Ursula Le Guin is two for two. It was her review of Jan Morris’ Hav that first pointed me in the direction of that wonderful book; and likewise her review that persuaded me to add Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which turns out to be nearly as good, to my wish-list. It is, of course, a love story, between a young Chinese woman and an older English man. 23 year-old Zhaung Xiao Qiao arrives in the UK one February (2003, I think), nervous and alone, fearing the future, to learn English at a school in Holburn, hardly even understanding why her parents have sent her. A little over a month into her stay she meets a man at a cinema in South Kensington, falls easily and comprehensively in love, and as a result of a miscommunication ends up moving in with him. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is Z’s story over the following year, up to the point where her visa expires. It’s presented as a diary-stroke-language-notebook; Z carries with her a Chinese-English dictionary, and later, a Collins Concise English Dictionary, at all times, and often refers to them in her attempts to understand and describe the world around her. Chapter headings (e.g. “romance”) are taken from the latter, with accompanying definitions (“fantasy, fiction, legend, novel, story, tale; exaggeration, falsehood, lie; ballad, idyll, song”), and the whole thing is written in the second person, addressed to the never-named man.
Which inevitably means that the most immediate thing about the book is the language in which it’s written. Here, for example, is part of Z’s first encounter with a full English breakfast:
What is this ‘baked beans’? White colour beans, in orange sticky sweet sauce. I see some baked bean tins in shop when I arrive to London yesterday. Tin food is very expensive to China. Also we not knowing how to open it. So I never ever try tin food. Here, right in front of me, this baked beans must be very expensive. Delicacy is baked beans. Only problem is, tastes like somebody put beans into mouth but spit out and back into plate. (17)
I concede this is probably the prose equivalent of Marmite, but I love it: particularly the innocent directness, the seeing-for-the-first-time-ness of it. Leaving aside the question of taste for a moment, however, there might also seem to be a question of authenticity. On the one hand, the artifice of this sort of writing, bad in very specific ways, is obvious: for example, it’s hard to believe that Z’s grammar would be so bad while her spelling is impeccable (although a few artfully misheard nouns are dropped into the text every so often — “rocksack”, “peterfile”). On the other hand, the book apparently grew out of a diary Guo herself kept when she moved to London (Concise Dictionary is her first novel to be written in English, although her seventh in total), which raises various questions but does at least suggest that the portrayal of the learning process is likely to be accurate. And an aspect that may seem the most contrived — the present tense; bear in mind that these are not Z’s thoughts as she is having them, they are entries written later in her notebook — is a consequence of incompletely translating Chinese thought into English. “Chinese, we not having grammar,” Z explains. “We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language” (24). The fact that Guo conveys the difficulties of translation so lightly is one of the most impressive things about the book, for me, and I think you have to respect at least that, even if you find Z’s voice to be nails-down-chalkboard grating. She does, of course, learn over the course of the year, but her position as a naive teller of truths never changes. This, for instance, is another breakfast, in Berlin:
The early morning air feels cold, like autumn coming. Occasionally, one or two old mans in a long coats walk aimlessly in the street, with the cigarettes in their lips. Under the highway there is bridge. By the bridge there is a sausage shop, lots of large mans queue there to get hot sausages. Gosh, they eat purely sausage in the morning! Even worse than English Breakfast. The morning wind is washing my brain, and my small body. This is a city with something really heavy and serious in its soul. This is a city which had big wars in the history. And, I feel, this is a city made for mans, and politics, and disciplines. Like Beijing. (218)
Again, it’s characteristic of Z’s writing — the fresh phrases that seem careless (“The morning wind is washing my brain”), the odd but valid word choices (“Gosh”), the unabashedly obvious observations (“This is a city which had big wars in the history”). There is something memorable on nearly every page of the book. Walking home one night, Z observes that “Also, the robbers robbing the people even poorer than them. In China we believe ‘rob the rich to feed the poor’. But robbers here have no poetry” (42). They may not, but Z does – the poetry of an acute observer, plain in everything from her descriptions of a pub to her consternation on discovering that her man is a vegetarian, to her reaction to a David Lynch double bill. In a number of ways, Z is not an easy character to love — apart from anything else, she is stubborn, and rude – but she is always sharply aware and, at least from a reader’s remove, inescapably charming.
Which is not to imply that this is always a comfortable book, though it is one with an extremely generous view of human nature (certainly in contrast to, oh I don’t know, The Inheritance of Loss). By far the majority of the people Z encounters are good-hearted, even if they sometimes can’t resist teasing her; only twice, during a solo jaunt around Europe, does she encounter someone who tries to take advantage of her, and while the encounters are unpleasant, they are not irretrievably horrific. And if Z is frequently baffled by the world she finds around her, she is not intimidated by it. In fact, she is often indignant in the face of it. “English is a sexist language … always talking about mans, no womans” (26), she observes — although despite this awareness her view of what constitutes a relationship is extremely conservative (at least in our terms; more on this below). Moreover, she’s always conscious of the distance between herself and her man: “You a man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner” (153); “You are boss of yourself, so you have dignity” (184). Strung together like that, such moments look obtrusive, but in fact they are more often grace notes to scenes about other things. Which is to say that they describe the reality of Z’s life — we’re put in her man’s shoes; we can’t ignore what she says — but not the extent of it. (Again, the contrast with Desai’s novel couldn’t be more striking.)
The fear at the heart of such worries, though, inevitably informs her relationship. Here we come back to love. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is built around a distinction expressed with particular elegance, to my mind, in KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, between love that exists “as a mutal sentiment or not at all” and implies “a voluntary blending of identities”, and love that denotes “two travellers meeting, enjoying each other’s company, then parting and moving on.” Z and her man do love, with joy and vigour, but — it becomes increasingly clear — in different ways, ways that have an awful lot to do with their differing backgrounds. To Z, love is a mutual act, a commitment that abolishes privacy and (for example) entitles her to read her man’s diaries, and enables her to blithely tell him that she’s done so. Love is about creating a home, a family, and a future: the three are inextricably related, aspects of an incompletely translated cultural inheritance, and lead to the conservatism I mentioned earlier. Love as security, as community. But the man Z has fallen in love with is more casual — as Z notes, he can afford to be. He is something of a bohemian, an artist who’s drifted through his life believing “the future only comes when it comes”, that nothing is forever; he values his independence. To him, love is about the preciousness of the present moment, not the promise of the future.
In other words, the lovers occupy positions opposite to those staked out by their native languages, an irony that defines their relationship. Z is so engaging that we badly want to see her grow into a more complete sense of self: but we fear that in doing so she will almost certainly doom her relationship, despite the fact that said relationship is the original catalyst for her growth. In fact it is specifically the physical relationship that is the catalyst. Z’s descriptions of sex, whether going right or going wrong, are as refreshingly matter-of-fact as her descriptions of everything else; and though her initial understanding, both of the act and the emotional paraphernalia it requires, is limited, she’s a quick study. She goes to a peep show, and has a lot of sex with her lover, and starts to explore her own body, and along the way she begins to believe in her own independence. More and more, this (as we feared it might) hems her into an absurd, uplifting, heartbreaking paradox: a catch-22 of love. Almost miraculously, Guo finds an honest resolution — one good enough that the other books shortlisted for the Orange Prize are going to have to go some if they want to replace A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers in my affections.