Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"English Is a Bloody Nightmare, Isn't It?"

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
by Guo Xiaolu
Anchor Books, 283 pp., $13.95
A Review by Xujun Eberlein
BlogCritics, Published: July 28, 2008
About one third into Guo Xiaolu's novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a man at an English pub says to the confused protagonist, a young Chinese woman named Z, "English is a bloody nightmare, isn't it?"
Yet the author, who writes in her second language, is capable of turning a nightmare into muse. Have you ever talked to someone who did not speak your language very well and wondered about their innermost thoughts? By narrating those thoughts in semi-expressive broken English, Guo Xiaolu has brought us some insight into that. In what might be called stream of expressiveness writing, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers makes fun of English, the second language Z is studying in London. This is precisely what makes the book so enjoyable to read. To borrow a line from the reputed literary critic James Wood, who describes English as a wan cousin of French, in Guo's novel English becomes a wan neighbor of Chinese.
Guo has intentionally broken from the eloquent flow of Yiyun Li's stories or the dogged correctness of Ha Jin's latest novels to present something that is both fresh and at the same time awkward. It is awkward, for precisely the reason that people that are different from us are awkward; they speak a different language, have a different culture or simply have had different experiences. Reading, of course, is all about bridging those gaps and arriving at an understanding, so the question becomes how far should the reader stretch to achieve that understanding. Guo, in a sense, meets us half way, as demonstrated in those lines that open the book:
"But I at neither time zone. I on airplane."
"I not met you yet. You in future."
This is the way Chinese sentences are formed. Though Chinese, with its many complex square pictographs, is one of the oldest and richest languages and might make Westerners step back in apprehension, its grammar is remarkably simple and non-confusing. No tense, no pronoun-based verb inflexion, no "to be" verbs before preposition words to worry about – the Chinese language is actually a more natural form of speaking. One piece of evidence that those English grammar elements are non essential is that, even when they are omitted in a sentence, it does not prevent one from understanding.
And that becomes the legitimate basis of Guo's language game in the novel, and she plays the game well. When her protagonist Z comments that "We bosses of our language. English is boss of English users", or makes fun of the plural grammar rule by saying "everybody know jeans or trousers always one thing, you can't wear many jean or plural trouser," or taunts English as a "sexist language. In Chinese no gender definition in sentence", or observes the sensibility that in "Chinese we starting sentence from concept of time or place" while in English the person is always first, Guo demonstrates cultural differences in a playful manner. What can one do but laugh fondly?
Yet it is a risky approach for a novelist – there is certainly the question of what and how a novel that is full of incorrect English can contribute to English literature. And this was exactly the question I had as soon as my eyes passed the first five lines. Impressively however, Guo manages to maintain a lyrical quality in her protagonist's broken English throughout, which makes one admire the ingenious idea underlying the boldness of this approach. After all, what can demonstrate cultural differences more convincingly than differences in language nuance?
But any approach has its limitations. Having taken that great leap of form, the story Guo conveys is somewhat mundane. It is essentially the story of the sexual awakening of a young Chinese woman who gets involved with an older English man. While entertaining, it does not get to the depth of thought and feeling that I was hoping for when I started reading. The idea that a person could have the greatest mind in history, but only rudimentary ability in English, is quite fascinating to me. As I got started I was hoping to see that contrast of clumsy language and clear thought brought out more and more as the story progressed. This does not happen, and perhaps is not possible, as expressing clarity of thought depends on the sophisticated use of language.
Another limitation of this approach is the predictability of the plot. From the beginning I expected two things: the evolution of the protagonist Z's English fluency and the doomed future of Z's foreign love. In other words, the plot is limited to the natural progress of the language learning progress and disappointment of sexual awakening.
So the protagonist eventually learns to express herself clearly, if not eloquently or grammatically correctly, in the language of her studies. Ultimately though, there was not the progression of thoughts I was looking for. In fact, it may be that Guo was intentionally trying to hook the reader into that way of thinking, only to turn the tables. Rather than blossoming into eloquence, or drawing us into her world, language and all, the narrator shows her humanity. Sinking, in a sense, into the weaker moral standard she finds herself surrounded with she changes her behavior to adjust. In the end it seems that the character is brought down to the level of the language rather than the language being brought up to the level of the character.
The book has a decidedly British flavor, but many of the wry commentaries are applicable, or at least easily transferable, to American culture. The protagonist’s lover is a soul searching artist, if somewhat weak in personality, who drives a delivery truck to make ends meet and never sells his artwork. He presents a decidedly bohemian attitude toward life, which is a good contrast with the stereotypical Chinese man. The story moves along with realistic characterization, though the imagery of the scenes is weak. Again, the latter may be a limitation of the prose style.
As we conclude, it is worth noting an interesting phenomenon: the number of Chinese authors who write in English seems to have leapt up quite significantly in recent years. Why they choose to write in a difficult non-mother tongue rather than waiting for their Chinese works to be translated is a good question. For earlier writers like Ha Jin, political concerns have been at play, but such concern is not evident among those of the younger generation such as Guo Xiaolu. This phenomenon, therefore, might have something to do with deliberately reaching for a Western audience, a welcome attitude change from the once isolated Middle Kingdom.
Howard Goldblatt, America's foremost translator of Chinese literature, says in a March interview with China's Southern Weekly that Americans don't read much literary translation, less still when translated from Chinese. Making the matter worse is the fact that there are few qualified Chinese-to-English literary translators. It seems that the undercurrent of direct English writing by Chinese authors is threatening to overtake translation.


Will said...

I don't know if you saw this, but researchers have found evidence that the sentence structure Chinese and English share might be an unnatural and more difficult way of expressing ourselves. Both Chinese and English use a subject-verb-object construction, while languages such as Turkish use a subject-object-verb construction. When asked to communicate ideas using hand gestures, native speakers of all three languages revert to a subject-object-verb construction. For now it remains food for thought, as the scientists themselves admit the meaning of the study is still unclear.

Xujun said...

Very interesting article indeed. Thanks for the link, Will.

Anonymous said...

This sounds interesting - I must look for it