A Lover’s Discourse – Xiaolu Guo – 2020 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

All the romantic stories are flawed.

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese born British novelist and filmmaker, her novel ‘ Village of Stone’  (translated by Cindy Carter) was shortlisted for the 2005 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (an award that merged with the Booker International Prize and was disbanded after 2015), and was nominated for the Dublin Literary Awards, other books have been nominated or won awards such as the Orange Prize for Fiction, the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Costa Book Award and the Baliey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her film ‘She, a Chinese’ premiered at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival and it won the highest honour, the Golden Leopard.

Earlier works include ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, inspired by Roland Barthes work and it is no accident that this novel shares a title with one of Barthes’ works. The epigraph:

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Roland Barthes)

There are a number of reviews of this work in the public domain that explain the linkages to Barthes work of the same name, so I won’t go into those details here, however I will point out one diversion from the novel’s structure that I found interesting.

Each chapter opens with a short one or two sentences of conversation, which is repeated in the chapter itself, discourse generally between the two lovers in the story. The repetition of language that we see referenced in the epigraph, however there is one chapter that uses a Barthes quote, not conversation, as the opening:

An Unknown Language

The murmuring mess of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection…Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality. (Roland Barthes)

The unknown language around me. The murmuring mass around me. Except that this was not a murmuring mass in Japan, this was a loud mass in Italy. This language was not too foreign for you, and you could make out many words, especially from the food menus. But it was foreign for me. Even though this culture uses the same twenty-six Latin letters, just like most European languages – the same alphabet. But I didn’t come from this alphabet. I came from the non-alphabetic. I came from ideograms. I came from 50,000 characters. Each character is composed with many symbols and strokes, like a tangled forest of meanings.
Also, I didn’t feel this ‘delicious protection’ that Barthes felt. The only protection for me would be to really try to
understand the foreign language. So that I, a secondary citizen in a white European world, would not downgrade into a tertiary citizen. But I know that even if one day I could master a foreign language – one of the major European languages – I would still not become a primary citizen of the West.

This is a novel of language, a story of identity, alienation, community and exile. It is brought home by the very structure, in the West we say “North, South, East and West” in Chinese the sequence is “East, South, West and North” and in this novel the first four parts are “West, South, East, North”, displacement, sequentially awkward. The following four parts of the novel are “Down, Up, Left, Right” and whilst the parts roughly align geographically (eg. “Down” the lovers are in Australia), I feel these headings are used to highlight our protagonist’s’ inability to settle, find a home.

This is the story of a Chinese student in Britain, pre/post Brexit, completing her PhD in film, her “project” a documentary about a village and its inhabitants in southern China. A village of two-thousand uneducated workers who have transformed themselves into master copyists. (“They could now reproduce a Monet, Chagall, and da Vinci at the drop of a hat.”) She falls in love with an Australian/German, and the novel follows their journeys, discourses.

However it is not the simple love narrative that is at play here, you are immediately forced into facing the fact that, as Europeans (or in my case white colonial descendent) we have no concept of other’s lives, cultures:

‘Wednesday is a bit tight for me. But I can try,’ you said. ‘Hope the food isn’t too spicy.’
I paused for a second, and thought you must be one of those hypersensitive northern Europeans who couldn’t eat anything hot. You might even be a vegan, who eats tasteless food. No salt in your meals either, because of high blood pressure. I would find out.

This is also a novel of language, the emotional attachment we have to words, there’s numerous examples of looking at translations of words from German, or Chinese that have no similar words in English.

There has been this feeling of wu yu – wordlessness and loss of language – which had enveloped me. It reminded me of something I read in one of Barthes’s books. He described how he felt when he visited Japan. The strange signs and sounds. The miscommunication and the silence. The Japan of my world was London, and the strange signs and sounds were from Britain. In my flat, I had not spoken for some days. My flatmate had gone back to Italy to see her family. Four days, alone, in this enclosed place. I listened to the radio, there seemed to be only two types of news: Brexit and sports. Neither could I connect to, not could I participate.

Throughout there are metaphors and allegories about finding a connection to a place, here, in Italy, oak trees growing atop of Tuscan tower:

As we were leaving, I reached out my hand and touched one of the skinny oak trees, rooted on top of the tower. It trembled in the cruel wind as if it were trying to speak to me. I was disappointed by the sight of it. The tourist guide said these oaks were supposed to be old and even ancient, but in reality they were just skinny young oaks, struggling to stay rooted on top of a vicious tower. They needed real roots, real soil, real ground! I could hear their screaming and cries in the wind.

An interesting novel, where I found the concrete experiences of the protagonist struggling to understand concepts such as “referendum”, “Brexit” an enlightening exploration of displacement and alienation. The exploration of language “rubbing one language against the other” was subtle and moving. The lover’s tale? The heavy allegory? A tad overworked (allegory) or too shallow (relationship). An interesting exploration and structure for a novel, for mine one that is ultimately a disappointing whole, but then again “all romantic stories are flawed.”

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