Xiaolu Guo’s ambitious new novel is neither easy to read nor to write about. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present, and it takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.
Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. In order to tell their story Iona must assemble the many pieces of the jigsaw, researching as far as she can given the impenetrability of Chinese internet censorship. Gradually their story emerges and with it clues to Jian’s identity. He and Mu met at university and are polar opposites – Jian expressing his anger though his politicised music and the manifesto which resulted in his expulsion from the country while Mu follows the Misty Poets whose work was carefully coded protest against the Cultural Revolution. His family is part of the political elite, hers is poor and ill-educated. He insists that politics is the only way to bring about change while she favours a quieter route. Iona thinks herself self-sufficient with her work and the occasional one-night stand when she makes clear that even breakfast is out of the question but as each clue is uncovered, each new piece of the jigsaw falls into place, she’s pulled further into the love story between these two, and what has happened to them since Jian was seized on stage by the police shortly after marching in the Jasmine Revolution. She desperately wants to bring them back together. It’s no longer just another assignment: it’s taken over her life.
Diary extracts, letters with the occasional photos and illustrations – not necessarily in chronological order – make this a fragmentary novel; one which turns its readers into literary detectives just as Iona becomes. You’ll find yourself googling the many references to Chinese politics and culture, wondering if there’s a real Jian out there. The passion and vibrancy of the letters, the aching loss and the chasm between Jian and Mu’s differing beliefs draw you into this sad story of lovers wrenched apart yet with a long history of estrangement. Guo pulls no punches in her depiction of the Chinese political elite, their iron grip and closely watching eyes. In the end, the message of the book seems to be the final line of Jian’s manifesto ‘I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.’ A tough read, then, but a thought-provoking one.