Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: A Dictionary of Maqiao

Several times a year, I seek out translated literary fiction. It's like taking a vacation from genre fiction. Other cultures have different rules about writing than we do. This time, my girlfriend shared a book I'd never heard of and would never have looked for. A Dictionary of Maqiao is an artifact novel. By that, I mean the author, Han Shaogong, pretends to write a linguistic dictionary of a small village in rural China and in so doing tells the history of the village and its people.

A Dictionary tells us a story of this village. It doesn't show us the story. Right there, it violates what we writers have pounded into our heads. The Western reader wants dialogue and action to forward the plot. Han Shaogong has little dialogue, perhaps as little plot, and very little action, yet the work is compelling.

There is no hook, no conflict. Nothing to compel the reader to continue, except what is told, how it is told. I was "hooked" because I didn't think anyone could pull of writing a novel and pretending it was a dictionary. Like, get totally real.

Each "chapter" sets up as a word in English, followed by the Chinese characters, and a passage that relates the word to the village or to its people. Along the way, the author muses on all sorts of philosophical subjects. On writing he says, "Anything left out of traditional fiction is normally something of 'no significance.' But when religious authority is all-important, science has no significance. When politics is all-important, love has no significance...I suspect the myriad things in this world are in fact all of equal importance; the only reason why sometimes one set of things seems to have 'no significance' is because they've been filtered out by the writer's view of what has significance."

Think about your own work. If you had a deeply philosophical character, could you get away with such a monologue? My guess is, an editor would want it removed. Maybe not, but more than likely.

Throughout the novel, Han Shaogong introduces to character after character, from the People's cadre leader to an Enlightened Youth to the peasant who has no dragon (you'll have to read the book to get the reference) to Three Ears to Yanzao's wife. Word play translates well into English, for one term in the Maqiao dialect can have multiple, contradictory meanings in English and in Chinese.

Winner of the China Times Prize for best novel, the Shanghai Literary Prize and one of the top 100 works of Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction from Asia Weekly, A Dictionary of Maqiao is a tour de force. If you want a different reading experience, check this out.


  1. Hi Betsy. Well, you've definitely intrigued me. I'm putting this book on my Must Read list. Thanks for the review!

  2. Hey John, The book review worked! I think a review that intrigues is more important than one that doesn't. Great read. Such a wonderful experiment. Let me know how you like "A Dictionary."