Updated: February 5, 2011 19:29 IST

The spoken silence

Sumana mukherjee
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The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, Ruiyan Xu, Bloomsbury, p.295, price not stated.
The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, Ruiyan Xu, Bloomsbury, p.295, price not stated.

The place of language in our lives is the core of this book despite the contradictions, writes Sumana mukherjee

We speak, we sing, we joke. We order, we shout, we rant. We blog, we tweet, we update our Facebook statuses. What we say opens doors, creates networks, bonds us in our global village. Words are the stickiest glue in our world today, languages a much-coveted social lubricant.

But what if we had no language? What if we couldn't express what we felt in a way comprehensible to those around us? What if we couldn't refute, dispute or argue? Or love, praise or comfort?

The place of language in our lives is the theme at the centre of Ruiyan Xu's debut novel The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, a subject that has been investigated earlier in films like Lost in Translation (2003) and novels like A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007). But Xu marks an imaginative first by using a neuropsychological condition called bilingual aphasia to tie together her dynamic narrative of relationships.

Freak accident

Research into the condition is far from complete, allowing Xu to manipulate its manifestations for her novelistic ends. So 30-something Li Jing is diagnosed with bilingual aphasia when his forehead is sliced open by a freak flying sheet of glass after a major gas explosion in a Shanghai hotel. When he wakes up, he has relapsed into English, the language he spoke for the first 10 years of his life in the United States. His doctor explains to his wife: “…parts of the frontal lobe, which includes areas of the brain responsible for language production, were damaged… The presence of another language (English) doesn't necessarily indicate that he'll be able to recover his Chinese.”

This may be Shanghai at the turn of the 21st century, but the life of the average person is still completely dominated by the Chinese language. Neither Li Jing's wife Meiling, nor any of the hospital staff understand English, so the only person he can communicate with, to some extent, is his father. While it's plausible a Chinese language poetry editor will not know English, surely, in a city the size and prosperity of Shanghai, a foreign-educated doctor would not have been amiss?

But that would have negated Xu's essential plot point: the introduction of Rosalyn Neal, an Oklahoma neurologist seeking to run away from the painful, infertility-related end of her marriage to the only man she has ever loved. What follows is foreseen by Li Jing's father: When two people can communicate only with each other in a world where no one else speaks their language, feelings blossom, emotions develop and, all too often, they are labelled ‘love'.

Both Rosalyn and Li Jing, however, are in freefall, unmoored from their natural states of being, and their infatuation can be but temporary, a fact both recognise at some level. However, their incipient chemistry takes over the narrative and, ironically in a novel where silence is a predominant idea, undermines the main thread by an overload of chatter. While one appreciates the relief it is for each to speak and be understood, the verbiage – especially when juxtaposed with Rosalyn's imperfectly formed character – squanders Xu's core ideas. The story is further let down by several unconvincing-but-convenient plot twists, most prominently, the untrained Meiling's super-successful takeover of Li Jing's stockbroking business.

Best parts

Though it works against the novel as a whole, Meiling's interior world is perhaps the author's best achievement in Lost and Forgotten... Suddenly cut off from her husband, forced to quit her editing job and adrift in the unfamiliar world of stock markets, Meiling is the victim who refuses to admit she needs help as much as Li Jing. Her brittle exterior, her desperate need to keep home, work, childcare routine running just as it had before her world turned upside down and her sense of absolute betrayal when suspicion of her husband's affair becomes certainty constitute some of the best parts of the novel.

Ultimately, however, it isn't enough to rescue Lost and Forgotten. Content to focus on the two languages, Xu passes up too many opportunities to actually explore the distinct cultures of which they are born, and the people they create. Li Jing and Rosalyn never assume flesh-and-blood proportions; as a result their relationship remains a shadow next to Meiling's believable pain. And the earnest over-writing robs the story of its fluency, and comes across as the mark of a writer trying too hard. It's a pity, because Xu is a good story-teller and had a subject that, with some hard editing, could have told a much larger, resonant tale.

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