We will begin at the beginning of the end. This was Xiaolu Guo’s first novel to be published in her native Chinese, reviewing it years later for translation into English she confessed several problems in the acknowledgements:
“The first was the language. The translation needed to capture the speech of a young Chinese girl who lives a chaotic life and speaks in slangy, raw Chinese. The second obstacle was that I was no longer completely happy with the original Chinese text.
Ten years on, I found I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China. I wanted to re-work each sentence of my Chinese book, and fight with its author who knew so little about the world.”
It is a uniquely honest portrait of the struggles of developing as a writer, and the complex world of translation that can also precede it if you are a non-English speaker. Guo’s first attempt at the story of Fenfang’s chaotic young life in China’s largest city may have left the author reeling in her self-confessed naiveté, but thankfully her re-written English translation is refreshing, bright and blunt in its brilliance.
Guo’s heroine Fenfang is disillusioned with the world, desperate to escape her stagnant rural life she flees to the mad jungle of Beijing at seventeen years old. Over 20 ‘Fragments’ of Fenfang’s life Xiaolu Guo paints the perilous and confusing journey of adulthood and a bright-young-thing desire. I enjoyed it immensely, a fantastically easy read that is vibrant in its language and powerful in its imagery of a poor Chinese life at the millennium. Most significantly a poor female life. The frustrating and restricted expectations placed on Fenfang is slid subtly into the fragments by Guo, the lonely separation resulting from her heroine’s misfortune and unsatisfying jobs.
Fenfang is a brilliant creation, a bold honest voice in a noisy world. Xaiolu Guo is a writer I’ve wanted to dip into for a while now, and I look forward to reading the more popular works, last years I Am China and The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. The book itself also clearly demonstrates Xiaolu Guo’s sharp examination on the Chinese life, its citizens and how it is perceived and treats outsiders. “China is better at being American than America”
Reflecting on the book I realised Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Vintage Paperback, 2015) by Haruki Murakami would provide an excellent companion piece; a similarly lost young individual portraying their ravenous desires for emotional fulfillment in the messy world, although male and Japanese. Aside from the vast cultural and gender juxtapositions Murakami’s novel paints a significantly more economically comfortable scenario compared to Fenfang’s depressing concrete life of cockroaches, hunger and instant noodles. I am glad I do not act like Fenfang, and yet desperately wish I could be her.
Fenfang, you must look after yourself.