Reviews / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Language Games

by Jason Eng Hun Lee

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Ouyang Yu, The English Class, Transit Lounge, 2010. 400 pgs.
Alistair Noon, Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution, Gratton Street Irregulars, 2010. 32 pgs.

As far as post-cultural revolution coming-of-age stories go, Ouyang Yu's latest book offers more than its fair share of twists and turns. Both weighty and ambitious in scope, The English Class, which was recently awarded a New South Wales Premier's Literary Award, concerns the adventures of Jing, an educated youth whose ambitions stretch far beyond that of a provincial truck driver. The outspoken Jing plots his way into university to learn English and later falls for his teacher's estranged wife Deirdre, culminating in their elopement to Australia.

Jing's purpose in studying English is to escape the reality of a China still recovering from the ravages of its recent past, but upon arriving at university, he finds the language hard to reconcile with his entrenched native culture. "English is such a monster that the only way I can tame it is through my own inventions," says Jing, reflecting on the unwieldy medium. What results then is a series of amusing linguistic interchanges—a mixture of "ying ge la xi, Englishit," archaic sayings from old school textbooks—"how goes the enemy"—and creative slippages of the tongue: "What a fluck!"

The characters in Jing's English class are real, endearing, sometimes irritable, but they are all honed to the realities of their situation, and in this Yu is faultless. He is able to get into the psyche of his characters without any willful exoticization or irritating side explanations that often accompany texts about China during this period. Take the know-it-all Ma, the steadfastly ignorant Zou Ganmei or the irascible Jing, who remains aloof and distant from the others. "I don't like real people," he laments. "I prefer them fictional. Jude, for example, or Tess, or Jean Valjean, or Gatsby."

Like his literary heroes, Jing continually seeks to reaffirm his identity by resorting to language games, calling himself at various times Jean, E-Jing or Gene. We find Yu complicit in this deception, interspersing his narrative with a layer of meta-fiction so that Jing becomes an extension of Yu's own persona in an obviously semi-autobiographical take:

Are you Jing? Are you becoming your character? Could we change our life's course like we can do in fiction? What if Jing knew that it might all go wrong because he had picked English as a career? Would he decide then and there to shift his course? How would he ever know? How would we?

Here, Yu blurs his main character with himself, setting up a critical distance between the text and its reader, but also disrupting the narrative flow in the process. Granted, the confusion wrought by the textual interplay is intended, and there is some playing around with readers' expectations of where the novel might lead, but it so detracts from the narrative itself that the trade-off doesn't seem worth it.

Furthermore, the novel jumps too quickly into the final third, where it describes Jing struggling to cope with life in Australia. The entrance of Jing's lover, Deirdre, and the lopsided relationship that accompanies it comes across as too rushed and underdeveloped, and all the earlier characters are hastily discarded with hardly a sense that they have achieved anything beyond the ad hoc purpose that the narrator has set out for them. Likewise, the narrative of Jing's father in Burma frustrates more than it enlightens, and tails off as an unwelcome diversion from the main issue that Yu explores here—that is, Jing's inability to translate himself into Australian life and his resulting linguistic haemorrhage: "all you have managed to achieve is Jinglish."

Though there are some real gems in the novel, Yu over-embellishes when he should have stuck to what was already a winning formula—describing Jing's rite of passage into the English language and the schizophrenia that accompanies such a journey. Such a journey need not be overcomplicated: when Yu sticks to the crystal clear prose that is his hallmark, he is sure to nail it every time.


Like Ouyang Yu, Alistair Noon's chapbook Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution also looks at how one might sample a foreign culture and translate that experience using poetic language. Traversing China, Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Bloc, Noon treats the troubled legacy of the revolution and its aftermath indirectly, hinting at its lingering presence rather than addressing it directly in his poems.

By far and away the most impressive piece, 'Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist,' details the musings of V.M. Alekseev, an eminent Russian professor who broke new ground in the study and critique of Chinese aesthetics, literature and religion. Under the guise of Alekseev, Noon takes us on an imaginative voyage through China at the turn of the twentieth century, where superstition and folklore abound, and where we are given a quick tour of the sacred mountains of Taoism, as well as excursions through "the shop-loud alleys of Kaifeng/old capital short of a dynasty" and Qufu, Confucius' hometown.

Here, Noon's heightened consciousness is put on display, and the vision that he recreates constantly reverberates with the present. Take the lines that warn "Be careful with fire! Report suspicions!/No discussing of political questions," which read more like a quote from recent times, or Noon's obsession with the bureaucracy of Imperial China and its classical allusions:

Tao Yuanming on the marble door,
refusing to bow to the officials,
then running headlong into the hills
to plant beans and sow poems.

Running parallel to these descriptions is the narrator's own competing ideological stance, which shifts from Leningrad's "plump, dull dome/good for emperor crowning" to the monuments of Leninist socialism, which read a bit like T.S. Eliot:

Dawn lit up the drinks
curling on the streets
like statues interred in parks.

Proceeding at a leisurely pace, the poem is well-informed but not too excessive, and the images are not so obvious that they jump out from the text. As he seeks to inhabit these different viewpoints, Noon remains critically engaged with the material. It is almost as if, like his persona Alekseev, he is constantly trying to overcome the "Gobi of Misunderstanding" that exists between himself and his subject material.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the poem, 'The Photo Flies to the Land of Morals,' where Noon describes a photo of Communist officials during the National People's Congress. His penetrating eye sees the trappings of authoritarianism in "the porcelain mugs of delegates/attentive at shining desks," and he subtly deconstructs the farcical nature of the event by juxtaposing the burgeoning modernization of the country with the "minority headdresses" that represent China's harmonious society. So too is there room for Big Brother here, where "above this congress/hangs the Red Star, with sickle, hammer and space for the microchip."

Overall, what makes the images in this poem work is the way that Noon zooms in on them like a cameraman, candidly assessing them before zooming out again. This style allows him to make his strongest, most blunt statement about the Communist Party yet, which he slips in effortlessly:

An inflight magazine reports
how a red giant must implode,
collapse to a white dwarf,
and then into a black hole.

Such a statement by any other poet would come across as jarring, presumptuous even. Under Noon's crafty pen, he manages to make it resonate.

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