Iona Kirkpatrick lives in a two-room flat near Islington. We meet her the morning after a one-night stand.
For Iona, there are two modes of expression that open her to life. One is the sexual act…Her other world is through words. To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of her life.
Iona is a translator. Usually, she translates business or legal documents along with the occasional literary work but a few weeks before the novel begins, she was sent a collection of Chinese letters and diary entries. They’ve arrived, photocopied, in no particular order but they span twenty years.
The first letter she selects was written in November 2011 in Beijing 1540 Civil Crime Detention Centre by someone called Jian to someone called Mu.
I know you cannot visit me, but I wish you would write to me. Your silence since I showed you my manifesto is just unbearable. How can you say you don’t believe in what I’ve written? Does it sound extreme to say that if you don’t believe in my manifesto, you don’t believe in me? Not to me it doesn’t, though you may laugh and call me naïve, call me too idealistic. For me the arts, politics and love are all connected. You have seen how I lived for all these years – this is nothing new. It’s been nearly twenty years since I wrote my very first song, Mu! Twenty years is half a life! Half our lives, and all the time I’ve known you. And all that time you knew me You’ve lived with me. You accepted me by loving me. So what’s different now?
The next chapter finds Jian incarcerated in the Winnie Mandela Unit, a psychiatric hospital in Grantham, Lincolnshire, from where he writes to the Queen to ask for her help. He has been wrongly sectioned, he says, after being turned down for asylum in the UK. After being taken to a hospital with a sharp pain in his intestines which the doctor seemed to think was psychosomatic, he hit a doctor. The psychiatrist has diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder and schizoaffective disorder.
In this way, Guo combines the letters and diary entries Iona is translating with Jian’s, and later Mu’s, current situations.
Iona attempts to discover more about them. As Jian was a musician, she expects to discover more about him fairly easily:
Iona instantly types ‘Kublai Jian and the Wild Sprouts’ into Google. She waits a few seconds, the timer spins, the laptop whirrs and a blank window pops up. The great Chinese firewall, it seems. Iona tries a few more options but she just gets the same result. All that comes up is the cover of Yuan vs Dollars in Google images. She can only presume it’s Jian’s most well-known album, or the latest perhaps. It’s a powerful picture: a headshot of a young man with a blindfolded face. It has punch, she thinks. There are no articles about him. She sighs, she really knows so little about Chinese cyber-policing and Internet censorship. They’re clearly doing a great job.
As the novel progresses, the reader and Iona discover more about Jian and Mu and Iona gets more involved with this translation than anything she’s worked on before.
The idea of writing a novel about translation, is a good one. It’s interesting, I think, to see the decisions a translator has to make about the way to express ideas, thoughts and feelings in a different language. I Am China could’ve been a great book. However, all too often Xiaolu Guo’s hand is just off the edge of the page, clearly manipulating events.
There are two ways in which this happens; the first is that as the Iona’s work progresses, parallels between her life and Jian/Mu’s are made. This would be okay, I think, if they weren’t signposted so obviously by Guo. Iona also comments on the story that’s unfolding during this out-of-sequence translation, making the links between sections for the reader rather than allowing us to make the connections. The second is that the diary entries and the letters feel staged. It’s difficult to impart information to a reader through these forms without it feeling like an information dump but as Guo chose to write chapters in third person subjective from both Jian and Mu’s points of view, I thought this could’ve been handled more subtly.
The other problem I had was that I didn’t find Iona’s behaviour as a translator convincing. Her involvement in these people’s story and a choice she makes towards the end of the novel didn’t seem plausible to me.
I Am China is based on what should be an interesting premise and if you know little about China and the behaviour of the state, it’s an insight into the country. However, as a novel, it doesn’t work as well as it could.
Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.