A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, XiaoLu Guo
It’s no surprise that from the lines of books on the self, this title catches my eye; I’ve been intermittently studying Chinese all my life, and the dictionary is my best friend. But this brilliant cover, and recommendation from Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), seals the deal; the past couple of weeks have been hectic, but I manage to squeeze in this novel, giving up entirely on concealing the rather conspicuous cover.
If you’ve ever tried to communicate with someone in another language, learn one or cross-culturally communicate for just a train station’s whereabouts, there is no way this novel can’t speak volumes to you. ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers‘ follows Z, a twenty-something from China, and her studies of English in London from her first person perspective. The narration is dry and witty, and demonstrates perfectly a sense of a ‘foreigner’s’ bewilderment abroad – but pivotally, expressed in that foreign language.
That is, our language: English. The typeset (pet love, indulge me) of Z’s Times New Roman narration, chapters headed with Arial dictionary references, the referenced handwritten notes, and suddenly baffling Chinese type – then relieving English translation, are not just a clever way of distinguishing levels of English usage and it’s complexities, but also visually illustrating the levels of complexities which Z faces in the physical world of the novel. What am I trying to say? Besides my opinion that font matters, that the novel is not merely limited to narrator’s description, there’s a whole other play of different media forms within the novel that demonstrate the novel’s central theme of communication.
But, the Guo’s choice of a non-native speaker narrating, and the themes it inevitably encounters are not without their challenges for the reader also. Broken English in conversation can be tiring, and in type for some half of the novel it is at times, unfortunately tiring. Not being at liberty to hunker down for a three-hours-straight reading session, stopping and starting the novel at intervals became at times laborious, whereas after a while of getting into it – you begin to embrace the flow of grammatical errors and strange diction that characterises Z’s diary. There are two points to come of this. Firstly, this is not to say that the ‘foreignness’ (is that PC?) of the narrator is ever lost; between constant references to the Chinese homeland, cultural practices and the different-ness (I, like Z, don’t like ‘alienness’) of the philosophies being referred to in English there is an unmistakable core of Eastern knowledge at the writer’s disposal – and it is not wasted nor used wastefully.
Secondly, this kind of second-language is English writing is a fascinating exploration of language difference. Beckett, who chose to write his plays in his second language, French, comes to mind. This may seem paradoxical, as Beckett, in his usual roundabout way, is said to have written in French to “write without style… “, to escape himself, and the poetry of the language, to both draw attention to himself, and weaken his presence (Carrière, 37). Beckett was fluent, Beckett was not writing semi-autobiographical narrative fiction. However, in a converse kind of way, the English here is crucial to the overall effect: the choice to complete the novel as a perseverance of the voice in English is precisely what makes in ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ so fascinating; the broken usage of English language, the difficult and direct Chinese-to-English usage, it’s slow move towards native fluency. The English is blunt, with an unassuming poeticism that is as original as it is non-Western-traditional, devoid of self-indulgence or congratulation, capturing a sense of communicational triumph of a non-native tortured by learning conjunctives and nouns that function as verbs.
‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ is a frank and painful coming-of-age for “an entire generation of anguished Chinese youth”, a generation which Guo champions over and over from her novellas, prose and documentary work (Zhen, 46). It is a work of revolutions, sexual, linguistic, cultural and personal. But I don’t believe it is about the difference between Eastern and Western thinking, practice and lifestyle, as much as it is about the effort and difficulty to understand other cultures – for all parties involved. For me, it resonates a sense of unity; we are guided to empathise with Z and we do, but it isn’t an empathy of her right and his wrong way, it is simply one of their respective pain.
There’s nothing I like more than a novel of originality: where I can’t guess what’s going to happen next. And this is one of them.
Carrière, Julien F. ‘Samuel Beckett and Bilungualism: How the Return to English Influences the Later Writing Style and Gender Roles of ‘All That Fall’ and ‘Happy Days’. Dissertation. Dec 2005. Online: http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-07282005-174600/unrestricted/Carriere_dis.pdf
Guo, Xiaolu. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Vintage: London, 2008. Print.
I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s ‘The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way’. It’s fantastic, and if I can, I’ll update you on it!