A Novel of Alternative Viewpoints from Contemporary China

I Am China: A Novel, by Xiaolu Guo, (Nan A. Talese: Random House), 384 pages

I Am China is an interesting puzzle of a book. The author, Xiaolu Guo, is a writer and film maker (she graduated from the Beijing Film Academy), which shows in the structuring of this novel that jumps back and forth in time, moving from perspective to perspective in a way that is genuinely cinematic. Born in China, Guo now lives and writes in Britain, and I Am China presents perspectives based in both the country of her birth and her adopted country.

The Chinese perspectives are embodied in the characters Jian and Mu. Jian is a Chinese punk rocker who was imprisoned after releasing a “manifesto” at one of his concerts, and who is now seeking asylum in Europe. Mu is Jian’s off and on (but mostly on) partner of the last twenty years. Both characters have strong political motivations, but Jian’s politics are confrontational, while Mu’s are more subtle and interestingly romantic. Jian finds politics essential to art; Mu doesn’t.

The British perspective comes from Iona, a professional translator living in London, who has been asked to work with a loosely organized group of letters and journal entries written by both Jian and Mu. Readers encounter this material as she does: in random order and without any suggestion of what its overall trajectory might be.

I found this novel absolutely fascinating for the view it offers into alternative communities within contemporary China. I hadn’t realized China has a punk scene; I certainly didn’t know about the different strands of dissident thought represented by the book’s Chinese characters.

I said at the opening that I Am China is a puzzle of a book. It is a narrative that readers must assemble for themselves, looking for related pieces, rearranging information to create a chronology. This structureless structure is actually one of the book’s strengths preventing it from becoming narrower or more dogmatic.

I Am China is most definitely worth a read, both for the characters it introduces and for the glimpses it gives into the lives of a huge segment of the world’s population about whom we generally hear very little.

September 02 2014 06:45 am | Uncategorized

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