The director then turned the camera on Zhao: not just a mechanical reproducer but also a hard-drinking, passionate young man troubled by his lack of education and his love for van Gogh; he insists on making a trip to Amsterdam to see the vaunted originals, a journey that further complicates his sense of himself. At one point, as he and his friends are having one of their many discussions on van Gogh, art, and reproductions, another copyist makes, to me, the film’s most telling observation: “What van Gogh painted was not important—it was what he saw and how he felt.”
I thought of that remark and that film—that flicker of faith in individuality despite the dehumanizations of the van Gogh industry—while reading Xiaolu Guo’s A Lover’s Discourse (2020), in which a London-based Chinese PhD student also travels to a village in Shenzhen to research the reproductions of major European artists from da Vinci on. Later in the novel, while defending her thesis before a committee, she raises a point similar to the one that China’s van Goghs makes when it shows rows and rows of painted yellow sunflowers drying on a clothesline inside a poorly lit studio: the mythic status of the original is matched only by its immateriality. “There is no intrinsic difference between the perfect reproduction and the original,” Guo’s unnamed narrator tells the committee. “The only difference is the exterior difference, and that is to do with its history.”
Later, she thinks of the workers who made that art—their anonymity, their “purely pragmatic attitude […] their lack of self-consciousness.” But this feels like a simplification. Zhao from the film, as well as several of his co-workers, reveal themselves to be the opposite: highly aware of being shortchanged copyists, yet van Gogh a hero rather than a distant cash cow.
Guo’s protagonist is often critical of what she sees as a misplaced deference to Western art, architecture, literature, and history, but she makes these complaints more in the manner of an irked sprite than a well-informed pedant. She laughs at her own ignorance even as she shakes her fist at the men who presume to know better. And so A Lover’s Discourse remains charmingly open-ended throughout—even comically flailing—as the narrator tries to make sense of European life and lingo, each short chapter taking the form of a conversation she has with herself and, over time, her lover.
Conventionally, the novel could be read as a migration story on the established pattern—loss of home, loneliness, liberation, making a precarious peace with the strangeness of being a global citizen, themes the China-born but long London-based Guo has written about in her earlier publications, which include novels, short stories, and memoirs. Megan Walsh, in her recent review for LARB of Xue Yiwei’s Celia, Misoka, I (2022)—the latest novel by another Chinese writer who lives in the West and has made dislocation his theme—discussed the way Xue’s three main characters are “‘grains of sand,’ randomly tossed together and blown apart by the ‘winds of globalization.’ And the novel is in fact less a tribute to the immigrant experience than it is to the generalized disconnection of the globalized age, elevated by moments of unexpected affinity.”*
So also A Lover’s Discourse. The protagonist’s childhood village of rice fields and water buffaloes has been, typically for contemporary China, replaced by thunderous expressways and new constructions, and the parents of this only child have died an early death. She has almost no social links with China and none, initially, with a London of 2015 preoccupied with the Brexit referendum. But Guo’s discursive style, following from the word “discourse” in the title, makes this, apart from a self-conscious parsing of the general rootlessness of the urban young and the specific struggles of the migrant, also a turning of tables: a way of using the apparent novice’s doubt to mock the assured assumptions underlying Western civilization.
But what is this sureness? Take the history of the novel. The also greatly discursive Milan Kundera once used the phrase “the wisdom of uncertainty” to describe the legacy of the European novel, starting with Don Quixote’s heroism in the face of the world’s ambiguities. In the same essay, “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes,” he claimed that new novels continue to be written but don’t seem to be adding anything to the sequence of novelistic discoveries about human existence that started with Cervantes and could well have ended with Kafka. A Lover’s Discourse is a book of ambivalences, but how much is it extending the life of that European invention, the novel, and how much proposing a new iteration: the critique of novel as novel? Guo writes,
I always had problems reading Balzac, Dickens or even Hemingway. Somehow I found their tone pompous, and their unbending masculinity was impossible for me to penetrate. Only when I found paragraphs that carried a sense of the defeated, the ignored and the dying did I feel connected.
Balzac’s greatest novel is about a defeated, ignored, and dying old man, and Dickens’s are full of underdogs, so this dismissal is, again, something of an exaggeration. But even to the reader who is not quite ready to throw out these stalwarts, Guo’s discomfort—especially when she, in that same passage, quotes Marguerite Duras on male omniscience in classic novels—is also hard to dismiss. This is, potentially, a greater wisdom of a deeper uncertainty, linked to the impossibility of being tied to any one tradition. In this deconstruction, Guo is helped by a figure she admires, from one of whose books she has borrowed the title of her own: Roland Barthes and his A Lover’s Discourse (1977). The lover strikes a figure, Barthes said—he or she is a performative character acting out a code. The code may vary with one’s history and class, but the lover’s stance remains the same. Guo’s protagonist, too, appears to be taking up a pose as she debates the meaning of love and the differences of culture, but she is also the very opposite of a figure in being an entirely embodied character. She describes what it is like to live on a boat in the English cold, the difficulties of nurturing her newborn child, the taste of European dishes in the mouth of someone with Chinese food memories; it is her aliveness to experience as much as her grappling with ideas that animates the novel.
Visiting China, she is struck by the vitality and neighborliness of her compatriots; while in England, she thinks of how everyone back home is dying from cancer or coping with traumatic family history. Dinner for Six (2022), written by a near-exact contemporary of Guo’s, Lu Min, is in fact something of a Balzacian novel in its confident grasp of a range of social types—except that the characters are defined by working-class ordinariness, not bourgeois aspiration. (Lu is a prolific writer with a very strong reputation in China, but Dinner for Six, translated with flair by Nicky Harman and Helen Wang, is just the second of her novels to receive an English translation.) The traumatic family histories that Guo mentions—obviously a reference to the baggage of the Cultural Revolution—don’t appear in Lu’s novel, but the increasing deaths from cancer do. The two families of the story live in a malodorous factory zone; workers making electron tubes, plastics, petrochemicals, cement, and so on are housed cheek by jowl in rudimentary, soot-filled quarters, breathing the killer emissions all their lives. “Today the air smelled like dead fish, or rather dead prawns, dead squid, dead blue whale, dead swordfish and dead ambergris humpback whale […] It smelled like our factory zone was at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and all the water had gone,” thinks one character. And yet, this the setting of a tender industrial romance—as much a romance between pairs of characters as a passion for proletariat life.
Ding Bogang, an elderly mechanic, adores the view of the smokestacks and warehouses, and sees human qualities in the zone. He reflects on the workers who had devoted themselves to production miracles all their lives:
Whenever he heard young people complaining that the factories and workshops were old-fashioned and backward-thinking, it made him angry. Why were they picking on them? This great, sprawling factory zone had never done any harm to anyone. What was there not to love about it?
Ding Bogang starts out a gentle drunkard, a sorrowing widower with two children who thinks in machinelike analogies. He considers Victor, his son, as thin as a drill bit, and feels an awl piercing his heart when he realizes the boy is not going to fulfill the promise of that name. His sometime mistress, Su Qin, is a factory accountant and a young widow—like Ding Bogang, a single parent, desperate for physical love while trying to remain uncommitted. The early deaths by cancer of Ding Bogang’s wife and Su Qin’s husband hamper their children’s chances to exit the factory zone. Victor, the child prodigy, loses his way after his mother’s passing and becomes a low-paid glassblower rather than the high-up government official his parents had hoped for. Su Qin’s smart daughter, Marina, is trying to work her way into university—she learns English by rote and keeps herself aloof from the zone’s gossipy lowlifes. But her mother’s affair with Ding Bogang unnerves her, and then she falls in love with Victor and is pulled back to the zone while striving to flee it.
Lu may have written a paean to working-class heroes but the novel is more tragic than tough. Ding Bogang stands at his window daily, tracing the outline of a woman’s hips in whirls of factory smoke, but the factory doesn’t reciprocate. At the end of the 1990s, as part of a wave of restructuring, the zone is taken apart—machine assets dismantled and sold for scrap, human assets stripped “down to their underwear […] cowering in a corner, their hands clasped over their private parts like virtuous women resisting rape and pillage.” The land is snapped up by unstoppable developers to build software offices and fancy hotels. Dinner for Six makes much of the contrast between the solidarity of the factory workers and the new and more impersonal craze for infrastructural development that has swept across China in this millennium. But underlying both is the same manic drive for productivity that the country has witnessed since the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s.
Trying to cope with his layoff and with the obliteration of every landmark he knew, including the tiny plot by a garbage mountain where his wife is buried, Ding Bogang becomes a violent alcoholic with a cultivated amnesia. Su Qin tries to preserve a secret life in a community whose first rule is that everything—whether material resources or private life—must be shared. As hapless are the younger characters. Victor buries his feelings in glass. Marina makes a determined attempt at a class journey, only to feel that her newly prosperous life is eating into her like a cancer. She hobnobs unwillingly with the urban rich and attends their banquets,
oozing wealth and good cheer, staged in a blaze of lights and flowers, the tables covered with lights, glasses, ice cubes, saucers filled with condiments, bottles of wine, dishes of beautiful food […] everything one could possibly imagine. While elsewhere, in dim rooms with flickering light bulbs, the potato-eater families sat together, silently chewing on their defeat and their hunger, tolerating each other’s self-loathing and trying to keep each other warm.
The potato-eaters—van Gogh again—are referenced earlier in the novel, when it describes the woebegone look of the improvised family of six during their Saturday dinners. And even if Lu is too polished a novelist to suggest that the forward-looking Marina turns soppy about her former life, the divisions of class are very starkly drawn and, in this case, psychologically hard to overcome—Marina lacking the adroitness of, say, Balzac’s Rastignac, who remakes himself socially.
Also of the same age as Lu and Guo is Yiyun Li: all three are from the generation that were children when the Cultural Revolution was winding down in the late 1970s. Li explored that transitional era in an earlier, extraordinarily empathetic novel called The Vagrants (2009), among whose protagonists are a precocious six-year-old and an abused 12-year-old. In that book, the old order seems to be loosening, there are rumors about a wall of democracy in Beijing, and peasants are allowed family farming again. But at the heart of the novel, watched by the children and practically everyone else in that small town, is the horrific spectacle of the torture and execution of a young Red Guard turned counterrevolutionary.
The upheavals in China starting with the civil war of the mid-1940s have wrought changes, all three novelists show us, in the very grain of the human personality, everyone somehow molded by their fiercely concealed aspirations or monumental disappointments. Teacher Gu, father of the savaged dissident in The Vagrants, has educated poor, illiterate girls for 30 years but realizes at the end that learning to think for oneself in a propaganda-driven society spells doom. The narrator’s mother in A Lover’s Discourse is a blunt peasant, her attitude to life summed up in the expression “eat to live,” dismissing as stupid those who want a little more from existence and therefore “live to eat.” Similarly, the sensitive Victor in Lu Min’s novel, beaten down by life, wonders what makes him human and how vulnerable the barest feelings and thoughts can render one.
Li, China-born but US-based, has asked questions in her fiction about worldviews that stick out in a tightly bound communist society but also about human desires and abiding beliefs in general and what to make of them given—she uses the phrase often—life’s harshness. Self-denial is a theme among those who have struggled through China’s revolutions, but in her latest novel, The Book of Goose (2022), she takes up its opposite: self-invention. Two young girls in a French village in the mid-20th century—impoverished but not starving, their lives affected but not violently transformed by the Second World War. Fabienne is a Rousseauean creation, a child of nature who spends her days herding animals or lying between gravestones staring at the sky with her devoted friend Agnès, spinning fictions to get the better of the world. Fabienne does not go to school and has very little sense of the world outside the village, but the limitations of her circumstances are belied by her extraordinary will and wild imagination. She pulls an elderly postmaster into a plot to convert the ingénue Agnès into an author of a book of stories about the macabre side of rural life, and together the three succeed all too well.
In an era where novels announce their themes, Book of Goose is mysterious, but it bears its mystery lightly, with Li’s understated style touching on large ideas—such as the unswerving quality of childhood friendships or the discordant relationship between time and memory. If this were a conventional social-realist European novel—say Balzac again or Flaubert—the conflict would be between romance and common sense, love and money, the crucial question being whether one can have both. But suppose a novelist did away with all the social furniture and worldly hankerings that underpinned those classics? What if a heroine had nothing and wanted nothing except to sidestep fate, mock aspiration, engineer the course of events, and continually trip up people and prove them wrong? Fabienne doesn’t care for a job, a husband, children, nice clothes, better food to eat. She reminds one of William Wordsworth’s Lucy, living among the “untrodden ways,” a girl whom there are “very few to love.” But she is also a cheeky, agile-bodied teenager, with a devil-may-care attitude, never sick or tired, aiming to trump even death. “The difference between us,” writes Agnès, the narrator, “was that I respected and feared death, and would rather not think about it unless I was forced to. To her, death was a prank. Only the weak, the foolish, and the unlucky would fall for it.”
Fabienne’s project to fashion Agnès into a writer is not undertaken with any end in mind except to ruffle the surface of life. And she is let down not by Agnès’s failure to keep up with the myth of being a child author but simply because the universe the two girls created ends up as a passing curiosity for civilized society. “The world had no use for us; nor did we have any use for this world,” says Agnès.
The novel could be read as a reflection on the impossibility of the writer’s art—that continued resistance, always falling short, to the given categories of real and unreal. But it is also a comment on how easily the writer’s fabrications are familiarized, exploited, and misunderstood. When the book that Agnès, Fabienne, and the postmaster Devaux have concocted appears, critics say it is a glimpse of the savagery in France under occupation. But we the readers, who have seen how the stories came together, know that this is not quite true, that the girls are products as much of their own untutored instincts as of the times they live in. Experience does not always fit itself to the categories that history offers. Nor is an eventful life more meaningful than a passive one:
Sometimes you hear people say so-and-so has lived well, and so-and-so has had a dull life. They are missing a key point when they say that. Any experience is experience, any life a life. A day in a cloister can be as dramatic and fatal as a day on a battlefield.
Some people count only what they seek as life: fame, wealth, adventure, happiness. What they make happen, to others and to themselves, and what they make impossible, for others and for themselves. To me, anything that happens is life.
Kundera, who knew life in totalitarian societies, described how the very ontology of the novel, and not just its politics or morals, is incompatible with authoritarianism. In moving from writing about the resoundingly “empty words” of communist thought to the dilemmas in absolute freedom, Li seems to be exploring just this special way of knowing that the novel, in her expert hands, continues to offer.
* Editor’s Note: Readers curious to learn more about Xue can turn to a 2020 LARB “China Channel” interview with him. Walsh, meanwhile, is an ideal writer to be mentioned in this essay, given its focus, since her The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters (Columbia Global Reports, 2022) is a valuable primer on genres and trends in contemporary Chinese fiction.
Anjum Hasan is an Indian novelist, short-story writer, poet, critic, and editor. Her latest novel is History’s Angel (2023). More on www.anjumhasan.com.