Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Love in a Foreign Language

There was a line from a poem written by a short blond girl who read once at a poetry open mic hosted by the college literary magazine. The line, which I don't remember exactly, was along the lines of, "I broke his heart in English, because I couldn't be bothered to translate."

There are many beautiful meditations on language, and losing your language, and living and loving in a foreign language in Chang-Rae Lee's fantastic Native Speaker.

I have tried and failed to date outside English. Conversation sticks to pleasantries like the weather and we never really get to know each other.

These were the thoughts running through my head as I read Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers: A Novel

I think it is telling that it is dedicated to "The man who... knows how a woman lost her language."

Z (no one can pronounce Zhuang, just call her Z) is sent to London to study English. There she meets a man, older and a drifter, and falls in love with him.

She talks to him as she learns English. Each chapter is short vignette, starting with a word and definition. As the novel, and time, wear on, Z's English improves, but never reaches fluency.

It's a doomed affair, you can tell from the beginning, the way he has a conception of China and expects her to be a good communist and Buddhist because she is Chinese and those are aspects that fit in with his aging-hippie drifter persona, never realizing that China has changed drastically. You can tell by the way she doesn't understand privacy.

More than a chronicle of a doomed love affair, it is a story of subtle and wry cultural misunderstanding. It is a coming-of-age story, both emotionally and sexually.

It is beautifully written, at times switching between terse and broken, to evocative and sensual, to moments of clear truth.

One of my favorite books of the year.

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