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Book Forum: FICTION   |    
Waiting ? The Crazed
ARNOLD WERNER, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:2249-2251. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2249
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By Ha Jin. New York, Pantheon Books, 1999, 308 pp., $24.00. • By Ha Jin. New York, Pantheon Books, 2002, 323 pp., $24.00.

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If you read one of Ha Jin’s novels you will be treated to compelling stories of richly developed characters told in a totally original fashion. You will also never think of China in quite the same way again. This remarkable author began to write prose and poetry in English after he came to the United States in 1985 as a graduate student at Brandeis University. His extraordinary talent and unique voice were quickly recognized, and he has won numerous writing awards. His best-known novel, Waiting, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award.

Ha Jin’s fiction is characterized by clear, economic prose. He uses words with such carefully chosen efficiency that simple narrative sentences create rich images, convey complex ideas, and illuminate the nature of intricate personal relationships. Ha Jin accomplishes something close to magic on the printed page by the selective use of detail that arouses the senses and makes things real. Food, names of objects, and physical characteristics and activities of people are coupled with parsimonious descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells so that a culture alien to most of us becomes vivid and the reader becomes an occupant of the same space as the narrator of the tale. Downtown Shanning and the people on its streets feel as real as New York or Chicago.

We have people’s lives unfolding in the context of a government that is omnipresent and intrusive. The conflicts between the traditional and the modern, the village and the city, the puritanical and the corrupt, and freedom of expression and state constraints serve to enhance the understanding of character and relationships. The state and the Communist Party become characters in the story. Ha Jin uses his narrative talents to tell us what happens to people by telling us what they do and how they respond to their fated circumstances.

Waiting takes place over a period of about 20 years beginning in the mid-1960s. In his tale of the interaction of temperaments, circumstances, and culture, the narrator escorts us through the lives and relationships of three main characters. Lin Kong is a highly literate medical-school-educated physician who was born in a rural village. From adolescence he has been educated away from home; his career is in an army hospital in Muji, a city some distance from his family home in Goose Village. A few years before the beginning of the story, he entered into an arranged marriage at his parents’ behest so that while he was away there would be someone to care for them as they grew old. Shuyu, his loyal wife, is from a peasant family and could not have been better chosen for the task. She is kind and devoted and cares diligently for his parents. But she could not have been worse chosen for an educated, well-read army officer’s wife. Illiterate, shriveled, looking older than her years, and with bound feet, she was "absolutely unpresentable outside his home village." So, Lin Kong returns home each year for 12 days of vacation but lives an exemplary but passionless life as an army doctor elsewhere the rest of the time. Manna Wu, a head nurse in the hospital, has known Lin Kong since she was a student. Slightly older than the other students, without family since she was orphaned at 3, and devastatingly rejected by a boyfriend, she faces life as an "old maid." The kind friendship Lin Kong shows her becomes the seed that grows into an extremely problematic relationship.

In their highly regulated military society, Lin and Manna develop a chaste love affair. They cannot leave the hospital grounds together, their every move is scrutinized for an "improper" relationship (meaning one with sexual contact), and their promotions and pay raises are influenced, but they are tolerated as a couple. Each year when he returns home, Lin asks Shuyu for a divorce. Each year she agrees and then backs out. The only solution available to Lin in his passivity is to wait for 18 years to pass to fulfill the army’s time requirement for an uncontested divorce.

What happens in 18 years makes one’s head spin. Personal struggles, the revealing of character, the exploration of social and cultural events, the corruption, all kept me riveted to the page. We are introduced to many characters who both complete the tapestry of the protagonists’ lives and reveal much about their society. An immoral, vicious army officer takes whatever he wants from others and emerges as a fabulously wealthy new-style manager, displaying one of the ways that unfairness and circumstance combine to produce undeserved success at the expense of the powerless.

Lin eventually divorces Shuyu, but not before he brings her and their daughter to Muji so they can lead a better life than they could if left in Goose Village. By the time Lin and Manna marry, they are in their 40s. Manna becomes pregnant and has twin boys, normally a joyful event, but nothing goes easily. Manna’s health and longevity are threatened, and Lin painfully looks at himself, his character, and his life. By the time the novel ends, waiting has taken on a new meaning.

The story told in The Crazed takes place in the spring of 1989. The narrator, Jian Wan, is a graduate student at a provincial university in Shanning helping care for Professor Yang, his advisor, who has had an unexpected stroke. Jian is engaged to Professor Yang’s daughter and is in the midst of preparing for qualifying examinations that would enable him to go to Beijing to study for his Ph.D. and be united with his fiancée, fulfilling his and his professor’s aspirations for him. Yang’s level of consciousness alternates between slumber and delirious awakened states. But these are no ordinary deliria. Out of his agitated states come calm interludes of highly articulate parables, self-disclosing stories, and a penetrating analysis of his career as a scholar, culminating in instructions to his student that shake Jian to his roots and cause him to reorder his plans in a most amazing way.

In his revelatory discourses, Yang rejects almost everything he seemed to have stood for in his career. At first horrified, Jian finds his resolve to pursue his original plans weakened and then altered. Conflicts and contradictions in people’s lives abound. Yang reveals details of his life and his beliefs that are not only contrary to how he has presented himself professionally and personally but immensely dangerous politically. "We are all chattels of the state," he proclaims at one point. The scholarly life, Yang tells Jian, is not worth the effort. The tension is immense. Jian is at first angry at Yang, whom he sees as fraudulent, while Yang sees himself as trapped. Through Yang’s discourse and a revealing trip to a rural village, Jian is transformed.

The spring of 1989 was the time of uprisings in which students confronted the state with its corruption and duplicity. A startling turn of events for the narrator in the novel coalesces around the protests and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Ha Jin weaves together the different elements of his story, seamlessly ending the novel in a logical fashion that leaves no loose ends.

Ha Jin’s novels are worth savoring. They read all too quickly, so it is nice to know he has written several volumes of short stories that are also prize-winning endeavors. The novels tell of people in serious circumstances, leading lives with only measured doses of joy. There is humor of the type that brings a smile to one’s face rather than a laugh, and there is much in the way of warmth and interpersonal engagement.

The author’s parents were army doctors. He spent much of his adolescence in the army. Growing up during the cultural revolution, when schools were closed, he found opportunities in the army that were unavailable elsewhere. Higher education followed his military service and eventually led him to the United States. Tiananmen Square made return to China problematic, and he committed himself to the life of a writer. He currently teaches at Boston University.

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