Entertainment Book Reviews

Wednesday 13 December 2017

The ultimate misery memoir

Memoir: Once Upon a Time in the East, Xiaolu Guo, Chatto & Windus, hdbk, 336 pages, €23.79

Unwanted: Xiaolu Guo's adopted parents handed her back to her grandparents after two years
Unwanted: Xiaolu Guo's adopted parents handed her back to her grandparents after two years
Once Upon a Time in the East

Helen Brown

As a girl, Xiaolu Guo was abandoned, starved and raped. Her memoir is this generation's 'Wild Swans'

Squatting, Guo made a careful study of her grandfather's corpse while neighbours made frantic attempts to close his motionless eyes. She saw that: "His skinny feet were naked save for a pair of broken grass shoes. His mouth was grey and dry like the lips of a dead shark." As the villagers began to whisper of "poisoning" and "desperation" she felt "a deep sense of shame. My grandmother told me that dead people became ghosts but I didn't see any ghosts dressed in black flying around the room. All I felt was a searing anger, and an icy-cold loneliness somehow emanating towards me from the shrivelled body."

Guo's grandfather is the first in a long line of men who treat women as slaves, sex toys and punchbags in the most compelling Chinese memoir since Jung Chang's Wild Swans became the world's bestselling non-fiction book in 1991. As likely to be found in the "misery memoir" section as on the history shelves in British bookshops, Chang's international bestseller exposed the hitherto hazy history of 20th-century China to a mass market audience through the astonishing story of three generations of women in her family, starting with the grim story of her grandmother's life as a warlord's concubine in Imperial China, through her mother's rise and fall in the Communist Party, ending with her flight to England in 1978, following the death of Chairman Mao in 1976.

Guo's autobiography picks up almost precisely where Chang's left off - in 1978, when she is five - and guides us through the brutal industrialisation of a country in which Wild Swans remains a banned book. Guo's writing is more personal and poetic than Chang's crisp, scholarly prose - and more openly angry. Named one of Granta's Best Young Novelists in 2013, Guo has been irritated by a Western media which has expected her to conform to the stereotype of "a cute, sweet Oriental", telling reporters that "I'm much heavier and angrier than people imagine. I'm much more anarchist than classical writers - not a little Chinese peasant writer."

The author of a sly, erotic novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), Guo still finds herself frustrated by the flat functionality of the language she struggled with after moving to the UK on a film-making scholarship in 2009. Irked by Western ignorance of her own culture, she occasionally takes time to educate her readers in the artistry and multi-layered meanings of the ideograms she would rather be using: "When you write the Chinese for sun, it is 太阳, or 日, which means 'an extreme manifestation of yang energy'. Yang signifies things with a strong, bright, hot energy, so extreme yang can only mean the sun. But in English, sun is written with three letters, s, u and n. and none of them suggests any greater or deeper meaning. Nor does the word look anything like the sun! Visual imagination and philosophical understandings are useless when it comes to European languages."

Chinese also prefers "we" to "I". "In China," Guo explains, "no one is a separate entity: either you were born to a non-political peasant household or to a Communist Party household. But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular - urgently."

Guo stakes her claim to her defiant self-worth by making her "I" the first word in this book: "I was born an orphan," she begins. "Not because my parents had died, no, they were both still very much alive. Rather, they gave me away." She doesn't know the details, but immediately after her birth in 1972 she was handed to a peasant couple who lived in a remote mountain village. After two years, she was told, these people took a long-distance bus to the fishing village of Shitang where her paternal grandparents lived and handed her back, claiming they could no longer afford to feed her. "Look at her," they're supposed to have said. "Her face is yellow and her limbs are weak. She never stops crying… We know we couldn't conceive but we don't need a dying baby. We beg you to take her back!"

Life in Shitang was scraped out between the dry rock and sea salt. Guo remembers her first seven years as driven hunger. The grey, briny slop of seaweed and jellyfish and scorching summers were only occasionally relieved by ice lollies her doting grandmother bought her, but gave "wrapped in a handkerchief into which she had coughed up her lungs".

This grandmother had a horrific life, sold off by her parents to a taciturn bully who beat her every day while Guo hid. The grandfather would then leave his wife sobbing on the cold stone floor while he went off to scavenge cigarettes washed up by the tide and sell them outside the house. Guo's grandmother's acceptance of her "dog's life" and blind faith in Buddhist scriptures bores and frustrates the growing girl. "I wanted great excitement. I wanted whatever I saw - balloons, sweets, picture books, beautiful clothes, butterflies and hair clips. I wanted things, not stage ideas about empty forms and suffering."

Two encounters helped shift her perspective. First, a Buddhist monk told her she was a peasant warrior set to travel the nine continents. Then a visiting group of students painted the town of Shitang as idealised beauty, teaching her the transformative and escapist power of art. (You do wonder whether Guo is rose-tinting these moments - it is, after all, a talent for fiction that got her out of China.)

When she turned seven, Guo's parents took her back to Wenling, where she found "the mountains had been flattened" and "highways squashed the fields" in the national drive to manufacture more of those desirable "things". She bonded with her artist father but not with her cold, aggressive mother, who gave her elder brother all the meat, forcing Guo to sneak out to trap songbirds which she ate whole, spitting out bones and feathers.

A few years later, she realised that women in Chinese society were worth less than chickens when a local man began sexually assaulting her on her way home from school. He would take her to a dump and pull down her pants. "Stop crying! Every girl has to go through this!" he would say to he as he raped her. She thought of her defeated grandmother and furious, detached mother. "No wonder, Chinese ghost stories know only weeping women, looking for justice in the afterlife."

Art was Guo's escape. In 1993, she won a coveted place at Beijing University. When the lights went out in the girls dormitory, her fellow students discussed the abuse they had also endured. They started reading about feminism, studying Western cinema and essays about the male gaze. Guo started dating Western men, only to find that some still treated her as disposable, cheap Chinese goods.

In 2002, she moved to London, but it was no journey to paradise. She's refreshingly fierce and funny about the flaws she finds in British culture: the snobbery and ignorance, the boozy hippies and boring Home Counties villages. But after giving birth to a daughter, Moon, England is where she has decided to stay. She took the baby girl back to Wenling in 2014 to visit her dying mother and saw "the scourge of pollution everywhere: black discharge pouring into the river from pipes, the very same water in which I used to catch shrimps and small crabs; mountains stripped of all vegetation and now littered with shredded plastic rubbish bags".

With her parents dead, and the weight of her story lifted, Guo has resolved to take "fresh new air into my lungs". You feel relieved but painfully aware of the little Chinese girls left to play in that blackened water. Since Guo's book is unlikely to be published in China, they will not know how powerfully she has spoken for them.

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