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Xiaolu Guo: 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

This novel was, in fact, originally written in Chinese and was her first book published in China. However, when she had it translated into English, she did not feel very comfortable with it so she rewrote the English translation. As a result, we can say that this is a partially new book based on an old one. Its is written in twenty chapters, which she calls fragments.

In some respects, this reminds me of Amélie Nothomb. It is the story of a single woman, told in a somewhat quirky style, who is observing the world in her own way. Many of Nothomb’s novels are set in Japan and her stock in trade is the cultural difference between Belgium and Japan. Guo remains in her own country but she comes from a remote village and Beijing, where this novel is set, is something of a cultural challenge to her, as are Ben and Patton, respectively her one-time lover and her friend, both from the United States. The Guo character in this book is called Fenfang Wang. She arrives, aged seventeen, in Beijing, having just walked out of her village home (without telling her parents, merely leaving a note for them). She arrives with her suitcase, looking for somewhere to stay. Her early problems are where to stay and how to earn money. She cannot afford any of the hotels she sees and, in any case, would be turned away from them. She manages to get a succession of unpleasant, low-paid jobs, such as cleaning toilets and working in a tin can factory. The first job she does not mind is cleaning up in a cinema, as she can watch the films for free and it is this that starts her love of cinema. It is there that she helps a man find his lost umbrella. He is an assistant film director and it is he that suggests her next step.

Everything changes when she is twenty-one and applies for a job as an extra at the Beijing Film Studios. Initially, it does not go well. She sees on the form that she is extra 6787, so that there are 6786 people waiting for extra jobs before her. Eventually, however, she does get a few jobs. One of them leads to her meeting Xiaolin, an assistant to a producer. He is the first person in any authority who is kind to her. As she is still having accommodation problems, he suggests that she moves in with her. She ends up living in one room with him and all of his family. However, he turns out to be very possessive and, when she moves out, very violent, frequently turning up at her flat and destroying everything in sight. It takes her some time to find a place to live where he cannot track her down.

She continues to get extra jobs but they are small. When she does see her parents again, six years after she left home, they are surprised that they have not seen her in anything. Occasional offers of better parts all too often end in failure. As a result she switches to screenplay writing at the suggestion of Huizi, a director friend, and writes a script about a solitary, poor old man who struggles with a succession of jobs. It is rejected as being too pessimistic. But she persists with screenplay writing.

While her obsession with film is paramount – she watches a lot of films on her own and with friends and describes many of the ones she enjoys – and much of the book is about her involvement in the film industry, with shady deals and hard work, the book also gives us a fascinating glimpse of Beijing from the perspective of the ordinary person, struggling to live and work, from the different types of food to the role of the police, from the pirating of films to the various types of accommodation and how to get it. Like Nothomb, it is enjoyable and easy reading.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Chatto & Windus