20 fragments of a ravenous youth: a review


This review of '20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth' by Guo Xiaolu was written by Ian Wallace.

I could mention numbers. Everyone always mentions numbers when it comes to China. They’re so overwhelmingly impressive.

Mark Leonard reports (Prospect, March 2008) that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing has 50 research centres covering 260 disciplines with 4,000 full-time researchers. Whereas Britain's entire think tank community is numbered in the hundreds. Yet, he asks, how many of us can name a contemporary Chinese writer or thinker?

Well, here’s your chance.

The numbers in this particular case, however, spell trouble. Big trouble. This book is only 126 pages long. You’ll finish it, and you’ll want more. Much more.

You could, of course, read it twice. And if you’ve never done that before, let me explain why you’ll probably want to do so now.

If you’re anything like me, the films you watch again and again are those that somehow achieve the impossible: a conviction that you’re really watching a slice of someone else’s life, yet at the same time clocking the man-made construction that has gone into the whole damn thing. It’s seeing art being created, and believing the result.

In her book 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth Xiaolu Guo delivers a written equal of this cinematic act over and over: the narrative injecting you right into the workaday, bulldozed, breathless, crumbling, reconstructed, jagged, messy, fascinating and bountifully beautiful detail that is the rubble out of which a new Beijing is being born. The “ravenous youth”, Fenfang, becomes your own eyes and ears, through which you soon realise you’ll never, ever, get to see this again. Because this is not just Beijing, this is us, as we move into life. This is us as we grow up.

Yet at the same time, this is clearly a very selective and edited intimacy—fragments of [her] life in that city—reminding us that this is, in fact, a construction, a story being told. But her lovers, apartments and jobs will appear to you as real as violence, cockroaches and luck.

The real poignancy, though, is in the effect all this has on Fenfang when she leaves any of these things behind. Or when they leave her behind. Just like the entire districts of Beijing that are disappearing from her horizon every day as the city re-builds itself to another design.

It’s the gaps in between people – be they empty lovers’ beds or the bulldozed areas of a city – it is what happens in those seemingly mute landscapes – that provide the focal points, the anchors, the revolving doors through and by which fate is condensed, weighted and spun out again.

The most vulnerable relationships, buildings and neighbourhoods are collapsing all round. Slowly, surely, something better takes their place. These are the metaphors chosen for lives in modern-day China.

This is no coincidence. Just look at Jia Zhangke’s astonishing film Still Life (三峡好人). Buildings and lives are being knocked down left, right and centre as the Three Gorges Dam takes shape. But there, in between the shells of empty buildings, human hearts go on beating. Human brains go on hatching ideas. Huge personal dramas unfold at the same speed with which concrete is being pulverized.

"Things are changing so fast, I had to change the pace of my filmmaking to keep up," says Jia Zhang-ke.

“Everything around me was changing so fast_my apartment block, the local shops, the alleys, the roads, the subway lines. Beijing was moving forwards like an express train, but my life was going nowhere….I had to do something….so I could match this fast-moving city,” says Fenfang.

She may have been a girl from peasant stock, brought up in “a nothing place that won’t be found on any map of China”. But in these twenty fragments of Fenfang’s life after she ‘escapes’ to Beijing, the skill of her humour, the tales of her loves and particularly her losses combine as gleaming coordinates to fix her new position clearly. As she tears up her own foundations, the new building of her career as a scriptwriter starts to arise.

And if Fenfang mutters that her work will never match the talents of China’s ‘Fifth Generation’ of film directors, then Guo Xiaolu need have no such fears: this is writing that easily reaches the humanity, the humour and the hope of the likes of Zhang Yimou, or his brilliant Taiwanese contemporaries Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang.

Oh, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, this is your golden opportunity to see what’s being made in China. So buy the book. Read it. Twice.

This is them as they grow up.

You can purchase '20 fragments of a ravenous youth' on Amazon, or Guo Xiaolu's better known novel 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers'.

There are currently 3 Comments for 20 fragments of a ravenous youth: a review.

Comments on 20 fragments of a ravenous youth: a review

I hope the book is better than the review. what a pile of shit that was.

mike, that's rude and also not true. i really liked this review.

good for you helen. I didn't.

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