UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo

28/02/09, The Times

To call the village of Silver Hill (population 600) in Hunan province the armpit of the universe would be to elevate it to some sort of dignified status. Here, in this forgotten corner of China, the inhabitants, mostly illiterate peasants, have ‘eaten bitterness’ all their dead-end lives. But their uneventful, resigned yet somewhat equable lives are about to be upended when 37-year-old Kwok Fun, on September 11, 2012, spots an UFO as she makes her way across Wong Jing’s rice fields on her heap of a bicycle. The noise and energy and heat make her pass out. Very shortly after this, she saves the life of an American tourist who has lost his way in the village and been bitten by a snake. The Westerner, the first one Kwok Fun has ever seen, disappears as soon as he is revived.

Investigators from the National Security and Intelligence Agency are dispatched immediately to go over both events, the sighting of alien spacecraft and alien being, with a fine toothcomb to discover the slightest strand of subversiveness or threat, especially in light of the $2000 cheque that the grateful American tourist, Michael Carter, sends to the villagers. As everyone involved with the UFO sighting is rigorously and repeatedly, and often intrusively, interviewed, a picture of the hard-bitten lives of the residents of Silver Hill emerges: far away from urban progress and centres of power, these lives have remained untouched either by affluence or by any forms of social, cultural or technological advancement.

Seizing this opportunity of the sighting and the attendant investigation, the village chief, Chang Lee, decides to drag Silver Hill forcefully into the twenty-first century. A new five-year-plan is launched that will bring tourism, supermarkets, the Internet, education, carparks, hotels, tennis courts and swimming pools to this benighted, backward corner of China. The results, needless to say, are disastrous.

In UFO in Her Eyes, her second novel written in English, Xiaolu Guo casts a withering glance at the cost paid by ordinary people who are mere fodder to the faceless and ruthless juggernaut of state progress. Guo has always been interested in gaps and lags, in the distance between polarities. Her first novel published in the UK, Village of Stone, was about alienated rural kids in Beijing, her third, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, was a similar tale, melancholy and wry, of a peasant girl chasing dreams and mirages in the big city. Her first novel written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was an acute, humorous look at the immigrant experience through the slippages and gaps in linguistic competence.

In this book too, Guo’s humour is bracingly ironic and tinderbox dry yet the book is let down by the disproportionate weighting given to the formal high jinks in which the tired content – the unbridgeable gap between centre and margin, the destruction of old ways of life in the name of progress – comes sheathed. Elaborately designed to simulate a ring-bound folder of interviews, complete with memos, paper clips, reports, tags, ID numbers, lists, official documents, the book’s form seems a superfluous and diversionary tactic that ends up giving it a damaging imbalance. Attention is drawn to the bag of vapid tricks, which, without the benefit of much substance, appear as what they really are: boring, empty, repetitive and unoriginal. If you want to read a book about blighted, expendable lives in Communist China, try Yiyun Li’s bleak masterpiece, The Vagrants. Guo’s thin book seems like a publicity trick attempting to capitalise on the splash generated by A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.