When I was a film school student in Beijing in the early 1990s, I randomly picked up a French novel in a bookshop – the Chinese translation of L’Écume des Jours (Foam of the Daze) by Boris Vian. At that time I was twenty. I had never been out of China, nor had I ever met a Westerner. In those spring nights, I sat by barbecue stalls in the streets of Beijing, reading this novel under dim streetlights while eating lamb skewers.
What I felt then was that the author had the most melancholic attitude towards youth. The novel begins with four lovers depicting their joyful life together, but bit by bit their halcyon days erode, their dreams remain unfulfilled, their projects pointless, and they are eventually crushed by society. The novel is set in post-war Paris, the writing surreal in parts. I was fond of the image of a water lily growing in the character Chloe’s chest – and intrigued by a pigeon-headed man and a philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre, who arrives at his lectures on the back of an elephant.
After finishing the novel I thought I must go to Paris, I wanted to meet those romantically-suicidal young bohemians in Europe one day. I left China ten years after I read Vian’s novel, trying to escape all its problems – restrictions, censorship, pollution, tedious government work unit jobs, and a pure money-making society. I wanted to live the youth I had never experienced: a youth with imagination, a daze of freedom, a youth untouched by practical materialistic pressure. Coming to Europe was a new chapter of my life.
Xiaolu Guo is the author of Once Upon a Time in the East, a memoir.