Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones is credited with being a "thick mix of the exotic, the romantic and the historical". This fictional story is set in twentieth century China. The country's teeming masses, scarred by the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, are slowly healing and moving steadfastly towards an industrial future. Mones describes a "dark-headed tide" of Mongols, Muslims and Mandarins whose approach to life is one of harsh survival, lowered expectations and guarded secrecy - since in China, you never know who may be watching.

This makes me question why Mones has her principle character Alice, working as a shrewd and intelligent translator by day, yet allows her to openly invite negative comment when she acts like a "woman of convenience" at night in her lustful search for the true Chinese Man. Thankfully, Mones writes only a few scenes for us to get the idea of her character Alice's motivation and passion before turning our attention to the vast backdrop of China's geography and history.

The major part of the plot revolves around the true story of Frenchman - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - who was both a Jesuit priest and a scientist who is remembered for discovering the famous Peking Man in China in the 1920's. His publication The Phenomenon of Man and his writings of homo erectus challenged the Vatican's then theories of spirituality and evolution. Also mentioned is Pierre's life long companion and soul mate Lucile Swan. Lucile's artistic talents documented the find - which was opportune as the Peking Man was lost after the Japanese Invasion and never found. 

It is from this jumping off point that Mones' story takes shape.

American interpreter Alice Mannegan assists Adam Spencer, an American archeologist on his quest to follow newly revealed clues and recover the old bones. They are joined by two keen Chinese archeologists, Drs Lin and Kong. The antagonists in the story are the suspicious Chinese Government officials and the unpopular and feared People Liberation Army (PLA) - well known for its methods of surveillance, imprisonment and torture.

Nicole Mones has lived in China since 1977 and seems well qualified to make her observations about the Chinese character that expertly "bends like grass in the wind". This seems to be a purposeful and protective adaptation in a country that has born witness to tumultuous change likened to "shifting sands". This pliable Chinese personality is in direct contrast to the spontaneous and direct Americans and of course, causes some consternation on both sides.

Alice and Adam get to know each other over their first meal together. For Adam it his first cultural shock.

"His face fell upon the shocking yellow eggs, the soup and the slick green piles of pickled vegetables." p12

In China, food has unique cultural and social rituals and etiquette.

Therefore, the Chinese table is one of evaluation, where small talk allows the guest and host to assess one another prior to a business deal. This ritual judges the levels of polite behaviour, generosity and appropriate responseThe food presented to the guests is done by women who are judged on how well they manipulate the available resources. For the host, it symbolizes his wealth and or position over his guests and servants. 

"The Leader waited at the head of the banquet table. "Sit", the Leader barked. "Tea", he called.
Three garishly made up Mongol girls twirled platters above their heads. "To your visit", the Leader said, and raised a tiny cup." pp242-247

 The guests also have power. This lies in their knowledge of manners to convince the host of their request. Mostly by demonstrating their ability not to offend. In many cases it is to graciously submit to the tastes and will of the host. 

"The girls swept back in to the room...shredded lamb and chilli peppers, deep fried carp and creamy scrambled egg, high piles of eggplant and tomato stir fry." p247

Food is also important as an offering on the tiny altars of ancestral worship. 

It also defines cultural continuity. For instance, Alice takes Adam to a cake shop that has been in business since the late Ming dynasty:

"People here make moon cakes every year for the Moon Festival." p282

It is also about hospitality and welcome:

"It's no good man who accepts guests, especially those with some connection to the family, without proper welcome. He addresses two women ...and they returned with dried fruit, and small bright-coloured plastic liquor cups."  p319

Food also confers well wishes on its recipients.

"Dr Lin stood. 'Health, Long life' They all drained their cups." p246

It is also a great leveller and indicates comradeship. Dr Lin, who was making discreet inquiries about the whereabouts of his wife who was lost during the Cultural revolution enters a small village cafe, notes that the woman who is dining there is simple-minded, but makes contact with her through the act of eating.

"'Xifun', he told the man behind the counter as he sat at one of three tiny tables."

Dr Lin ate in solidarity with the woman, to blend in, avoid surveillance and ask questions in a non threatening way.

"Rice gruel, [also known as congee], the simplest of Chinese comfort foods."p151

Each of the four characters, have different reasons to find the lost bones of the Peking Man. Alice is attracted to Dr Lin and a liaison ensues but is not resolved, Adam Spencer hopes to re-ignite a stalled career, Dr Lin travels widely to locate the fate of his lost wife and Dr Kong is excited about documenting China's prolific and as yet, untapped fossil mysteries.
The fictitious ending of Lost in Translation has Alice and Adam tracing the final resting place of The Peking Man back to an apothecary shop where Chinese men have traditionally paid high prices for herbs and potions that promise potency.
"Let's just say Peking Man has been - re-absorbed in to the population." Alice said. p366

(rice porridge)

This recipe was taught to me by my mother-in-law, the late Anna Hsuin who was born in Shanghai and immigrated to Sydney in the 1970's. She taught me that Northern China is the wheat belt, 
known for its noodles and steamed buns. The harsh, cold winters demand the pickling of vegetables in a tasty array of spice and fermentation. While Southern China is the rice bowl and known worldwide for its Cantonese style food. Congee, also known as porridge or gruel is one of my favourite recipes. It is eaten for breakfast, or as a light snack or late supper, in its many variations, throughout the Asian countries.

2 cups long grain rice
9 cups water
(I used home-made chicken stock
for a richer flavour)
A large knob of ginger sliced
(remove once rice is cooked)
Salt to taste


 Bring to boil, then simmer for 1-2 hours
or until rice is soft and creamy,
but not dry. More like a wet risotto.

Assorted pickles bought from a Chinese grocery shop.
I have chosen my favourites. 
Fermented bean curd, pickled cucumbers and spicy 
preserved radish with chilli.
Shredded chicken or firm fish pieces.

Dipping Sauce

If pickles are not to your taste you may like to mix equal 
amounts of chopped garlic and ginger, together with a 
sliced chilli (optional), half a cup of finely chopped 
shallots. Cover with light soya sauce and a dash of 
sesame oil. Add several teaspoons to the porridge. Enjoy!

Note the knob of sliced ginger in the rice porridge. Remove before serving.

©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved
Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones 1998 ISBN 0-385-31944-4 

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