In one of my foul mood weekend (must be the weather), I found reading through “Between the Assassinations” dreary and the prospect of starting a thick novel repulsive. So I picked up Xialu Guo’s 20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth, finished it within hours. Encouraged, I continued to read UFO in Her Eyes and finished both books in one day (200 pages each, less if you don’t count the photographs and dialogue-based narration). I am going to review both books at one go.
Life as a film extra in Beijing might seem hard, but Fenfang – the spirited heroine of won’t be defeated. She has travelled 1,800 miles to seek her fortune in the city, and has no desire to return to the never-ending sweet potato planting back home. Determined to live a modern life, Fenfang works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer’s movie theatre, picking up lost items while sweeping the floor, falls in love with unsuitable men, keeps drawer full of course certificates in her Chairman Mao drawer (so-called because of Mao’s political ideology for personal and society advancement and improvement), work as film extras with silent roles, dabble on scriptwriting, and keeps her kitchen cupboard stocked with UFO instant noodles (might be the inspiration for her latest novel – UFO in Her Eyes) and live in places which are infested with cockroaches:
I’ve been blessed with cockroaches in every place I’ve lived in Beijing, but it was in the Chinese Rose Garden that I was truly anointed. My apartment was their Mecca. They spent the entire time multiplying. A female cockroach can produce 300 eggs in her lifetime, and it only takes a few weeks for an egg to become an adult. Every crevice gave forth a vast and mighty army of invaders, from the gas-pipe hole in the kitchen wall to each crack in the tiles. They linger on the rims of my cups, or in my rice cooker pondering the meaning of life. Once I swallowed one while absent-mindedly drinking my tea. Traumatised, I rang the local chemist. The voice on the line was gently reassuring: cockroaches were not poisonous, ingesting one would cause me no harm. Though, the chemist added, in terms of protein they were not as nutritious as snails.
(Ha! It reminds me when I kill one of them for my science project. I kept the cockroaches in an enclosed plastic bag for 3 days and they were still alive. When I cut off its head, its body was still squirming. It was freaky. I pour boiling water over the body and then spent time pulling apart its many parts of mouth and glued them onto my workbook, man, was I fascinated with them!)
FenFang struggle epitomised the emptiness and confusion of a country pumpkin out in the vast megalopolis, hounded by ex-boyfriend, Xiao Lin, moved homes several times, frequent calls from Boston boyfriend Ben, immerse in a social circle of scriptwriters Patton and Huizi, as Fenfang might say, “Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, isn’t it about time I got my lucky break?”
Fenfang holds some sentiments in what she had lost in the city and found comfort in the unconditional love of her family in the rural village, the books ends with an ambivalent feeling of leaving Beijing after 10 years and received a “number” (social number in China) to travel freely nationwide and overseas.
20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth captures the confusion of youth brilliantly. Each chapter starts with one of Xiaolu’s black and white pictures of Beijing in the midst of development – art photography cliche. They are pretty good pictures and they set the scene and create a visual imagery for the reader to follow. Although set in Chinese cultural context (for e.g. you have to hear Sandy Lam’s song ‘I love someone who isn’t coming home’ to know what she is talking about), a young woman’s search for beauty, fame and belonging (and whatever else that one is searching) is recognisable and universal.
Totalitarian Society in its more exrteme version, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to be entirely transparent. – Milan Kundera, Something behind
The story of UFO in Her Eyes is set on Silver Hill Village, 2012. On the twentieth day of the seventh moon Kwok Yun is making her way across the rice fields on her Flying Pigeon bicycle. Her world is upturned when she sights a UFThing – a spinning plate in the sky – and helps the Westerner in distress whom she discovers in the shadow of the alien craft. It’s not long before the village is crawling with men from the National Security and Intelligence Agency armed with pointed questions. And when the Westerner that Kwok Yun saved repays her kindness with a large dollar $2000 cheque she becomes a local celebrity, albeit under constant surveillance.
The entire book is structured as interrogation file. First by the Intelligence agent, next the economic development finance officer assessing the mayor’s local village development plan to decide extra funding, a murder investigation, and then follow-up of the UFO’s report by the intelligence agent after 3 years. Xiaolu Guo tells Kwok Yun’s moving story via the interrogation files compiled by the visiting agents. We meet the bad-tempered inhabitants of Silver Hill including: Kwok Yun’s grandfather Kwok Zidong, Headmaster Yee (whom Kwok Yun’s later married), and the silent bicycle mender from Ji Lin Province who is suspected of murder and an illicit relationship with Kwok Yun. We also met the Butcher, Ling Zhu, reliving his days as a Parasite Eradication Hero during the Cultural revolution and had his license revoked by the authority for not adhering to the hygiene standards of eradication of flies; and the foul-mouthed tea farmer ‘Rich and strong’ who laments lost of revenue with the memorial statue of Kwok Yun and UFO sightings built without his permission on his land , Carp Li who rears his carps; all watching in horror as his land is overrun by the mayor’s 5 year modernisation plan and building initiative that includes sport centre, massive car park, shopping complex and major highways etc. The catalsyt for change is the ambitious mayor of Silver Hill, Chief Chang Lee, whose two sons died in a mine’s accidents. Determined to ‘Demolish the weak, demolish the rotten!’, Chief Chang embraces the DengXiaoPing’s ideology, where it is said:
Poverty is not socialism. “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” and to develop the productive forces to a level where there is an overwhelming abundance of material wealth. And the superiority of the socialist system to the capitalist system will be demonstrated by its ability to develop those forces faster and better. As they develop, the people’s material and cultural life will consistently improve. Socialism means eliminating poverty.
And that ideology encapsulates the underlying motivation of the leap of development the world sees in China.
As UFO Hotels spring up, and the local villagers go out of business, Xiaolu Guo’s startling parable of change imagines an uneasy future for rural China and its relations not only with Beijing but the wider world beyond. In the preface, Milan Kundera quotes that a totalitarian society requires absolute transparency, hence the elaborate process of interrogation, investigation and documentation prevalent in the Chinese society. Despite so, every character in the story has a hidden agenda. We are left with the questions whether the intention of pursuing economic development is one of collective good or personal greed. Overall it is an entertaining read. The story is shallow, but the implications are deep.
My Verdict 5/5:
I thought after the readable Dictionary for Lovers, her subsequent books might fall short of expectations, like most writers do. XiaoLu Guo is a wonderful writer, she writes with a good sense of humour and provide ample food for thought. I am glad to be proven wrong.
About the writer:
Since the success of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (the book was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for fiction 2006), Xiaolu Guo has scored further adoration from the literary world. The English translation of Village of Stone was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Xiaolu’s film career continues to flourish: How is Your Fish Today? (2006) was selected for the Sundance Festival and awarded the prize for best fiction feature at the Creteil International Women’s Film Festival. Her latest feature, She, A Chinese, will be released in 2009. She is currently Cannes Film Festival Cinefondation resident, based in Paris. From South China fishing village to Paris, She has come a long way.
A note for the unsung heroes. The translation from Chinese by Rebecca Morris, with revisions by Pamela Casey have done the writer and the books justice, and none of the meanings were distorted, in fact I was at awe of the fluidity of it.