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:

“It is the test of a novel writer’s art that he conceal his snake-in-the-grass; but the reader may be sure that it is always there.” (Anthony Trollope)

Happy Chinese New Year!  This year is the Year of the Snake, so I chose a snake related quote to start, and had originally planned to take a snakey, not-too-obvious look at literature for Chinese New Year, but sadly my brain failed me.  So I’ve gone the more obvious route of choosing two authors of Chinese origin; there are two great novels and I hope you like them.  (I had intended to be much more timely and publish this post on 10 February, but with a belly full of celebratory Peking duck and seafood noodles working their soporific effect, I failed in this also.  So far it’s fair to say that the year of the snake is not off to a flying start with me).

Firstly, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo (Vintage 2007).  The female protagonist of the novel, Z (because the Brits can’t pronounce Zhuang), arrives in London speaking minimal English.  Over the course of a year in which she has a relationship with an older British man, she learns the language and some life lessons.  The novel is divided up into months, charting Z’s year, and each section has chapter headings of words and definitions that Z learns as she masters the English language.  For example:

“Confusion

Confuse v mix up; perplex; disconcert; make unclear

English food very confusing. They eating and drinking strange things. I think even Confucius have great confusion if he studying English.

….I confusing again when I look at whipped cream on little blackboard. What is that mean? How people whip cream? I see a poster somewhere near Chinatown. On poster naked woman wears only leather boots and leather pants and she whipping naked man kneeling down under legs.  So a English chef also whipping in kitchen?”

This fresh take on the English language makes for a really entertaining read.  Obviously the image of some sort of BDSM kitchen in a café offering afternoon tea is funny, but it also makes you consider why we use the words we use, and the way language can seem arbitrary.  Certainly she highlights oddities like:

“why there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?…”I go” is enough expressing “I am going to go…”Really.”

She’s right – why do we say “go” twice?  And language snobs take note, language is not set down in golden, irrefutable, unchanging rules :

“One thing, even Shakespeare write bad English.  For example, he says “where go thou?” If I speak like that Miss Margaret will tell me wrongly.”

While exploring language in a truly inventive way, Guo has done a great job of creating a distinct character’s voice, and not just because she starts off in stilted English and becomes more fluent throughout the year (by the end of the book Z writes: “I take the snowdrops. I gaze at the flowers in my hand. So delicate, they are already wilting in the heat of my palm.”)  It’s because Z is forceful, unique and engaging person who you really feel you know by the time you turn the last page.

For the second book I thought I’d look at Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo (Abacus 1982). The voice in this novel is very different to Z’s.  Guo’s novel is written in the first person, a very forthright engagement with the reader including direct questions. Sour Sweet is written in the third person and takes a broad look at the Chinese community in 1960s London through the Chen family and the Triads.  When these two “families” intersect, tragedy ensues.  The third person narrative allows for an ironic distance, but simultaneously you really feel for the characters.  When Chen meets the Triads to ask for a loan he constantly tops up the tea they aren’t drinking and fears his fruit offering is damaged:

“He noticed his best shoes had become quite sodden with tea. He exclaimed and moved away, seeing that the fruit in the bags had indeed been squashed and, as he had feared, there were greasy-looking patches on the brown paper.  The bags were already starting disintegrate.  Perhaps this was why they had rejected his offering.”

This passage demonstrates so much about the novel as a whole: the insight into a culture and power that operates across countries, the pathos of every day life, the humour of every day life.  Small tragedies that can escalate.  Failures to communicate even when you speak the same language.

And I suppose the idea of communication is what unites these novels as well as their consideration of Chinese cultures.  Both highlight the inadequacies of language, and the inadequacies of language users, as we try to reach out to others through imperfect means. Both are funny, both are sad.  Sour Sweet indeed.

Here are the books with a laden plate of what I know, from having read these novels, is wholly inauthentic  Chinese food.  (Which looks awful – I’m clearly not cut out to be a food blogger). But it was delicious.  I wish I could tell you that the picture represents all the Chinese food I ate that night, but that would be so very untrue…

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