While carrying out a recent laptop ‘spring clean’, I stumbled on a file containing a load of book reviews that I never posted. Not sure how I managed that. Although I’m genuinely intrigued as to what else I might find languishing on my hard drive – perhaps I DID write that novel and just don’t remember doing it… Anyway, I thought I’d post a forgotten review up every once in a while; a kind of ‘from the archives’. Today, we’re going back to November 2013.
The ravenous youth in Guo’s affecting episodic novel is 21-year-old Fenfang, a bright young woman who travels 1,800 miles from a rural sweet potato farm to Beijing to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. The book presents 20 chapters or fragments in Fenfang’s life. Frequently there are significant gaps between the events of each chapter, making them seem like snapshots and perhaps highlighting the absurdity of summarising any one person’s complex existence in the space of 200 pages.
Building on that idea of snapshots, each chapter begins with a black and white photograph of seemingly mundane things from the everyday lives of people in Communist China. Their very ordinariness and the fact that they’re forever frozen in time makes them take on a significance that I was left puzzling over. Apparently Guo took the pictures herself and I’d love to know more about them. They have a bleak, sad quality to them that’s a little haunting.
Which is a lot like the story itself.
For Fenfang, the big city represents glittering opportunities and a life of independence. The reality is quite different. In Beijing, being too much of an individual is still a crime.
Fenfang is a compelling, complex character that I was instantly drawn to despite her prickly, brusque, almost clinical approach to life. At once a product of the world she grew up in, Fenfang also rebels in her own stubborn way. Her matter of factness helps make her so likeable. Economical with her emotions, her self-pity and her rage, she rarely rails against her lot, understanding that expending energy in this way will change nothing. When arrested for having an American boyfriend in her apartment, the only pity she shows is directed at a man in the police station who is refusing to give up his unlicensed dog.
Underneath her resilient exterior, it’s clear that Fenfang is profoundly depressed. However, unlike the deeply personal depression of many Western novels, Fenfang’s depression seems to represent the state of her nation and the many people oppressed by poverty or cultural restrictions. Despite her decisive move to Beijing, she frequently bemoans her lethargy and lack of action.
Throughout the book, there’s a powerful impression of claustrophobia. In her village, surrounded by yawning acres of sweet potato fields, Fenfang is driven mad by the rituals of daily life and her desire for change. Yet Beijing brings its own imprisonments, from the violent ex-boyfriend, the ‘old cocks and old hens’ in her apartment block who monitor her every move and report her misdemeanours to the police, to the succession of non-speaking acting roles that trap her in a vortex of silence.
Fenfang is ravenous because she is starved of the life she wants to be living, the possibilities that should be open to her. The book has an unfinished quality, refusing to offer neat answers or resolutions. I’d definitely recommend it as a way of getting closer to an understanding of what it must mean to live under that kind of regime.
As a side note to end on, it might interest you to know that the English translation of Guo’s book came ten years after it was written. It’s actually her first novel. Guo had this to say about the arduous process of beginning the translation:
‘[I was]…no longer happy with the original Chinese text…I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China. I wanted to rework each sentence…and fight with its young author who knew so little about the world…I wanted to convince her to become an adult.’
I wonder how many authors feel like their earlier creations are no longer a reflection of the story they wanted to tell?
If you enjoy 20 Fragments, do read Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which I personally loved even more. It has the same haunting sadness and poses really interesting questions about cultural divides and the nature of love.