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Review of 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (by Xiaolu Guo)

Much of the novel discusses language, and the differences between Z’s native language and that of her host culture. Were these conflicts and translations revealing, in your opinion? (Can you find examples?)

I’m not sure that ‘revealing’ is the correct word, but some ‘errors’ stood out for me. In the “properly” section, when Z is getting into her first taxi we hear “Driver shout me again: ‘Shut the door properly!’ in a concisely manner”. This is clearly a sentence borne of her dictionary. Concise meaning brief, terse, short or to the point, the reader gets the feeling of what she means, but the word is clearly very wrong and jars. It makes you wonder how you sound when speaking a foreign language from a phrase book. However, on page 10, she specifically says (when referring to the title of the dictionary itself) - “Concise meaning simple and clean”. Does she therefore mean that the taxi driver gave her a clear request (that she did not understand) or that he gave her a terse or rude request. Interesting.

How engaging or surprising did you find the cultural and linguistic juxtapositions between China and England which occur throughout the novel?

A section I thought was fascinating and which reveals the difference between the country of manufacture and the country of consumer, is the section where she is given a vibrator for a gift, and has no idea what it is. “Why it doesn’t say ‘Dildo’ or ‘automatic sex for woman’ on the box? Maybe because it made in China, not allow to say things so clearly. It might become a big scandal if somebody from his village know his neighbour making plastic cocks everyday in a factory. Or maybe these factories are secretly protected by the government. Because Chinese government say there is no sex industry in China”. There are too many juxtapositions to go into in much detail, but the peppering of each page with examples does immerse the reader within the world of Z.

Is Z’s English merely ‘bad’ or does it do something productive to your experience of reading the novel?

Z’s English is initially bad (more, stilted and inexperienced) but it improves throughout her stay in Britain, and throughout the novel. This leads the reader to an almost real-time relationship with her personal growth. This is one of the parts of the book I quite enjoyed, though the language annoyed a LOT at the beginning. Using this tool as a way means to allow the reader to grow with the character is kind of obvious, yet also quite clever. The reader becomes less irritated with the “bad English” musings of Z the further into the book they delve, though there is still plenty of space to be irritated by the sex and other relationship weirdness as the book progresses.

We’ve engaged with other writers who ‘break the rules’ already on the unit (Cormac McCarthy, for example). Would you consider adopting an unorthodox writing style in your own work, or do you always strive to write in the ‘best’ (i.e. most ‘correct’) way possible?

I try to break the rules but don’t tend to succeed. My mum being a teacher really has had a lasting impact. My 12 year old son corrects my occasional grammatical errors, as I correct his. I would struggle to write something like this as each semi-sentence would be screaming out for correction. As they used to say about Les Dawson - you would have to be an exceptional pianist to play piano that badly. Perhaps the same is true of this writer – that the writing of bad English is actually a very enviable skill?

I’d like us to think about the way that the reader might relate to, or engage with, a protagonist. We saw in Ian McEwan’s Saturday some of the complications which might arise in presenting a sustained portrait of a protagonist who has little regard for the (literary) culture of the notional reader. Does Dictionary straddle a similar line by giving us a protagonist whose use of English is so limited? How did you respond to the prose style? Does Z’s limited English render her an unreliable narrator?

It isn’t only Z’s limited English which renders her an unreliable narrator – it is the lack of knowledge of the world in which she finds herself. You would expect it on her travels, that she’d always be an outsider, getting things wrong etc, but you would expect she’d at least learn to live within the London confines and to begin and understanding of them. She is unreliable in that she is unskilled within the culture and not well skilled at expression in the native language. But also she is unreliable because she is a subjective individual.

I responded to the prose style with amazement. Firstly, I couldn’t quite believe that what seems like such a lowbrow book(!) had made it onto this reading list. Then I couldn’t quite believe that something so irritating could make it onto the reading list. However, once I warmed up to it, I found it an easy and (at times) darkly humorous read, though the sex writing was incredibly un-erotic and almost embarrassing.

Z’s use of English is limited, so does that make the literary reader less inclined to read, enjoy and identify? Yes, I believe so.

Did Z’s position as an outsider in England force you to view the West in a new – perhaps estranged – way, or was your view of Z one of knowing irony, or perhaps even condescension? How do you think Guo might have intended the reader to respond?

From The Guardian’s online review – “There are dozens of interesting and arresting asides: we learn the Chinese names for potatoes and daffodils - 'earth beans' and 'fairy maidens from the water'; and the fact that in China there is no distinction between mental and physical work; all jobs translate to 'scavenge the living'”. This (and many other factors) allow the reader to view the exoticism of Z, and perhaps to feel a little condescension. She appears naïve, overly trusting, and perhaps almost quaint.

How did your response to both Z and the novel itself alter as Z’s grasp of English gradually improves throughout the novel? Would you have presented this development in the same way? If so, why? If not, why not?

I was less and less irritated as the book progressed, and I thought it was a logical way of presenting the character’s growth. I found the style worked, if the reader got past the first parts of the book, and the feeling that what was being expressed could be inherently racist, and certainly offensive… then one relaxes towards the centre of the book and the voice almost appears as natural. Unusual expression becomes expected. So yes, if I had such a story to tell, I could be tempted to use a similar technique, though would try not to alienate readers from the outset.

As is the case with Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the narrator of Guo’s novel often addresses herself to a second-person ‘you’. Would you describe this address in Dictionary as another example of dramatic monologue?

Yes, I think this is dramatic monologue. It is written in first person, and addressed to the second person “you”, and it reveals not just Z’s actions, but also her emotional state using “I”. This allows the reader to get to grips with what is going on in her mind perhaps a little more effectively than they would do had she been written in third person. However, I’m not sure if it counts as dramatic monologue if it has been written in this unusual dictionary form.

How does the ‘you’ in Dictionary differ from that in Hamid’s novel?

In Hamid’s novel, the ‘you’ is the American, a specific individual. In this novel, the ‘you’ refers to Z’s boyfriend. After reading this book, then reading this question, I had a strong feeling that she referred to someone else as you, but couldn’t find it when I scanned through again. So, both narrators are addressing specific ‘you’s. The first is enquiring and statement-making. The second is more of a journal-like exposition.

How does this address position the reader differently in relation to the story?

The address gives added intimacy as the reader is invited to put themselves into the position of the ‘you’ – Z’s lover.

How clear a picture of ‘you’ does Guo present?

Guo doesn’t present an overly clear picture of ‘you’ – not even naming him. Pg 48 – “You tell me your name, but how I remember English name?”. So, the English person is anonymous and nameless, and could easily be the position of the reader. We may know some of his physical characteristics and his likes and dislikes, but, other than through his conversations with Z, we don’t get inside his head.

What advantages or disadvantages does a character largely constructed in the second person present?

“Writing in the second person requires use of the pronouns you, your, and yours. This point of view is used to address the audience in technical writing, advertising, songs and speeches.” This is the definition of second person as used by I think this is useful for the character Z who basically sells herself (the first person) to us (the second person readers). That’s a clear advantage when we wish to get to know the character. However, disadvantages also arise, especially if the ‘you’ character is never explicitly named. Surely the reader will overly identify with the ‘you’ character? Also, it may prove a little challenging to read of an unlikeable ‘you’ or a ‘you’ that cannot be identified with.

Consider the structure of the novel (short chapters prefixed by dictionary definitions). Does the combination of vignettes or snapshots which comprise the novel make for a compelling narrative? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach? You might consider the undelineated narrative of The Road as a productive counter-example. How do these different ways of organising a novel (short, self-contained chapters and long chapters or no chapterisation at all) condition your engagement in the novel, or reflect the experience of its protagonist?

I did quite enjoy the short chapters, the dictionary definitions and the snappiness of the book, but it does make for a disjointed reading which I imagine would be unchallenging for those readers who enjoy depth and lengthy exposition. I think the structure does change the reader’s perspective. In this case, the book seems less serious and wordy, largely as a result of the structure. In the case of The Road, the style is more literary and worthy, though the language and sentence structures are equally as simple.

As we did for Saturday and Arlington Park, I’d like you to break down the following elements, using just a few sentences for each.

Story: The story was about the development of Z from her arrival in England to the fallout from her breakup with the ‘you’ character. She learns about the country, her own sexuality (and that of others) and other people and she definitely grows as a person. The book has won the Orange prize for fiction and has been apparently translated into 26 languages.

Plot: The plot takes a young woman from China on a trip to England, to meet a serious boyfriend and then to move in with him because of a linguistic misunderstanding. They have many difficulties, but many good times too, and eventually she is encouraged to take a European trip. She becomes pregnant, returns home to her boyfriend and has the pregnancy terminated. The couple sleep with each other regularly but their relationship does not entirely work, and they break up when he moves to Wales. She remains in England. Z’s character arc: Z remains naïve and sweet throughout the book and is also outspoken and says what is on her mind with no thoughts of diplomacy or similar. Her language techniques develop throughout the novel, as do her sexual experiences and her relationship skills. She develops as a person, from seeming to need the constant attention of a lover, to being alone.

How closely related are these elements in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers? How does the ‘scale’ of the novel’s story compare to that of other novels on the unit?

Story, plot and character arc are very related in this book. Z could not take the European trip without first travelling to Europe and meeting her boyfriend. She could not have learnt better English without both the relationship and the time in England. I am not sure of what is meant by the ‘scale’ of the novel’s story. This story isn’t just about Z and the people she meets along the way, but is also about cultural differences and East and West. Travelling takes place but what is really important is the development that goes on in Z’s own head. This is unlike The Road, where travelling is crucial for survival (food gathering) and unlike the claustrophobic compounds within both Arlington Park and The Heart Goes Last.

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