In Xiaolu Guo’s 2014 novel I Am China, a translator is struggling to piece together a narrative of fragmentary diaries and letters between an exiled Chinese punk musician and his poet lover. She thinks of a story her mother once told her: “Two young fish are swimming along in the water and they meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods to them and says, ‘Morning, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and wonder: ‘What the hell is water?’”
The story is a useful reminder, to the translator, of the degree to which her work requires her to convey context; it is also a reminder, to the reader, of how central a preoccupation this is for Guo. Ever since her first book in English, the plangent, wise and often very funny A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (she had already published five in China, and has all along made films), Guo has written fiction that twists and turns, splashing, speeding, leaping, trying to understand, and call attention to, what the hell the water might be.
Guo’s new novel is in a way a companion piece to A Dictionary: a young woman arrives from China to study, meets a man, and moves in with him. But where A Dictionary played, deliberately, with the limitations of the young woman’s working-class background and especially with the gulfs and accidental poetries opened up by her minimal English, in A Lover’s Discourse the woman is studying for a PhD in visual anthropology and the man is of a similar age; it is a meeting of equals.
And if I Am China was a determinedly realist novel and A Dictionary a kind of sentimental education, A Lover’s Discourse, which is modelled on Roland Barthes’s book of the same name, reaches for something else: a fragmentary meditation on the nature of love, on desire and on connection between two humans. It is a kind of autofiction in the mould of Rachel Cusk or Meena Kandasamy: an unapologetically intellectual project where thoughts on female desire, or memory, or work, are strained through a sieve of Walter Benjamin, Yuan dynasty poetry, Le Corbusier, Marguerite Duras.
Which risks it sounding indigestible, when actually one of Guo’s achievements in this novel is to make it straightforward to read, with short, plain scenes and a narrative that makes no pretence to twists or adrenaline-pandering turns yet is absorbing nonetheless. This clarity of vision could seem almost simplistic, if it weren’t for the freight it carries: the challenge of language, both on the basic level of conversation, and on the more complex level of how to locate and describe a self when the language available is provided by so many forces outside that self (culture, state, immigration authorities). Then there are the things that can be said in one tongue but not in another – such as wu-wo, Mandarin for “no self. No I. Non-existence. My body is here, but I don’t feel I am here, right now.” There’s the language of bodies, just as idiosyncratic; the language of landscape; the language of education, which the woman identifies, brilliantly, as a kind of universal: “I wanted to equip myself with an intellectual mind so that I could enter a foreign land and not be lost in it.” Social and class signifiers are often the very last language to be understood.
Loneliness is another universal, as is loss – of language, when living in a new country, but more destabilisingly, of self: “I really wanted you to know that I felt impoverished and was suffering quietly every day somehow, in my verbal existence, thus my very own existence.” The protagonist is engaged in a search for home, which may in the end not be in language at all, and which, for a woman trained from childhood to understand herself as the second sex, carries the further risk of being subsumed. Motherhood is a kind of further immigration, to yet another alien country.
Guo’s simple style does not always escape the trap of earnest banality. The man, as in A Dictionary, is too often only a foil for her questioning, a limitation not entirely excused by her deliberate location of the text in a tradition of “dialogues”. And I missed the humour of A Dictionary. At its best, however, this book sets off cross-cultural echoes with the lightest of strokes. “What came with the newborn was a little red book”: no need to spell out that motherhood is yet another terra incognita, needing a guide to decipher it, nor the significance a red book might have to someone Chinese. “Aren’t you worried about having to change mooring all the time?” she asks her lover, midway through the pragmatically messy process of renovating a narrowboat, their first home together. “Not really,” he replies. “You are my mooring.”
• A Lover’s Discourse is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.