‘I am China’, by Xiaolu Guo

Two Chinese artists pursue very different paths

Born in a Chinese fishing village, author and film-maker Xiaolu Guo now lives and writes in Hackney, London. Her dark, witty fiction examines the interface between east and west, often through acutely observed tales of personal relationships.

Named last year as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, Guo’s finest novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), described a romance between a British sculptor and a plucky Chinese immigrant woman named Zhuang. The book depicted the couple’s failures of communication, their tendency to think and speak in terms of their cultural preconceptions and clichés. At one point, when Zhuang brings up her lover’s devotion to his work, which has begun to interfere with their relationship, he can only offer a truism in response: “Art is fashionable in the West.”

When it comes to Chinese artists, Guo is aware that some are more fashionable than others in western eyes. She has spoken of her frustration at how her adopted country lavishes attention on iconoclasts such as Ai Weiwei while ignoring those who find quieter, more metaphorical ways of expressing themselves in the face of state censorship, such as the painter Liu Xiaodong.

These concerns – the nature of artistic expression in China; the west’s skewed expectations of the Chinese artist – are central to Guo’s ambitious new novel. I Am China follows the story of Iona Kirkpatrick, a Scottish translator who is tasked with making sense of a mysterious cache of documents obtained by a London publishing house. The files comprise a correspondence between Kublai Jian, a Chinese musician exiled in Europe, and his girlfriend, Deng Mu, a spoken-word poet who remains in Beijing.

Guo reproduces Iona’s translations of Jian’s and Mu’s letters, and the narrative develops into an epistolary account of their relationship. We learn that Jian participated in the Tiananmen Square protests as a teenager, but survived the government’s violent crackdown. “I should have died on those stones in ’89,” he writes, almost wistfully.

Jian channels his anger into his performances in the punk band he joins at Beijing university, and that is where he and Mu meet and fall in love. But he ignores her request to give up his activism, and is deported after distributing a reformist manifesto to fans at a concert. (His father, a senior figure in the politburo, saves him from a worse fate.)

Exchanging letters with Jian as he moves between asylum centres in England and Switzerland, Mu laments his intransigence. She misses the “mundane daily silliness of living together”, and asks whether his commitment to revolt has been worth the cost to their happiness. Mu enjoys a brief stint performing in the US, but is unable to cut her ties to China as Jian does. Their dialogue illustrates the dilemma faced by the Chinese artist: political martyrdom or compromise? Home or exile?

Iona is moved by the letters, and dreams of tracking down Mu and Jian to effect a reconciliation. But her editors are only really interested in one side of the story. They tell her that in the published version of the correspondence, Mu’s contribution will rather cynically be used as a “lens” through which to present Jian’s tale – it is he who fits the notion of the persecuted dissident so fashionable in the west.

Guo’s own approach is more nuanced; she celebrates both Jian’s defiance and Mu’s no less brave struggle to maintain her creative integrity in China. While the indirect presentation of their relationship via letters and translations lacks dramatic vitality – and it doesn’t help that Iona, who ostensibly stitches the story together, is thinly drawn – at its best this novel has bold, refreshing things to say about art and politics.

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