LOST IN TRANSLATION
By Nicole Mones
374 pp., $23.95
The heroine of Nicole Mones's impressive first novel, "Lost in Translation," is an American in flight from her background, seeking a new identity in, of all places, China.
The only child of a prominent Texas congressman, Alice Mannegan never knew her mother, who died shortly after giving birth to her.
When Alice was still in elementary school in what was then the racially segregated South, her father made a mistake that has blighted her life ever since. Delivering an impassioned defense of segregation, he pointed to the case of his own little girl as one of the many who needed to be protected from having Negroes in her class. As if this were not bad enough, in the wake of his incendiary oration, three little black girls were killed in a fire-bombing.
Along with the burden of guilt that she feels, Alice finds, as she grows up, that no sooner does she mention her name than people recall her as the Alice of that ill-starred speech.
At Rice University, she's fascinated by a class in Chinese and decides to immerse herself in this language and culture so different from her own.
As the novel opens, Alice has been living in Beijing, where her excellent knowledge of Chinese allows her to work as a freelance interpreter. She loves almost everything about Chinese culture, and - rather naively, perhaps - likes to think of herself as Chinese.
Alice, who prefers the name Mo Ai-li, seems strangely blind to the ironies of her situation. Although she wins the respect and affection of her Chinese friends and acquaintances, including the family of a young man she almost marries, she is still viewed as a perpetual outsider - a "ghost woman" from beyond the sea. While she shuns her father's racism, it does not seem to bother her that most Chinese she meets consider themselves racially superior to whites and blacks alike.
Most of Alice's clients have been visiting businessmen. Now, an American archaeologist, Adam Spencer, asks her to be his interpreter on what sounds like an unusually exciting expedition: He is searching for the remains of the famous Peking Man, an early specimen of humankind whose bones were discovered in China earlier this century only to vanish around the time of the Japanese invasion.
Dr. Spencer has a theory that the missing relics were spirited away to a safe hiding place in China's remote northwestern deserts by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the brilliant maverick Jesuit priest and philosopher who participated in the dig that unearthed Peking Man in the first place.
Alice is so drawn to the project that when Spencer's grant money fails to materialize, she agrees to come along without being paid for her services. The two Americans are joined by Dr. Lin, who hopes to find out what happened to his beloved wife during the Cultural Revolution some 30 years ago.
In this first novel, Mones, who has spent many years working in China, offers an enthralling, subtly nuanced portrait of the cultures, landscapes, and people that her heroine encounters in the course of her adventure. She has also created a strongly affecting story about the personalities of the people brought together on this journey.
Mones's understated, supple prose serves her well, whether describing an exotic Mongolian meal, recounting a tense encounter between Alice and a thuggish People's Liberation Army official, or evoking a love scene.
This novel about a woman trying to traverse a wide gap between cultures is replete with ironies, but goes beyond mere irony. The heroine gains the insights that enable her to transform herself into someone who can truly communicate with the ones she loves.
* Merle Rubin reviews regularly for the Monitor.