A hybrid voice | Commonwealth Magazine

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Trying to explain the feeling of you are beautiful, the narrator recalls how the French literary critic Roland Barthes described “strange signs and sounds” and “communication problems and silence” during a visit to Japan. Barthes has a crucial influence on both the narrator and on A lovers’ speech in general. (Guo’s novel borrows its title and structure of brief, interrelated fragments from Barthes’ book of the same name in 1977.)

But from her lover, Guo’s narrator finds out that she misread and possibly misunderstood Barthes all this time. She had approached Barthes because in his books, he was “like a woman who could not stop talking. A good woman full of words…. But in fact, the book was about a gay man’s perspective on love and desire. What she had once deeply identified with is suddenly made strange, and she is shaken by the revelation of Barthes’ sexual orientation. “Did I completely misunderstand Barthes?” Or had I misunderstood myself?

To see the narrator reconfigure her relationship with Barthes is to witness her ability and desire to reconcile her past, even as she strives to free herself from it. After the death of her parents, she felt that her attachment to them and to China was also starting to disappear. And yet this attachment clearly continues as she struggles to reconcile their distant and difficult relationship, which in turn animates her relationship with her lover: “Now that I thought about my love for you, it was like a extension of my love for my father. , or a father in another country, who would teach me to live, far from familiar landscapes and languages.

But there are no familiar landscapes for the narrator. In England and China, it is undocked, restless, nostalgic, alienated, enveloped in wu-wo. On the houseboat she reluctantly moves into with her lover, she feels that “the life we ​​shared now was just a camping life, a child’s life, a life without roots.” On a trip to Shenzhen for her doctoral fieldwork, she considers her home country “with foreign eyes and a Western perspective” as a land where, despite color and vitality, “my life does not exist. ‘has no weight’. On a trip to her lover’s homeland in Australia, she misses “the big gray and dirty urban city with human interactions”. And on a farm in Germany that they almost buy together, she does not “feel the vigor of life”, but longs for “the feeling of struggling and living among others”.

Where can we belong if we feel separate from ourselves, if language separates us from a reality shared with others? How real can we be without common ground? Ultimately, what keeps Guo’s narrator together is not the definition but the negotiation – the language conflicts, corrections, and concessions that build his hybrid voice. The lovers stay together with the same kind of compromise that translation demands. They each sacrifice a sense of complete comfort and belonging to a city, language or way of life so that they can both belong to each other and the family they are building. In a sense, they decide that they will belong to each other.

Lovers speak in “numbers”, writes Barthes in A lovers’ speech. He describes these fragmented bursts of language as spontaneous linguistic gestures rather than deliberate structures of meaning. As he says: “It is through language that the other is altered; the other says a different word, and I hear a threatening growl a whole different world, which is the other’s world. Translation, with all that it confuses, abandons and recreates, is perhaps a powerful way to meet the whole other world of lovers and strangers: we give, we receive, we transform.

A lovers’ speech
A novel

Xiaolu guo
Bosquet Press
271 pages | $ 26


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