Sunday 27 January 2008

68. A Dictionary of Maqiao

Han Shaogong's A Dictionary of Maqiao had been sitting on the shelf for a long time before I finally picked it up one sleep-deprived night a couple of weeks ago. I'd been planning on saving it for sometime when I could devote all my energies to it because I thought it would be a hard read - I forgot all this the night I couldn't sleep, of course. It turns out that it wasn't such a hard read after all and it stands up to insomniac 3 am reading wrapped in a blanket with a cat asleep on my feet.

Nonetheless, this is quite an esoteric book - not simply a "dictionary" about Mandarin's weird quirks translated into English, it's a "dictionary" about a remote dialect of Mandarin translated into English - but wasn't in any way inaccessible. Indeed, I found the meditations on language and the story-telling proper both to be quite compelling and in no way untranslatable. Of course, I'm sure things were lost in translation but the book didn't read that way at all.

The narrator of the book is an Educated Youth sent into the country to work during Mao's Cultural Revolution. As such, it's a book about culture shock and revolution, and about how these things manifest both linguistically and physically. Indeed, this book is in many ways about how the language of revolution is both damning and dangerous, but also about how that language must ultimately move beyond the grasp of those wielding it for their questionable purposes.

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