I’ve been stuck for too long with gloomy books, so the last one was a pleasant change. I’ve just finished a short Chinese novel by Wei-wei, Une fille Zhuang. It was fresh and bright like new seedlings popping out in spring. The author, a Chinese woman who’s living in UK now, writes directly in French. The novel seems autobiographical, as it tells the coming of age of a young Chinese called Wei-wei in the late 1970s, who’s suddenly brought back from the countryside to be sent to university, in order to study French and become an interpreter.
The Cultural Revolution that sent every educated youth to the poorest parts of China to be “educated by the masses” (read: eat their heart out far from the cities) is the material of countless tragic, bleak and teary stories of misery endured by a whole generation. In China, it once was a whole literary genre (until chick-lit and self-improvement books proved to be far more profitable). But Wei-wei’s point is not to make us cry, it’s rather to point out the strange twists of fate that changed a girl stuck in a remote village, aspiring to be a doctor, into a French-speaking woman in the capital, deeply passionate about Western literature.
Wei-wei’s personal aspirations get crushed many times by the rigid and obscure dictates of the Party, but she puts on a brave face and tries to make her best out of a given situation. Like many Chinese I got to know there, she has both a sense of fatalism and an extraordinary will to try her luck and seize opportunities wherever they are. In a scene that other authors would have made lyrical or emotional, she has to sign a paper disapproving her own mother for being a political dissent, in order to be accepted at the university. She runs to her parents, hesitates, then follows their advice: sign the paper, don’t look back, for the sake of this education that you yearn for. She’s forced to study French, but she never complains.
Another great moment is when she decides to learn real French through a rumpled Victor Hugo’s book found in the library, after she discovered that the French language she was taught was just bad sentences directly transposed from the Chinese propaganda. Armed with a small dictionary, she gets through Victor Hugo as if it were a personal battle, and this moment shows her exhilaration and the birth of a passion. Some other parts are more systematic when she compares the differences between Chinese and French thinking through words and grammar, but it’s rather interesting, even if it slows the novel’s progression down.