An unnamed narrator addresses her lover: “I didn’t know your name when we first met. No one introduced us. The only thing I remember is that you were picking roadside elderflowers.” The relationship between the young Chinese narrator and “you”, the elderflower picker, progresses quickly and their relationship, from living on a houseboat to exploring Australian tourist towns, is explored through the fragments of conversations that make up Guo Xiaolu’s A Lover’s Discourse.
The narrator is a young woman from southern China. Recently orphaned, she arrived in Britain to pursue a PhD in visual anthropology in December, 2015, six months before the EU Referendum. She is ever observant (in her “adopted anthropological spirit” she writes down and photographs a “Vote Leave” slogan and questions “a native” about a Brexit Bus) and she is lonely, perhaps from settling into a new city, perhaps from the deaths of her parents or perhaps this feeling is a part of her identity. Perhaps it is a combination of all three.
It is London where the narrator meets “you”, an English-German landscape architect who is also unsettled: his childhood was spent in Australia before he moved to his father’s native Germany as a teenager and then to England as an adult. Their paths cross a second time at a book club meeting; soon they are living together, a decision that causes the narrator to pause.
I found myself having the thought: we are becoming a real couple. Then I was wondering what that meant. I heard people using these words, but where would it take us?
With a title taken from Roland Barthes’s Fragments d’un discours amoureux, the narrator is always looking at words and at language. When she prepares to return to China for fieldwork in Shenzhen, she says that she “prefers the German—Vaterland” to discuss her relationship to China, only to have “you” reply that even in the Vaterland, it is the Muttersprache that is spoken. But it is not only in finding the language that is the best fit, but in ideas of monolingualism and bilingualism, of unknown languages and in the idea of “wu yu—wordlessness and loss of language”.
Guo uses language to play with cultural clashes, be it between the narrator and life in post-Brexit Britain or between the narrator and “you”. After the lovers have made a home on an unmoored houseboat, the narrator explains that the Chinese character for “home” consists of combining the radicals for pig and roof, indicating the self-sufficiency and the prosperity of a family with a pig in its house. “You” pushes back and the narrator replies:
It’s about how we can feed ourselves… Maybe your family never needed to worry about feeding itself?
There are lighter moments, too. In that same fragment, the “you” begins to prepare Kartoffelsalat, which the narrator describes as “potato and black bread—a sorrowful view in a Chinese kitchen” or, earlier, when the narrator’s PhD supervisor quotes a Tears for Fears song, the narrator asks “Who are these tears?”
Even in the book’s quieter and seemingly unimportant moments, Guo moves with her thoughts on language. Early on, before “you”, there is a shared flat with an Italian post-doc student.
There was only one bookshelf in the living room. Our books were mixed together. After a few nights, I discovered that she only took my books to read at bedtime, and I, too, took her books to read at night. We both discover our perfect books to fall asleep with.
Guo writes with a directness and honesty that suits the narrator’s sensibility, but with an intelligence and depth that constantly forces the reader to think. The fragments have an effect of compressing meaning—there is much to ponder, but little fat to chew. The length of each fragment—generally each just a few pages—adds to the momentum. The writing is moving and affecting; the language lingers.