of my english," reads a handwritten scrawl on the page before the
Prologue of Xiaolu Guo's 'A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary
for Lovers'. One might think that there is no need for the author to
apologize, but that's not the case. The apology itself is yet another
carefully placed linguistic grace note, the first pluck of a string before
the symphony starts. Guo's first novel in English lives up to its title.
It is indeed concise, and that focus keeps it funny and entertaining.
The dictionary format makes it a breeze to read. But there's more than
a breath of fresh air to be found here. Guo's novel of love and language,
of the love of language is not about dictionary definitions; it's about
how we define ourselves.
A twenty-three year-old girl from a rural Chinese village arrives in
London, sent to learn English so that she can return to help her parents
scale up their shoe-making business to accommodate international sales.
Even as she arrives Zhuang is a cultural contradiction, and upon her
arrival, her name disappears almost as fast as her identity. Z, as she's
occasionally known – most often she's tellingly nameless – determines
that she shall learn the language by writing down the definitions of
words at the top of a series of short and often funny diary entries.
Even though the language is simple, the character and her observations
are clearly quite complex. She meets a nameless man at a movie, who calls
himself an artist. On their second meeting, almost a date, she tells
him that she'd like to see where he lives. "Be my guest," he
responds, a command she takes literally. A week later she is moving into
Thus begins a literary romance and education like no other. Guo starts
things off quite humorously, using her "broken english" to
excellent effect. But that's not the only trick up her sleeve. The simple
words belie a sophisticated point-of-view and a subtle sensibility. Guo's
humor covers the entire range, from straightforward jokes to complicated
perceptual riffing. Combined with the broken English style, it's quite
fun to read.
But although it is funny, 'A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary
for Lovers' is of course much more. Guo uses the process of acculturation
as a compelling plot point. The reader cheers every time our heroine
displays in her language yet another unconscious indication that she
has been assimilated just a little bit more into the culture that surrounds
her. The culture she's leaving behind is equally fascinating. Guo's Z
is a true believer in the Communist Chinese ideals; the power of the
collective is palpable and real to her. She bumps up against the chaotic
capitalism of London with a sense of wonder that makes our familiar surroundings
seem suddenly exotic and alien.
The heart of this dictionary is a love that begins as a familiar attraction
between a man and a woman but soon becomes much more. As Z learns the
language she learns to love the new identity she acquires in the process.
In contrast, her nameless lover follows a more tragic path, as he seems
to age more quickly and lose his own language. The abundant humor remains,
but tinged with poignant power and the wistful sensibility of the self-displaced.
All of this is viewed through the lens of Guo's carefully controlled
broken English, a remarkably accomplished performance that reveals and
conceals the shifting fault lines within Z. As the words accumulate,
as the feeling coalesce, 'A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary
for Lovers' does indeed map from A to Z – of the human heart.