I Am China is possibly Xiaolu Guo’s most ambitious work to date, combining the struggles of communication which she explored in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers with the snapshot, cinematic style of her 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. Much like that latter work, this novel is composed of an intricate collage of artefacts, both written and visual, salvaged from the lives of two lovers, documenting their struggle to retain their personal beliefs and the memory of their time spent together after they are torn apart by forces beyond their control. Expertly woven around this epistolary exchange is the novel’s frame narrative, as Scottish-born translator Iona Kirkpatrick attempts to piece together these fragments. The reader too takes on a similar role, eager to create a linear narrative and uncover the truth about the lovers’ pasts.
Guo exalts in creating a compelling mystery, dropping hints about her characters’ backgrounds into the rich tangibility of the present moment that their letters capture. The letters in question are an exchange between intensely political punk rock musician Kublai Jian, exiled from China following the distribution of a subversive manifesto at one of his concerts, and his poet girlfriend Deng Mu, who shares Jian’s beliefs but struggles to understand the aggression of his rebellion.
Both Jian and Mu have highly distinct voices in the novel, remaining powerful even against the scale of the political events that serve as a backdrop to their story: censorship, massacres and an oppressive totalitarian society. In spite of their criticisms of their country, the travels of the two characters seem to evoke a stronger sense of place and of homeland than the sections of the novel that are set in China itself, with Jian’s impressions of England as bland, sluggish and lifeless and Mu’s feeling of alienation from the glitzy falsity of the USA causing them to cling to vivid memories of their home and shared life together, sending letters that each is uncertain the other will even receive. Through their separate journeys, Jian and Mu are able to come to a better understanding of one another, as Jian’s revolutionary zeal gives way to a more measured wisdom, while Mu’s foray into the punk music scene allows her to acknowledge the power of performance in challenging complacent world views.
One of the major questions that I Am China poses is that of translation: is it truly possible to translate between two languages without sense and meaning being irrevocably lost? In a similar sense, the narrative also asks whether two people can ever truly understand one another. The novel’s nominal protagonist Iona asks herself these questions as she struggles to find meaning in her isolated existence, with her translations of the letters offering her a sense of “aliveness”, a feeling that had previously eluded her. As Iona pieces together Jian and Mu’s relationship, her reliability as both translator and narrator can be called into question – are the characters she creates real, or, to some extent, projections of her own frustrated desires? While the narrative of the estranged couple seems almost mythical in status, compared frequently by Iona to the tragic Chinese story ‘The Butterfly Lovers’, the Western portions of the novel often fall flat. Iona has little substance as a character compared to the lives she documents, drifting through life until she obtains, apparently from nowhere, a neatly-parcelled fairytale ending that somehow lacks any of the spirit of the novel’s principal romance.
Although I Am China is at times lacking in its frame narrative, the sheer scale of the story of Jian and Mu acts as the true heart of the novel. Guo presents a romance free of cliché, as well as a powerful message about maintaining individuality and a sense of self in spite of alienation and political oppression. In the words of Jian’s manifesto, China is its people, not merely a state, and Guo’s novel provides us with a memorable insight into two of these people’s lives.