Novella a Day in May 2020 #23

UFO in her Eyes – Xiaolu Guo (2009) 200 pages

UFO in her Eyes is structured as a series of government files, with memos, notes paperclipped to pages and redacted sentences. This sounds gimmicky and tedious, but actually works effectively and Guo is able to capture a variety of voices within a formalised format.

Kwok Yun is a woman in her thirties who lives in a quiet village of Silver Hill with people much older than her, as the younger generation move to the city. As Chang Lee, the middle-aged Communist village Chief explains:

“Silver Hill is a simple village, with tea and rice fields, the harvests of which are our principal sources of agricultural income […] The village centre is rather small, just one narrow street. But it provides everything you need for life”

All of that is about to change drastically, following one extremely hot day when Yun is cycling through the rice fields. She sees a giant spinning plate in the sky.

“then I realised that the noise was coming from the enormous metal plate. I stared at it, terrified. It was as if I was a tiny insect, exposed on the soil, about to be eaten by a big bird. I kept gazing at that white monster, and suddenly the world in front of me went hazy and I collapsed.”

When she awakes she finds a Westerner injured by a snake bite. She helps him and then he disappears.

As a result of these events two things happen: the Westerner sends the village $2000 as a thank-you, and various government types attend the village to interview the inhabitants and find out what happened.

This proves no easy task. Only Yun saw the UFO and the villagers are grumpy and resolutely unimpressed by metropolitan officials, as Yun’s grandfather Old Kwok demonstrates:

“Did I not tell that to your colleague from Beijing already? The one with the square head who spends his whole time at Niu Ping’s liquor stall drinking Er Guo Tou while you do all the work? Did he not understand what I said or something?”

The money provides an opportunity for change, an opportunity Chief Chang Lee has been waiting for:

“everything is stuck as it was in the sixties. Except its falling apart.”

No-one particularly loves Silver Hill. The older villagers have lived through feudalism, communism, the Great Leap Forward, famine and the Cultural Revolution. They remember a starving man eating his brother’s leg. Even younger people like Yun hold no affection for the place:

“The sun here makes everything decay. It beats down on sticky skin, sweaty legs, burning hair, dead leaves, broken roots, old seeds and slowly they all rot. I hate this place.”

Yet the change isn’t welcomed either. Essentially it is industrialisation, and carp ponds are filled in, tea and rice fields built over. This has tragic consequences that are both immediate for some villagers, and more insidious, like Yun realising the air is getting harder to breathe.

Guo doesn’t suggest that modernisation is evil and old ways better; the famine is still in living memory when the villagers had to eat grass to survive. For Yun, her intelligence is given opportunity to thrive as she becomes educated. But Guo does question the price paid for unplanned progression, and what the desired outcomes are.

“In Silver Hill, we don’t smile much. Smiling is even more difficult than crying. Our faces have been frozen by hardship. You understand what I’m saying? Yun doesn’t smile. She doesn’t talk much either. She just listens to my swearing and cooks my food. What goes on in her broad forehead I don’t know.”

So much of this novella could be clunky: the file format, the treatment of Silver Hill as a microcosm of China. But it’s written with such a light touch and the characters are so idiosyncratic and believable that I found it an entertaining read, dealing with important themes but never preachy.

Xiaolu Guo is a film director as well as a novelist and she adapted this novella to film in 2011. I didn’t realise this and I’d love to see the film – it’s not often a novelist adapts and directs their own work. Here is a short interview with Guo about the film. The clips look beautiful:

13 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2020 #23

  1. Your review reminded me that I’d read (and reviewed) Guo’s I Am China quite some time ago which has the same fragmentary structure but was a tougher read than UFO in her Eyes sounds. She has a new novel due soon but I might try this one first. Interesting that she’s a film direactor, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, how interesting! I read (and enjoyed and admired) her first novel and noted her most recent work, but hadn’t noted this one (or the film!). Thanks for including the video clip: I enjoyed hearing her speak, as my memory is that her prose seems to have that same rhythm to it.

    Liked by 1 person

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