Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Speech therapy and love in The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai

[Did a version of this review for Biblio]

In a typically candid piece for Vanity Fair magazine recently, Christopher Hitchens reflected on one of the most painful aspects of his bout with cancer: the deterioration of his vocal chords. “Deprivation of the ability to speak is like the amputation of part of the personality,” wrote the man who has been among the smoothest, most eloquent public speakers of his generation:
To a great degree, in public and private, I “was” my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me.
Ruiyan Xu’s novel The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai centres on a similar loss. The victim, Li Jing, isn’t a public figure like Hitchens, but he’s a smooth-talking businessman whose professional success depends on his ability to influence clients. Understandably, then, his world turns on its head when a freak accident – caused by a gas-pipe explosion in a hotel – leaves him with a peculiar form of aphasia where he can no longer speak in Chinese. Li Jing can still talk with near-fluency in English (which was his first language because he had lived in America until the age of 10), but that’s small comfort – the continuation of a meaningful relationship with his wife Meiling depends on his being able to converse in his native tongue.

Without this ability the two of them are, for all practical purposes, strangers, stealing glances at each other from across a room, wondering if they ever knew each other at all. (Not being able to say her name right feels like the worst betrayal, as if his stupid brain is determined to elide her from his syntax, from his memory. As if she isn’t his to hold on to anymore.)

Enter Rosalyn Neal, an American neurologist brought to Shanghai on an eight-week fellowship to help Li Jing get back to normal. Rosalyn has demons of her own – she recently underwent a painful separation from her husband – and travelling to a new country is an escape from the haze that her life has become. However, she finds the going less than easy in Shanghai. (The foreign city and the exotic patient had only been abstractions before, but now they are real and waiting, with their own thorny demands.) With much at stake in her patient’s professional and personal life, she is expected to be a miracle worker, but the depressed Li Jing has retreated into a world of silence. Nor do Rosalyn’s expressions of frustration and short bursts of temper go down well with people from a less emotionally demonstrative culture. Soon she comes to resent both Shanghai and Li Jing for shutting her out.

But at the same time, the introduction of Rosalyn energises the novel and brings its themes into clearer relief. When she does make her breakthrough with Li Jing, there’s a ring of deus ex machina about the situation – it’s a little too neat and contrived – but it leads to personal liberation for both of them. For Rosalyn, the breakthrough coincides with her discovery of the expat community in Shanghai and the formation of a new circle of friends. One senses that, like Li Jing, she had become withdrawn – that she needed to open up and reach out to others instead of feeling sorry for herself. And soon we see the parallels between their situations: here are two people who are – in different ways – trapped in a strange world, with little means of communicating with others. This prepares us for the turn that their relationship will eventually take.

Meanwhile, circumstances have forced Meiling – a books editor – to enter the corporate world in an attempt to salvage her husband’s now-headless company. She handles this responsibility with composure, but soon she must also deal with the unusual intimacy that seems to be forming between Li Jing and the American woman – an intimacy that she herself is partly responsible for, since she insisted on Rosalyn extending her stay in Shanghai and moving into their house.

The narrative now starts to move between these three people, so that we come to understand their separate fears and insecurities, and the hold that memory has on each of them. Their dilemmas are all moving in their own ways: particularly compelling are Li Jing’s recollections of coming to China for the first time as a child with the American name James, struggling to adjust to the new setting and the new language – and his shifting relationship with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which he had loved as a boy and could barely recognise as an adult. But near the end of the book, a subtle change also occurs in our perceptions of the two women. Rosalyn, who in some ways was our entry point into the story as well as its putative hero, becomes less sympathetic – perhaps a little too hedonistic and self-absorbed – while Meiling, who has been a distant figure, slowly grows in stature. Her recollections of the early stages of her relationship with Li Jing are revealing and help make her a more accessible, sympathetic figure.
He was the gregarious one at the centre of their social group ... How he seduced her was with words ... Conversations accumulated between the two of them until one day she discovered that his words had built an entirely private universe between their two bodies.


Stylistically, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai doesn’t begin on a promising note. Xu’s writing is initially strained and over-descriptive, with jerky sentences and awkward phrasing (all he wants is just to find a way out). I thought her account of the hotel’s collapse was exasperatingly florid.
The ground shifting like a pre-historic animal. Fire in the kitchen stretching out its wings, flapping, frantic. Fissures mutate in the walls, mapping out an eventual collapse [...] On the facade the metallic swans glare through the smoke, their bodies adrift, desperate to hold on. One of them loosens its hold on the other, breaking the heart in between their necks, swinging its body downward with reckless velocity and swinging back the other way, its upside-down head like the pendulum of a clock, swerving through a wide arc just above the doorway.
This sort of detail might be understandable in a disaster novel like The Towering Inferno, but it’s out of place here, given how incidental the explosion is to the actual meat of the story. Even if the swans are intended as an elaborate metaphor for the fissures in Li Jing’s world, the writing at this point is overblown.

There are other small irritants. When Li Jing is lying in bed, struggling to deal with his condition, we are privy to his tortured thoughts about being unable to say “Meiling” despite understanding the syllables and hearing the tones in his own head. But then we get a sentence – “A synaptic collapse between the frontal lobe and the operculum” – which strikes a false note in a passage meant to be describing Li Jing’s internal perspective; it’s an if an omniscient narrator has suddenly intruded with medical terminology for our edification. There is also an unconvincing episode where a visitor to Li Jing’s hospital room – ignorant of his condition – goes on talking for a few minutes without realising that he is getting no response.

These are weaknesses, but as Xu slips into the natural flow of the story and focuses on the interconnected lives of her characters, her writing become smoother. Some of the book’s best passages are the ones that make little observations – without underlining the point too thickly – about the centrality of language in our everyday lives. Thus, when Rosalyn chances to meet another southerner, we are told in a throwaway sentence that she is so happy that she (perhaps subconsciously) lengthens her drawl. At another crucial point, she addresses her new friend (and potential lover) Danny as “Ben”, which is her ex-husband’s name.

I also liked the perceptive use of a translator named Alan, whose detachment becomes a counterpoint to the fraught lives of the central figures; his placid and emotionless renderings of tense conversations are amusing, but they are also pointers to the importance of tone, pitch and enunciation, and how complicated the business of talking really is. With all its little flaws, Xu’s book is a graceful reminder of the countless ways in which we are defined by our ability to speak: the stressing of syllables, the injection of feeling into an abstract or innocuous sound like “um”, even the slips of tongue that reveal hidden places in the mind. This is a story about language and speech, but it’s also about other things we take for granted, and the delicate threads that hold some of our strongest relationships together.


  1. >things we take for granted

    Very moving piece, by Christopher Hitchens. Have you read the ones by (and about) Roger Ebert after he lost his jaw?

  2. loved reading your review, thank you! makes me want to pick up the book.

  3. Radhika: yes, I did when they were first published. Will go back and read them again now.