently there is no indication of verb tense in Chinese text, which can sometimes make it difficult to tell if someone is talking about past events or future plans. Guo had already written and published several novels in Chinese before switching to English, so I’m guessing that Iona’s thoughts about the linguistic differences are strongly influenced by her own.
Even though this was slow, and was not destined to become a forever favourite for me, I am glad I read it. The purpose of my Transmongolian Challenge is to get some level of insight into the history and culture of the three countries I would have visited last year – Russia, Mongolia, and China – and this is the first Chinese book I’ve read for the challenge. Judged by those criteria, it was a very successful choice. I knew very little about China’s political development post-Tiananmen Square, and because of Jian’s activism I got an glimpse at more recent changes in the country. For example, there are some scenes set during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, which I’d never heard of – pro-democracy Chinese protests that spilled over from student activism. Because the protesters had taken the jasmine flower as their symbol, there were orders that florists were no longer allowed to sell jasmine flowers. In the novel, there are scenes of party officials burning flowers in the same way that they once burnt books. Similarly, the reader gets a look at Mu’s frustration as she hears the Arab Spring being whispered about among her friends, but never seeing even a glimpse of it in the state-controlled news.
Speaking of political developments, it did sometimes stretch my credulity that Iona had so little knowledge of Chinese history or culture. There are historical moments mentioned in the letters and diaries that I knew about as a teenager, but that completely shock her as she gradually works her way through the correspondence, googling events she’d not heard of. It was not particularly believable to me that a woman who’d done a degree in Chinese at SOAS – who’d lived in China for a brief time, even – wouldn’t have at least heard of intellectuals being brutally punished on stage in front of their communities. It’s a big part of Iona’s character, at least to start with, that she is fairly disconnected from reality and living a very isolated, demotivated life, so I suppose this was in service of character development – but I wasn’t completely sold on it. (Also, on the question of realism, how many girls growing up on the Isle of Mull are actually named Iona? No-one from Kent ever names their kid Sheppey, though I suppose that’s partly because it would be cruel. I have only ever known English and American Ionas, though perhaps I have a biased sample).
Despite my little niggles, especially with Iona’s character, this was an engaging novel that rewarded me for persevering. I enjoyed the ending, I enjoyed the epistolary parts, and I valued getting a more up-to-date look at a country I don’t know very much about. I think I’d have to be in a particular mood to pick up more of Guo’s work, but I’ll keep an eye out for it nonetheless.
Having just read a ‘translation’ book myself I find that an interesting subject for bilingual authors to explore. I was wondering towards the end of your review how successful Xiaolu Guo was in creating a Scottish protagonist, and your comment about her name indicates maybe not completely.
I’m not Scottish myself so I might be completely off-base with Iona being implausible as a name. I do know that you can see the isle of Iona from Mull, which is why it felt off to me. She also made a comment about Iona getting the ferry to her school on a neighbouring island, but I looked it up – there are six primary schools and a secondary school on Mull. I basically had the impression that Guo thought Mull was smaller than it really is. More like Iona itself, in fact.
I think that Iona being a Londoner is more important to the story than her being Scottish, and in that sense she does ring true. She’s very dislocated and disconnected from those around her, and although she enjoys all the fancy cultural stuff that’s available to her in London she doesn’t have any real friends – which I get the impression is very common for people moving to the capital as adults, unless you have a built in community like a faith group. Guo has lived in London for decades and I thought that the location was very well-observed.
This sounds interesting. I have a soft spot for books dealing with Chinese history and culture. Did the letter format/translation mystery make sense in the end? I feel like that would maybe bug me if it ended up feeling shoehorned in. On the name thing, I used to live in a city called Victoria and met more than one person there named after the city which I always thought kind of strange!
Yes, I think it’s wrapped up/explained really well, and I liked the way it was dealt with – just couldn’t explain why in the review without getting into spoiler territory! The documents she’s translating are so much at the centre of the novel that it all feels very natural.
Ok, good! That’s fair about not wanting to delve into spoiler territory!
I love the idea of a book that’s full of letters and someone grappling with the translation. In college I read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which I remember being about piecing together letters (though I could be wrong; this was almost 20 years ago).
Are you still able to do your big trip, either this year or next? It sounded like such an adventure! And you were going to go alone, yes?
I’ve never read Possession! It’s one of those books on my “I must get to it someday” list, along with a hundred others.
Not this year, but hopefully next year! We’ve moved our booking (again) and assuming that all goes according to plan we’ll be going next summer. I’m going with my friend Heather – thankfully a much more experienced traveller than I am.
Oh, wonderful! I just saw on the news all the Brits partying after restrictions were lifted, so now Americans can’t go to the U.K., or something like that? The world feels bizarre right now.