Heavenly bastard in the sky, I didn’t expect to enjoy this

May 5, 2010 § 2 Comments

When I was about halfway through it, I had tweeted that reading Xiaolu Guo’s 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth was akin to slurping down a bowl of hot instant noodles. I didn’t mean to imply that the book was tasty but forgettable, as instant noodles often are. I just wanted to convey the feeling I had of not wanting to stop. Just like you wouldn’t want your bowl of instant noodles to get cold and gummy, I didn’t want to stop reading the book lest I missed something. The urgent pace, the refreshing perspective – suffice to say that I wasn’t bored by it.

It’s a slim novel, focusing on the trials and tribulations of Fenfang, a recent transplant to Beijing from a village “that won’t be found on any map of China,” a village that chiefly consists old people, rivers, and sweet potato fields that seem to go on forever. These individual chapters – the twenty fragments – are a nice conceit, with black and white pictures adorning each one with engaging title-phrases like, “How Fenfang, bewildered, put down roots in Beijing” or “Xiaolin, before he got violent.”

As befitting the title, these are a series of fragments – not a straightforward story of rags-to-riches or from-village-to-city with a beginning, middle, and an end. The fragments give us a snapshot into Fenfang, an incredibly plucky, vulnerable, smart, and quirky character as she attempts to grow up. Whether she succeeds is up for the reader to decide; but if anything, Xiaolu Guo shows us that even the process of growing up occurs in fits and starts. For instance, Fenfang seems incredibly grown-up from what she has to endure, living alone in the big city and finding her own way without any kindly (or intrusive) relatives or friends to help. Yet, she’s still raw and untouched, incredibly idealistic, and quite loveable.

Right from the third page, you can see why Fenfang proves likeable:

So I was the 6,787th person in Beijing wanting a job in the film and TV industry. Between me and a role stood 6,786 other people – young and beautiful, old and ugly. I felt the competition, but compared to the 1.5 billion people in China, 6,786 wasn’t such a daunting number. It was only the population of my village. I felt the urge to conquer this new village.

Certainly, the Beijing that Fenfang sees – complete with homicidal drivers, ambitious cockroaches, countless other exhausted, displaced individuals – is relentless and brutal, just like any other big, overpopulated city is in a developing country. Fenfang makes pithy observations about the state of Chinese culture and people, as when she meets her future boyfriend, Xiaolin, for the first time:

The he asked my age, and I asked his. That’s the tradition in China. If we know each other’s ages we can understand each other’s past. We Chinese have been collective for so long, personal histories are not worth mentioning.

Fenfang’s description of sharing Xiaolin’s home and his family’s one-bedroom apartment with his two parents, grandmother, two sisters, and two brown cats and a dog – the latter which keeps shitting right next to the bed Fenfang shares with Xiaolin – takes on a surreal turn when Guo writes: “And in bed, whether sound asleep or restless with frenzied dreams, Xiaolin always held me close, as though afraid of our naked bodies parting.” Hmm, okay. If they’re sharing that room with the whole family, as Fenfang describes, then I certainly hope she and Xiaolin get naked only when… well… the whole family is not around.

When Fenfang says things like, “For me, it was old people who were responsible for all the shit things that had happened in China,” I agree with her perspective just as I know it’s an unfair, biased one. That’s Guo’s biggest strength – she’s able to depict sullen, hopeless, hopeful, utterly ravenous youth with a deft, loving hand. She writes of Fenfang with no bitterness, anger, or sentimentality. I couldn’t, naturally, help but wonder if Fenfang’s experiences mirrored the author’s own life (I know, I’m such a bloody literal reader, always wondering about the unimportant things, who cares if the author’s life is true to the story or not? Etc., etc.), and if so, she does an admirable job of maintaining authorial distance while allowing Fenfang’s voice to flower, mature, and speak for itself.

Post-communist China is a rubble of misplaced dreams and newfound hope, and I can’t pretend to know anything about the country except what I see of it and what I read about it. Yet, when Fenfang says things like, “I loved piracy. It was our university and our only path to the foreign world,” I could also completely relate to her. I’m sure many others who have to make it in Kuala Lumpur on their own after moving here from the outskirts of the city, or remote places in the village, might find that the story of displacement and readjustment really doesn’t change. The greatest discrepancy between people in our world may not be gender, or race, in the end… just class – and by extension, the country and the city.

While reading it, I was thinking that the translator(s) must have had a hell of a job; maintaining the nuances of Chinese language while incorporating youthful slang and still keeping the prose fresh, energetic, and lively – and true enough, Xiaolu Guo thanks both of her translators towards the end, as the author herself made some revisions to the original text of the story which the second translator helped polish. It doesn’t show in the pages, not at all, and no doubt it was an immense labour of love for both Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey.

This was a rather delicious introduction to Xiaolu Guo’s written work (she’s also a filmmaker), and I can only dream that her other books are equally quirky, potent, and utterly unputdownable.

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