Monday, August 01, 2011

Xiaolu Guo: UFO in Her Eyes

In my youth a long time ago I read a collection of short stories about Chinese peasants and their lives. Give me a year and I might remember the title and author, but it's not likely - anyway, the point is that this was the first time I came across "Miserable China". My image of China was heavily influenced by what one must bluntly call positive racism - people of learning and dignity, with an innate wisdom that they hold on to despite the suffering imposed on them even during Cultural Revolution etc etc. Invented paper and gunpowder, much more advanced really than Europeans etc etc. However, that book and this one talks of life as a peasant in China as dusty, crude, coarse and hopeless. Not only, obviously - but the contrasts between the glittering surface of modern Shanghai and these hamlets that by Chinese standards are tiny (only 300 or so inhabitants) where people still can't read and have no way of independently connecting to the outside world are immense. (I remember when I read the short story collection I was shocked at the language, the swearing. I thought Chinese was automatically more refined. In UFO in Her Eyes the favourite expressions are Bitch Bastard and Cow's Cunt - colourful.)

A recurring phrase in this book is that the poor have to "eat bitterness" and many of the characters sigh and say that they have themselves eaten more than their share. I feel that this pierces me, the utter sadness of that expression. You have to eat bitterness, nothing will get any better. Like an entire people - or social class, rather - steeped in depressive thinking. The sensation numbs your mind, at least mine. I feel it a little too acutely these days.

The story is that Kwok Yun, cycling to the village, is surprised to see a metal disc in the sky. She then finds a foreigner injured in a field. She takes him home, treats him, but when she goes to get more herbs he  disappears. An investigation is launched into the events by Beijing and the local authorities - both the UFO event and the foreigner's unexpected presence. The result is that the little village starts receiving more money for improvements and transforms, and suddenly the backwardedness that the villagers themselves derogated in the beginning shows itself as something quite precious, something maybe worth saving. Why can they not be given the means to a better life without being asked to lose themselves in "progress" directed at outsiders? The satire is sharp, and it's both funny and tragic. Mostly tragic, to my eyes.

It's set in the immediate future, starting 2012, and is written as a series of reports from the police and other officials. I don't know if that gimmick is necessary, but it does enable Guo to poke fun at the paranoical rhetoric of the Communists. Recommended.

No comments: