At a time of dislocations and identity clashes, Xiaolu Guo’s A Lover’s Discourse is also a reminder of the fragility of relationships and the importance of bridging differences.
For Roland Barthes, language was like a skin. “It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words,” he writes in A Lover’s Discourse. “My language trembles with desire.” His 1977 book is a series of first-person fragments to do with the polarities of passion: admiration and disappointment, courtesies and drama, initiations and endings.
The work of Chinese-born British author Xiaolu Guo has often traversed the same terrain of language and love, so it’s no surprise that her new novel is beholden to Barthes from the title onward. Her own A Lover’s Discourse is about a cross-cultural romance and the bridges that have to be built for it to succeed.
It starts with the narrator, an anthropologist, arriving in London from China to pursue a PhD six months before the Brexit referendum. Here, she finds “the English manner” difficult to follow. As for the referendum, she thinks with a complete absence of facetiousness: “I vaguely knew this word in a Chinese context. But in China we never had such an experience.”
Clearly, she continues, “things were happening in this country, but I did not understand what they were.” Not being addicted to pub-going or following football, she finds herself friendless, passing long evenings and nights musing on the differences between the culture she has left behind and the one she is now exposed to.
Soon enough, she comes across a German-Australian landscape architect, and the two strike up a relationship. The novel progresses in a series of short, first-person chapters addressed to her partner.
In the early stages of their liaison the narrator grapples with the nuances of the English language, which they need to communicate with each other. When he tells her that he’s visiting Hanover, she hears “hangover”, and wonders if he’s in a bar. Over dinner, when he declares that he’s an Anglo-Saxon, a Wasp, she laughs and asks if he’s an insect with yellow-and-black stripes, going around stinging people.
Their affair proceeds along with the novel’s investigation into authenticity and difference. As part of her anthropology project, the narrator has to visit a Chinese village whose inhabitants are adept at creating knock-offs of famous Western works of art. Though her thesis advisor feels that they’re interpreting the paintings with their eyes and hands, she wonders instead whether the act is simply mechanical, without decipherment. Naturally, the notion of Walter Benjamin’s aura is also evoked, first symbolically and then literally when a Chinese artist forgets to paint the halos in da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks.
China apart, the nature-loving and restless personality of the narrator’s partner means that there are frequent changes of scene: from a boat on London’s Regent’s Canal to Australia’s Gold Coast to an apartment in Berlin. Everywhere, contrasts spring up in her mind between each of the locations, and also between the Western world and China. These need to be overcome to nourish the couple’s bond, be it amid nature and architecture, landscape and weather, or art and artifice.
Throughout, she tries to resist flattening and over-simplification. “I didn’t come from this alphabet. I came from the non-alphabetic. I came from ideograms. I came from 50,000 characters. Each character is composed with many symbols and strokes, like a tangled forest of meanings.” She’s self-aware enough to realise that “even if one day I could master a foreign language -- one of the major European languages -- I would still not become a primary citizen of the West.”
It can all become a little overwhelming, though. “I am feeling wordless,” she says at one point. “I call it wu yu. It’s like I have lost my language.” Later, in a Tasmanian hostel, she feels a deep sense of wu-wo: “It’s like no self…My body is here, but I don’t feel I am here, right now.” The next morning, in an ironic inversion, she finds that the bedbugs in the hostel have almost eaten her to a real wu-wo, a state of non-existence.
There are times when the dialogue can be stilted and explicatory, such as when the narrator asks: “don’t you think our world is overdesigned and overmanipulated?” At other moments, especially in the beginning, her naivete is over-emphasised. Overall, though, Guo’s prose is pleasingly crisp and close to epigrammatic in its portrayal of the links between language, reality, and relationships.
As Barthes would have put it, the novel tries to write of love by confronting “the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little.” At a time of dislocations and identity clashes, Xiaolu Guo’s A Lover’s Discourse is also a reminder of the fragility of relationships and the importance of bridging differences.Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.