An unusual translation assignment offers a harrowing glimpse into post-Tiananmen repression in China.
Iona is a London translator who’s been asked to look over a stash of Chinese letters and diary entries that have mysteriously made their way into a publisher’s hands. What she uncovers is a mix of dissident rhetoric and heartbreak that turns on one couple's story. Jian, she learns, is a rock musician whose lyrics and writings riled Chinese authorities, who banished him from the country; he eventually lands in England, then heads to France. Mu, his lover, is a musician and poet herself, repurposing Allen Ginsberg's poetry to register her own protest about her homeland, albeit while safely on tour in the United States. Over the course of almost a year, Iona pieces together the history of Mu and Jian’s relationship from the mid-1990s to the present. Guo generally restricts the perspective to Iona, a smart strategy in that it dramatizes her slow awakening to the politics and culture that barricaded Mu and Jian from each other. The downside is that she gives Iona little personality; apart from an interest in Chinese language and culture and the occasional one-night stand, her character is largely blank. As the novel deepens, though, the camera shifts more often to Jian's and Mu’s points of view, underscoring the emotional turmoil that’s hard to register in letters and diaries and even more difficult to translate. There’s some stiffness to Guo’s prose, and some plot turns are too tidily machined. (There’s a needlessly delayed revelation about Jian, for instance, and a melodramatic near-miss between two characters toward the climax.) The strength of the novel is within Mu’s and Jian's writings, which come in a variety of forms: brash manifestos, heartsick poetry, coded messages. Though Iona is little more than a bridge between the two, the story she’s stumbled over is an affecting one.
A semi-epistolary tale powered by what’s repressed and unsayable.