In an authoritarian state, is all art necessarily political? And if so, what is the artist's responsibility? How far should he or she push? How does an individual operate in a society that values collectivism above all? And is this intersection of art and politics worth the turmoil, chaos, and pain that it causes to those you love? These are the questions at the heart of Xiaolu Guo's new novel, I Am China.
Kublai Jian — half-Mongol and half Han Chinese — is an underground punk rocker in Beijing, just after the events in Tiananmen Square. He notices poet Deng Mu first at a volleyball game, then at one of his concerts, with her "big black button eyes ... the brightest eyes in that field of eyes." From there, the book follows Jian and Mu's tortured relationship across both decades and continents.
Their story takes shape in letters and diary entries that have landed in the possession of a London publishing house. Iona Kirkpatrick, who is something of a polyglot, has been tasked with translating and making sense of them — and through her translations, we learn that Jian is in England, at a psychiatric hospital. It's unclear how he ended up there. He's trying to get asylum, but the nature of the crime or incident that saw him forced out of China remains murky. There are hints: an unsavory "manifesto" of some sort, his songs.
The diaries and letters themselves are jumbled, no longer in chronological order. Iona's job is to piece together the story of Jian and Mu and their love, which was once "like an overgrown garden, full of weeds and thorns," but has slowly turned itself into "a wasted land, a barren space; they no longer even mention each other's name, let alone speak of their love." What really happened to them?
The novel is melancholic and disjointed, the characters unhappy. And while the letters and journals work as a storytelling device, they seldom allow Guo to go beyond the emotional workings of her two characters. For example, Beijing's underground punk rock scene is intriguing and could've been drawn out more, as could the portrait of life in Beijing — and China — in the pivotal post-Tiananmen Square years.
Iona, the translator, is disappointingly thinly sketched. She appears to have few friends, and the people she does interact with — an old professor, an editor at her publishing house that she has an affair with — barely come alive as characters.
And yet, the reader can't help but be sucked into the lives of Jian and Mu — their isolation, their dislocation as Jian ends up in Switzerland and then France, while Mu finds herself touring in America as a performance poet. Guo demands patience of her reader, as she slowly unveils the missing pieces of the puzzle — and the reasons Jian wrote his fateful manifesto.
Jian's need to be engaged in something bigger and Mu's desire to preserve her relationship and family are a reflection of the predicament faced by many Chinese artists: To make a stand or not? Do small acts of individual bravery amount to anything when battling a system so immense and intractable? "You know I believe that what we do, the action we take, is the essential expression of art and therefore the most essential expression of political view," Jian writes at one point. But Mu disagrees: "I'm fed up," she writes. "Enough is enough. Too much ideology for a brief life. I do not want to bear all this."