Anyone who loves reading knows that language can connect two people across divides as wide as continents, political systems, genders and centuries. The commonalities we discover when there is a chime of understanding can make us feel less alone. Suddenly, the words on the page feel more alive than the physical world we inhabit. That’s the experience of Iona in this novel. She’s a young translator living in a tiny apartment above London’s Chapel Market in Islington. Having long separated herself from the remote Scottish island she grew up on, Iona is content with working on translation jobs she’s been commissioned to write and occasionally bringing home sexual partners for a brief fling before showing them the door. One day she takes a job translating a jumble of Chinese letters and diaries that an editor Jonathan was handed while on a business trip. Slowly Iona begins to untangle the story of Jian and Mu, a Chinese couple who are separated but who maintain a strained correspondence over multiple counties. As Iona becomes more engrossed in the translation she has a “feeling that her own life has abandoned her.” The journey of this couple isn’t just a painful love story, but encapsulates the ideological divide for a new generation of Chinese citizens.
Jian is an artist/punk musician who feels guilty that he didn’t perish with his fellow students in the ‘89 Tiananmen Square massacre. He tries to find domestic harmony with poet/performer Mu, but they have different views about being political engaged. With Jian’s commitment to making a statement and fostering societal change he writes a manifesto that leads to him becoming separated from his love and cast out of his native country. As Iona continues with her translation she becomes desperate to know what became of these two passionate complex individuals and uncover the secrets which lead all the way up to the highest echelons of Chinese political power. Their story is one which could easily have disappeared with the attempts at censorship from the Chinese government and general Western indifference to the plight of refugees and immigrants. Iona is committed to making their story known.
The accounts switch between Iona’s experiences in 2013 and letters and diary entries between the Chinese couple over about two decades. Interspersed with the narrative are images of the Chinese text Iona is translating as well as occasional photographs or album covers. Letters are also reproduced in the text including (hilariously) an exchange between Jian and Queen Elizabeth. I find it really effective in a novel like this when photographs and documents can make the detective work of a mystery feel more tangibly real. It’s especially relevant for “I Am China” as the novel is particularly concerned with the question of translation. Even though I can’t read Chinese it’s interesting to see the characters on the page in a particular handwriting accompanied by Iona’s multiple translations of possible meanings. It lays bare the intersection between two cultures and frames of mind to find common understanding. The author describes that “it’s like Iona is building this bridge again, through her reading, her translation.” The place where two minds meet is through the cipher of language. When there are differences in language it must be modulated to most closely match the original author’s meaning rather than necessarily give a literal translation of the words.
Travel naturally makes people contemplate questions of identity as they are out of their natural environment and suddenly immersed in a culture whose values and way of life are different from their own. Thus when Jian and Mu travel through countries as different as America, the UK, France, Switzerland and Greece they become highly conscious of their sense of being. They question what it means to be Chinese and how that national identity melds with their own understanding of themselves. One issue is the way in which the political ideology of the collective filters into the Chinese citizen’s sense of identity which is very different from a Western sensibility more founded in individualism: “Perhaps it is possible to live without yourself in China, but not in the West. Unless one invents oneself.” Equally Iona begins to lose her “self” when becoming immersed in the couple’s most private thoughts. The author uses this as an opportunity to ponder the philosophical question of identity: “To be a person is to imagine being someone, and the someone you imagine most of the time is what people call ‘you.’ How strange to be in time and space with something called a ‘character.’” The degree to which the “self” is malleable depends on the strength of one’s own character. When this is challenged or intruded upon by opinions of others that core of being wavers and identity forms anew.
Xiaolu Guo is a writer highly interested in the intersection between the personal and the political. Her story documents different strategies one can take when wanting to challenge the structures of power one lives under. It traces the path of the immigrant with the accompanying feelings of intense isolation and the fragile hope of love carried over long periods of time and through foreign lands. It’s moving to see how her characters mature and become more conscious of what is most essential in life. She also testifies to how the weight of ideology can crush the lives of individuals in the single-mindedness of its overbearing logic. She questions “Do ideologies die as people die? I hope so, for the sake of peace.” The resounding effect of “I Am China” is a longing for connection and understanding that cuts through the dogmatic principles of any ideology that curtails individual freedom. It’s a moving and deeply-engaging read.
Read an excellent interview with Xiaolu Guo about the origins of her new novel and her documentary work: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/30/xiaolu-guo-communist-china-interview