Egonne Roth


title The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai

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Book:                    The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai

Author:                 Ruiyan Xu

Genre:                  Fiction

Publisher:            Bloomsbury, 2010


The blurb on the back of this book tells us: 

“Li Jing, a successful, happily married businessman, is dining at a grand hotel in Shanghai when a gas explosion shatters the building. A shard of glass neatly pierces Li Jing's forehead—obliterating his ability to speak Chinese. The only words that emerge from his mouth are faltering phrases of the English he spoke as a child growing up in Virginia.”


He has lost his ability to speak Chinese and thus communicate with his wife and son, his colleagues from his work place and those around him in the hospital... An American neurologist doing research in the field of Aphasia, a condition where the person has lost the ability to speak a language they had previously known, is brought in from the United States to treat him and the inevitable happens. But does it?


On the surface this story is a romance with all kinds of complicating issues connected to language and culture but this aspect is only the vehicle to examine the implications of the loss of language and the resulting loss of a clear sense of identity. In this instance the loss of language is caused by an accident but could also have been due to immigration. After all, the author is a Chinese American who was born in Shanghai and immigrated to the USA at the age of ten years. In her community she would have felt the sense of displacement experienced when one’s mother tongue no longer has value.


The portrayal of the protagonist’s frustration, loneliness and feeling of helplessness  when he suddenly realises that he cannot communicate with those he loves and who are important in his life, is palpable and insightful. The writing is beautiful with moments that take the reader into the experience s of the characters causing a feeling of real involvement in their lives. From the opening lines the reader is drawn into the story in a compelling fascination with the action: 

Later she would remember the crack in the building; a line splitting the cement, a body of veins crawling everywhere. It happened in slow motion. On a balcony two blocks away she watched the crumple of the Swan Hotel....


Moments of such brilliant writing reveal why the author, a graduate of Brown University has won so many awards and residencies. However, I felt enstranged by aspects of the novel: Meiling, the protagonist’s wife, withdraws from him because he cannot speak to her in Chinese but only in the language of his childhood. Did she really not know about how and where he grew up? There is a strange ambivalence in her attitude towards him that I both understand and don’t understand. Also the portrayal of the other ex-pats that Dr. Rosalyn Neal, the American brought in to help Li Jing, becomes friendly with seem to very stereotype – are all ex-pats interested only in drinking and having a good time? Rosalyn herself at times appears stereotyped and not in keeping with the seriousness of the work she had been doing and the person she had been at home. Yet the author excuses herself when she writes of her character: “She does not question it too much: the life that’s been arranged for her here in Shanghai feels stolen, as if she’s on the run, delaying extradition.” (p253)

Somehow I felt dissatisfied with the book when I reached the end – as though it was not really finished; as though what I had wanted had not been given to me, as though what had been promised had not been delivered. Now a week later I ask myself if I had read it too fast, not with enough attention that I may have missed something the reviewers saw and I did not. It is not the treatment of the language issue that bothers me – that was fascinating and satisfying. It made me want to talk to those who have had similar experiences and listen to how they coped with it. It made me rethink my own loss of sense of place through living in a culture where I seem unable to learn the language – as though my brain simply refuses to take in the meanings and produce the sounds. But then the situation of the immigrant who struggles to learn the language of their new homeland but still has valid use of their mother tongue is very different from the person suffering aphasia.

No, my dissatisfaction with this novel has something to do with characterisation and the ending but then endings are notoriously difficult – ask Mark Twain.

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