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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers
Xiaolu Guo

Sam Haddow
posted 25 April 2007

When Amos Tutuola wrote his debut novel The Palm Wine Drinkard, he unwittingly instigated a revolutionary dialectical approach to that seam of literature which inevitably falls under the suppressive category of postcolonialism. Rejected by every British publisher until it found a champion in Dylan Thomas, The Palm Wine Drinkard is a preposterously bizarre account of a one dimensional narrator navigating his way through a violent and magical odyssey, in the search for more alcohol.

The revolutionary aspect of this novel, however, was its perspective. A semi-literate and under educated postal worker, Tutuola simply wrote what he knew, so the novel placed Yoruba demons and mythologies in amongst football pitches, stiletto heels and petrol drums without any self conscious irony. Without realising quite what he’d done, Tutuola had ushered in a cultural homogeneity that (in my opinion) sidestepped one of the most pressing problems of postcolonialism – the impossible position of the subaltern attempting to articulate an independent voice within the discourse of its former oppressors.

Xiaolu Guo’s debut novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers is unlikely be categorised as postcolonial, yet with its fusion of Eastern and Western culture shown through the eyes of a beguilingly credulous narrator, she is tracking a similar course.

To begin with, one of the most intriguing aspects of this sparsely written but elegantly complex novel is its approach to language. Guo, the blurb informs us, drew the genesis of A Concise… from her own diaries, when first arriving in Britain. Whether her English was better or worse than the narrator Z’s (so named because the British can’t pronounce her real name) is a matter for probably meaningless speculation, but again the blurb informs us the novel is written in ‘deliberately bad English’. Consequently, the opening chapters stumble over their grammatical shortcomings with all of the failed grace and eagerness of a punchdrunk spaniel. However, the most beguiling strength of Guo’s style is its unflinching honesty. This sometimes spills over into grammar itself – in a chapter entitled ‘progressive tenses’, we are treated to Z musing

People say ‘I’m going to go to the cinema…’
Why there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?

The connection that Z perceives between language and sentiment feeds into the central construct of the novel, and she quickly begins to construct one of her most deliciously abstruse theories – that the application of ‘tenses’ (an alien construct to her, since they don’t exist in Mandarin) is somehow connected to the Western condition of impermanence and flux. Discussing her criteria for judging attractiveness in others with her English partner (written in the second person – another wonderfully elusive mechanism to draw the reader in) she speculates on whether or not the object of attraction would make a good husband, and be able to provide for a family. ‘You’, the object of her affections, offer simply that you would like to see them naked. In most writer’s hands, this exchange would fall flat into a leaden cliché, or worse, sanctimonious finger pointing, but Z is so idiosyncratic, so hopelessly lost and yet seemingly more grounded than everyone else she meets, that you can’t but help admire her.

Because the conflict at the heart of this story isn’t a diachronic critique of East versus West, nor is it a coming-of-age, or even a loss-of-innocence. Z, as she develops within the chosen medium of expression – the English language, is able to criticise both her own, and western heritage. She finds herself clinging to certain aspects of permanence – she cannot understand why her lover – You – wants her to travel Europe alone, but she goes anyway, and in doing so begins to isolate all modes of living as adjacent discourses. She is frightened, certainly, and her experiences are not always pleasant – falling prey to her newly developed but inexperienced sexuality, she leads on a stranger in Faro, and when she eventually pleads, ‘No plugging in… Just using sucking me’, he forces her into sex. Afterwards, she leaves him stranded on a railway platform, and washes herself in the little sink in the toilets. Whilst she doesn’t comprehend the freshly unveiled and insatiable appetites of her body, she doesn’t dismiss them as she would have done previously, and begins to learn more about her power over others, and herself.

In any book that deals with the culture of its intended demographic through the eyes of an ‘other,’ there is always bound to be an element of Freud’s Uncanny, (to say nothing of poststructuralist paradigm shifts), and A Concise… doesn’t escape this. Indeed, Guo is entirely open about this, as she directs the novel entirely to ‘you.’ Which could trip her up slightly, and sometimes verges a little on the trite, but to be honest, I’d already found way too much sympathy for Z by that point to hold it against her. This is, however, where I consider the novel’s weakest point lies. It is difficult to separate Guo and Z – and though I’ve never had much sympathy for the liberal humanists, I do prefer a degree of distinction, as writer/character fusion tends to clutter a narrative somewhat. So, while I can forgive Z her sometime regressions to cliché or just-too-convenient picturesque naivety, I can’t do the same for Guo. However, the answer to this seemed to come readily enough in the fact that, after everything, Z doesn’t take herself too seriously. At one point, she claims that the Chinese don’t understand humour, but you eventually realise that she is playing with her own sensibilities as well as the reader’s. Whilst the humour (of which there is a great deal) in A Concise… springs more from misinterpretation than actual character intentions, it quickly becomes apparent that if Z’s finger is pointing, then her tongue’s sticking out at the same time.

The novel concludes with an inevitable conjunction – between permanence and impermanence. The relationship between ‘You’ (who, for good measure, is a formerly gay sculptor who earns his living as a glorified courier) collapses, as was always going to happen. The syntactical structure of the narrative (signposted by chapter headings that pertain to be dictionary entries – see what she did there?) leaves Z as she returns to China, though not to her home town, as a woman poised between two cultures that she cannot feel absolutely a part of. This is not, however, a tragedy. Somewhere in all the artifice, Z has managed an emancipation which has enabled her to see all human interaction as belonging to discourse – merely a matter of choice. This choice has led her (and the reader) through an odyssey which feels a good deal more intimate than its pan-continental scope would suggest, and the eventual feeling at the end of the book is a sort of delight in impermanence. That refusal to commit may turn some readers against this novel, which could, under didactic scrutiny, be viewed as incidental, or worse, whimsical. I, however, believe it to be one of this book’s greatest strengths. That and the pleasure of being allowed to view a familiar landscape as unfamiliar, through the perspective of one of the most charismatic and beguiling narrators I have read in a very long time.

 

 
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