A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Ursula Le Guin is two for two. It was her review of Jan Morris’ Hav that first pointed me in the direction of that wonderful book; and likewise her review that persuaded me to add Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which turns out to be nearly as good, to my wish-list. It is, of course, a love story, between a young Chinese woman and an older English man. 23 year-old Zhaung Xiao Qiao arrives in the UK one February (2003, I think), nervous and alone, fearing the future, to learn English at a school in Holburn, hardly even understanding why her parents have sent her. A little over a month into her stay she meets a man at a cinema in South Kensington, falls easily and comprehensively in love, and as a result of a miscommunication ends up moving in with him. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is Z’s story over the following year, up to the point where her visa expires. It’s presented as a diary-stroke-language-notebook; Z carries with her a Chinese-English dictionary, and later, a Collins Concise English Dictionary, at all times, and often refers to them in her attempts to understand and describe the world around her. Chapter headings (e.g. “romance”) are taken from the latter, with accompanying definitions (“fantasy, fiction, legend, novel, story, tale; exaggeration, falsehood, lie; ballad, idyll, song”), and the whole thing is written in the second person, addressed to the never-named man.

Which inevitably means that the most immediate thing about the book is the language in which it’s written. Here, for example, is part of Z’s first encounter with a full English breakfast:

What is this ‘baked beans’? White colour beans, in orange sticky sweet sauce. I see some baked bean tins in shop when I arrive to London yesterday. Tin food is very expensive to China. Also we not knowing how to open it. So I never ever try tin food. Here, right in front of me, this baked beans must be very expensive. Delicacy is baked beans. Only problem is, tastes like somebody put beans into mouth but spit out and back into plate. (17)

I concede this is probably the prose equivalent of Marmite, but I love it: particularly the innocent directness, the seeing-for-the-first-time-ness of it. Leaving aside the question of taste for a moment, however, there might also seem to be a question of authenticity. On the one hand, the artifice of this sort of writing, bad in very specific ways, is obvious: for example, it’s hard to believe that Z’s grammar would be so bad while her spelling is impeccable (although a few artfully misheard nouns are dropped into the text every so often — “rocksack”, “peterfile”). On the other hand, the book apparently grew out of a diary Guo herself kept when she moved to London (Concise Dictionary is her first novel to be written in English, although her seventh in total), which raises various questions but does at least suggest that the portrayal of the learning process is likely to be accurate. And an aspect that may seem the most contrived — the present tense; bear in mind that these are not Z’s thoughts as she is having them, they are entries written later in her notebook — is a consequence of incompletely translating Chinese thought into English. “Chinese, we not having grammar,” Z explains. “We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language” (24). The fact that Guo conveys the difficulties of translation so lightly is one of the most impressive things about the book, for me, and I think you have to respect at least that, even if you find Z’s voice to be nails-down-chalkboard grating. She does, of course, learn over the course of the year, but her position as a naive teller of truths never changes. This, for instance, is another breakfast, in Berlin:

The early morning air feels cold, like autumn coming. Occasionally, one or two old mans in a long coats walk aimlessly in the street, with the cigarettes in their lips. Under the highway there is bridge. By the bridge there is a sausage shop, lots of large mans queue there to get hot sausages. Gosh, they eat purely sausage in the morning! Even worse than English Breakfast. The morning wind is washing my brain, and my small body. This is a city with something really heavy and serious in its soul. This is a city which had big wars in the history. And, I feel, this is a city made for mans, and politics, and disciplines. Like Beijing. (218)

Again, it’s characteristic of Z’s writing — the fresh phrases that seem careless (“The morning wind is washing my brain”), the odd but valid word choices (“Gosh”), the unabashedly obvious observations (“This is a city which had big wars in the history”). There is something memorable on nearly every page of the book. Walking home one night, Z observes that “Also, the robbers robbing the people even poorer than them. In China we believe ‘rob the rich to feed the poor’. But robbers here have no poetry” (42). They may not, but Z does – the poetry of an acute observer, plain in everything from her descriptions of a pub to her consternation on discovering that her man is a vegetarian, to her reaction to a David Lynch double bill. In a number of ways, Z is not an easy character to love — apart from anything else, she is stubborn, and rude – but she is always sharply aware and, at least from a reader’s remove, inescapably charming.

Which is not to imply that this is always a comfortable book, though it is one with an extremely generous view of human nature (certainly in contrast to, oh I don’t know, The Inheritance of Loss). By far the majority of the people Z encounters are good-hearted, even if they sometimes can’t resist teasing her; only twice, during a solo jaunt around Europe, does she encounter someone who tries to take advantage of her, and while the encounters are unpleasant, they are not irretrievably horrific. And if Z is frequently baffled by the world she finds around her, she is not intimidated by it. In fact, she is often indignant in the face of it. “English is a sexist language … always talking about mans, no womans” (26), she observes — although despite this awareness her view of what constitutes a relationship is extremely conservative (at least in our terms; more on this below). Moreover, she’s always conscious of the distance between herself and her man: “You a man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner” (153); “You are boss of yourself, so you have dignity” (184). Strung together like that, such moments look obtrusive, but in fact they are more often grace notes to scenes about other things. Which is to say that they describe the reality of Z’s life — we’re put in her man’s shoes; we can’t ignore what she says — but not the extent of it. (Again, the contrast with Desai’s novel couldn’t be more striking.)

The fear at the heart of such worries, though, inevitably informs her relationship. Here we come back to love. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is built around a distinction expressed with particular elegance, to my mind, in KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, between love that exists “as a mutal sentiment or not at all” and implies “a voluntary blending of identities”, and love that denotes “two travellers meeting, enjoying each other’s company, then parting and moving on.” Z and her man do love, with joy and vigour, but — it becomes increasingly clear — in different ways, ways that have an awful lot to do with their differing backgrounds. To Z, love is a mutual act, a commitment that abolishes privacy and (for example) entitles her to read her man’s diaries, and enables her to blithely tell him that she’s done so. Love is about creating a home, a family, and a future: the three are inextricably related, aspects of an incompletely translated cultural inheritance, and lead to the conservatism I mentioned earlier. Love as security, as community. But the man Z has fallen in love with is more casual — as Z notes, he can afford to be. He is something of a bohemian, an artist who’s drifted through his life believing “the future only comes when it comes”, that nothing is forever; he values his independence. To him, love is about the preciousness of the present moment, not the promise of the future.

In other words, the lovers occupy positions opposite to those staked out by their native languages, an irony that defines their relationship. Z is so engaging that we badly want to see her grow into a more complete sense of self: but we fear that in doing so she will almost certainly doom her relationship, despite the fact that said relationship is the original catalyst for her growth. In fact it is specifically the physical relationship that is the catalyst. Z’s descriptions of sex, whether going right or going wrong, are as refreshingly matter-of-fact as her descriptions of everything else; and though her initial understanding, both of the act and the emotional paraphernalia it requires, is limited, she’s a quick study. She goes to a peep show, and has a lot of sex with her lover, and starts to explore her own body, and along the way she begins to believe in her own independence. More and more, this (as we feared it might) hems her into an absurd, uplifting, heartbreaking paradox: a catch-22 of love. Almost miraculously, Guo finds an honest resolution — one good enough that the other books shortlisted for the Orange Prize are going to have to go some if they want to replace A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers in my affections.

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11 Responses to “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”

  1. Richard Larson Says:

    I’m so excited that you liked this book! Xiaolu is one of our clients at the film PR firm I occasionally work for (she had a film at Sundance this year) and she’s such a bright talent, and a really fun person to hang out with. It’s amazing for her that she’s nominated for the Orange Prize. Her novel is deceptively intricate and beautiful.

  2. Niall Says:

    Further proof, if such were needed, that it’s a small small world.

  3. Victoria Says:

    I don’t generally like the affected first-person in novels. Which is a shame… because I want to like ‘Dictionary for Lovers’, I really do. We’ll just have to wait and see.

    But you make me smile when you say: ‘Which is not to imply that this is always a comfortable book, though it is one with an extremely generous view of human nature (certainly in contrast to, oh I don’t know, The Inheritance of Loss).’

    I think it shows quite plainly how sweet you are. ;-) But I do wonder: why does the extent of a novel’s human generosity determine its quality?

  4. Niall Says:

    I don’t generally like the affected first-person in novels.

    Hang on, I thought you liked Cloud Atlas …?

    I think it shows quite plainly how sweet you are. ;-)

    But I do wonder: why does the extent of a novel’s human generosity determine its quality?

    I wasn’t saying that it is more generous therefore better; what I think I was gettnig at is thta it’s is more generous therefore the book feels more like a portrayal of real human beings therefore it’s better.

    Now, that said, I think you could make an argument that Guo is too generous — that to a certain extent she idealises the situation that Z is in. As the review suggests, I’d argue she gets away with it, but I think it is one area where the book is vulnerable to criticism.

  5. Victoria Says:

    ‘only twice, during a solo jaunt around Europe, does she encounter someone who tries to take advantage of her, and while the encounters are unpleasant, they are not irretrievably horrific.’

    Have you lost your mind? On one of these occassions she is violently raped! And then has to have an abortion!

    ‘Which is not to imply that this is always a comfortable book, though it is one with an extremely generous view of human nature…’

    I think we must be reading an entirely different novel… As I see it Z is constantly vulnerable to sexual attack – her naivity places her in extroadinarily dangerous situations. She has no sexual savvy. If she is only raped once it is because she is incredibly lucky, not because of any generosity of human nature. Everyone wants something from her, usually sex… she is an incredibly pathetic and lonely figure. And her partner? he has no real respect for her as a person, just as she has no respect for herself.

  6. Niall Says:

    Have you lost your mind? On one of these occassions she is violently raped!

    But she’s not traumatised by it in a lasting way — hence “not irretrievably horrific”. I don’t think Guo glosses the consequences of the rape, or presents Z as falsely rationalising what’s happened, but I agree it’s there to highlight Z’s precariousness, and it was one of the things I had in mind when I said above the novel could be considered for being too generous. Le Guin says, “she certainly gains experience, though what she learns from it is questionable”, which suggests she wasn’t completely satisfied with the way the consequences were handled either.

    All through the Europe trip you’re expecting something to go wrong, and it’s amazing that nothing does, but it’s not luck, it’s because most of the men she encounters deal with her on her terms. (Or rather, if the fact that most of the men she meets aren’t rapists is luck, you have a much darker view of male nature than I do.) From memory, even the man who rapes her does so because he *doesn’t understand* her “no” — he’s certainly taking advantage of her, and culpable for his actions (if nothing else you would think Z’d be giving off nonverbal signals that she wanted him to stop), but he thinks they’re mutually taking advantage of each other, and doesn’t realise he’s going further than she wanted when she initiated the encounter.

    In a different book, that encounter would dominate the last third of the narrative, and represent — if you like — an inevitable consequence of Z’s behaviour. In this book, it’s a traumatic event *because* it stands out so much from the surroundings.

    And her partner? he has no real respect for her as a person, just as she has no respect for herself.

    I disagree with both parts of this sentence. To start with, Z values herself, she just doesn’t value herself (to start with) in a Western way; her journey over the book is one of adopting a different way of understanding her life. A way of independence rather than community, to put it crudely. I think the book comes down on the side of “our” understanding, but it doesn’t dismiss the value of her upbringing. (Look at Z’s awareness of sexism, for instance.) As for her partner: he’s clearly not as wonderful as Z’s rose-tinted spectacles make him out to be, but I also think he clearly values and encourages the growth of Z’s independence. Have you finished the book yet?

  7. Victoria Says:

    I haven’t quite finished it yet; I have about 40 pages to go. And I don’t completely dislike it, not at all. I do think it worthy…but I also think that its worthiness is in the way it confronts sexual exploitation and female repression, rather than in its deeply affected and often annoying play on language and understanding (which has been done a thousand times before).

    ‘But she’s not traumatised by it in a lasting way — hence “not irretrievably horrific”.’

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘traumatised in a lasting way’. Is there such a thing as a rape that only traumatises you in the short term?! In my opinion a rape is the worst kind of violence that could befall a woman – it absolutely negates the power of her sexuality and her will. And it is clearly a distressing event for her, made worse by her complicity in the act itself – her excitement, shame and self-disgust conmingled. Her silence is itself indicative of trauma, as is her inability to reapproach what has happened to her. She tells no one – I’m not even sure she knows that what has happened to her is rape, which is terrifying – and immediately tries to erase the physical evidence by washing herself in the train. She senses something is wrong but she doesn’t have the sexual consciousness to express it.

    ‘All through the Europe trip you’re expecting something to go wrong, and it’s amazing that nothing does, but it’s not luck, it’s because most of the men she encounters deal with her on her terms.’

    Perhaps my view does tend towards the pessimistic but it seems to me that Z encounters so many ‘kindly’ men (where are all the women?) because they sense her sexual vulnerability. They want to take her to their houses, and sleep in their beds, and stay a while with them. And as I see it Z has no ‘terms’. She is entirely passive across Europe. She never asks to go home with these men, she just falls in with them – they make suggestions and she follows on. At one point in the book she describes herself as a ‘fighter’ or a ‘struggler’ or some such but I saw almost no evidence of this in the text. Z is needy, lonely and lost with little or no sense of herself in the world. She just bounces from one place and another, yearning.

    ‘but he thinks they’re mutually taking advantage of each other, and doesn’t realise he’s going further than she wanted when she initiated the encounter.’

    She *doesn’t* initiate the encounter! He does. He is the one who preys on her at the cafe. You don’t think his intentions were honourable, surely? If a man approached me in a cafe and said: Can I take you to a special beach? I would run a mile and a half, and so should every woman. Children shouldn’t get into cars with strangers and women shouldn’t go into unfamiliar territory with men they don’t know. Even Z recongises there is something strange about him. If he didn’t intend to rape her, he definitely meant to steal from her or talk her out of money (as he tries to do at the end). She is so very very vulnerable. I wanted to cry for her.

    ‘In this book, it’s a traumatic event *because* it stands out so much from the surroundings.’

    I disagree. I think it is a culmination of the books’ sexual trends, which are very dark. As a direct result of her upbringing Z has a very disturbed idea of sex, its meanings and its values. It looks like she is naive but really, she isn’t. When she goes to see the peepshow? You didn’t find that distressing? How she interprets the performers behaviour as love and affection, and merrily chimes that she wants to be a prostitute. That isn’t naivety, and its not guilelessness; its horrifying! (Also, I simply do not believe that Z doesn’t know what a prostitute is. Even if she has been protected from sex itself, every little girl, perhaps especially in sexually repressive cultures, comes to know what a prostitute is. They’re the ‘bad girls’; the ones you don’t want to be like.)

    Somehow, somewhere along the line, she has made a mistaken connection between sex and love. When she meets those men in Europe she often wonders: ‘does this mean I love him’, or that he loves me. She is only disabused of this notion after the rape.

    ‘To start with, Z values herself, she just doesn’t value herself (to start with) in a Western way….’

    I disagree. I think you’re interpreting her respect for her culture -collectivity, familial solidarity and its food – as a respect for herself, when in fact she often notes how she lonely and alienated she felt in China. I’m thinking of: how her mother used to call her an ugly peasant, how other children used to avoid her, how she hates her parents’ shoe factory. When she feels at her most low and alienated she calls herself these kinds of names – peasant, ignorant, ugly, Chinese. She values the machine, but not her part in it; you never really sense she is at home with either collectivity or individuality. She views everything from the outside.

    ‘As for her partner: he’s clearly not as wonderful as Z’s rose-tinted spectacles make him out to be, but I also think he clearly values and encourages the growth of Z’s independence.’

    Does she really rose-tint him though? It seems like all she does is pick out his faults and how they hurt her love for him. Does she really love him? Of course not. She is almost entirely emotionally dependent on him and she mistakes this for worship and love, when really it is only a form of desperation. (I thought it was interesting how few acts of non-sexualised affection there are in the novel; lots of sex, far less companionship.)

  8. Niall Says:

    Don’t have time to write another full response now, unfortunately, but a couple of quick points:

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘traumatised in a lasting way’.

    I mean that it doesn’t define her for the rest of the novel. It’s a traumatic experience, but it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of her personality or experience. I don’t think she thinks of it as rape, either (I was sure she said something to the man about wanting to have sex, but accept I’m misremembering; but she definitely doesn’t frame it as rape when she tells her partner about the encounter), and you’re right, that *is* terrifying. But it becomes a part of her identity, not all of it.

    I disagree. I think you’re interpreting her respect for her culture -collectivity, familial solidarity and its food – as a respect for herself, when in fact she often notes how she lonely and alienated she felt in China.

    Yeah, and I think you’re interpreting her respect for her culture in the terms of our culture. You’re right that she recalls feeling lonely and alienated in China, but that’s not to do with the specifics of her culture, that’s to do with being a young person growing up. In some ways, she has a very *strong* sense of who she is when she comes to the UK (in others, not at all).

    The interplay between sex/companionship/love is definitely one of the most interesting and sophisticated things about the book, but I think you’re overselling the negatives. If I don’t go finish off this comment now, though, Liz is actually going to tear the laptop from my hands and beat me over the head with it, so more later!

  9. Out Now or Coming Soon « Torque Control Says:

    [...] readers will remember that I rather liked Guo’s previous, Orange-shortlisted novel, so this, when I saw it on the shelves in Borders, [...]

  10. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth « Torque Control Says:

    [...] Clarke Award re-read, this, Xiaolu Guo’s follow-up to last year’s Orange-shortlisted A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (except that the Chinese edition of 20 Fragments was her first novel; although this English [...]

  11. Chinese Futures « Torque Control Says:

    [...] in Her Eyes is the story of that investigation and what follows. It is presented, as were A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, as a series of documents: in this case, primarily transcripts [...]


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