For once, a book title that evokes the story between the covers! Lost in Translation neatly describes this first novel by Nicole Mones. Both the nuances of two very different cultures -- China and the United States -- and the protagonist of this work are indeed lost in translation.
Alice Mannegan is an interpreter, working in Beijing and, at age 36, she is running in place. She has been free-lancing as an interpreter in China for the past 14 years, drifting from job to job, a way of life subsidized by payments from the father she despises.
In the Chinese portion of her life, Alice has chosen to call herself Mo Ai-li or Mo Loving and Upright. When someone names herself, surely the name she chooses must have important personal connotations. Is Alice in fact loving and upright? If she is loving, whom has she chosen to love? Her bigoted father? Meng Jian, the fiancé she jilted? Mother Meng, Jian's elderly mother? The Chinese men she picks up bars, using the name Yulian (Fragrant Lotus)?
How upright is she, taking her father's money but refusing to see him? Is it upright of Alice to refuse to utilize her talents more productively than she has? Alice understands that she is intellectually lazy ("Smart but ever so slightly lazy, that was Alice."); surely an upright woman would work to correct such a failing.
By working and living in China, Alice has removed herself as far as possible from Texas, the United States, and her father. When Adam Spencer offers her a job as a translator, she has an opportunity to travel even farther into China, to Ningxia Province in northwestern China, on the Mongolian border. Adam has studied the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and believes that Teilhard hid his Peking Man fossils there at the end of World War II.
At 48, Adam is professor of archaeology from the University of Nevada or, in the assessment of a Chinese official, "a minor figure from an inconsequential university." Divorced, with one son, he sees the search for the missing fossils as his last chance to achieve distinction in his field and to give his young son a reason for pride in his father.
With some trepidation the Vice Director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology agrees to arrange for the permits that will allow Adam to travel to Ningxia Province, but only on the condition that he share authorship of any articles with two Chinese archaeologists. Professor Kong Zhen is Vice Director Han's cousin; his colleague, Professor Lin Shiyang, specializes in homo erectus. The reason for their addition to Adam's party is to insure that if the fossils are recovered, they will stay in China.
The story of the expedition's journey to the Mongolian border works both as old-fashioned travelogue and as metaphor for the truths that the travelers discover about themselves.
In the first half of this century, before everyone went everywhere and nowhere was remote, travelers' stories took readers places they would never see themselves. (Does anyone else remember the books of Richard Halliburton?) Even today, however, northwest China and Mongolia are not on any regularly scheduled tourist routes. Mones brings it to us: the barren, waterless landscape; the tough but hospitable Mongolian people; the strange foods like camel's hump and fa-cai (hair vegetable).
There is a pleasure we seldom experience today in viewing a distant region through someone else's eyes and perhaps seeing it more perceptively than if we traveled there ourselves. Mones provides that pleasure and does so without allowing description to act as a drag on the narrative.
As is fitting for a novel whose central action is a journey, the major characters change in the course of their trek. Alice confronts her need to find a "true Chinese man" with whom she can, perhaps, be her "true self." Professor Lin seizes the opportunity to search for the wife he was separated from during the Chaos, as the Chinese call the Cultural Revolution. Adam Spencer and Professor Kong begin to build an authentic professional collaboration despite the fact that Adam speaks no Chinese and Professor Kong has no English.
Lesser characters, with briefer appearances, enrich the text. Besides Mother Meng and Meng Jian, the jilted fiancé, there is the crude Lieutenant Shan and Guo Wenxiang, hired after the expedition reaches its destination…all are distinct individuals. Each reflects another facet of modern China.
Lost in Translation is not just a character study or a travel book, however. In the forefront is the story of the expedition's search for Peking Man, thwarted by the age of the trail and the paranoia of the Chinese government, assisted by their intelligence, intuition, and luck. The combination of story, metaphor, and travelogue make this book a rich feast indeed. I shall be looking for more works by Mones and hoping that they, too, are set in China.
--Nancy J. Silberstein