By Ha Jin
Pantheon, $24, 323 pages
REVIEWED BY SUDIP BOSE
Ha Jin’s splendid new novel his first since the publication of “Waiting,” which won the National Book Award a few years ago begins in the spring of 1989, a time when Chinese students were boldly calling for democratic rights and an end to government corruption. The book’s narrator, Jian Wan, a graduate student of classical Chinese poetry, has no idea, of course, that the growing unrest will eventually culminate in the bloodshed at Tiananmen Square. We, however, do.
We know from the very first that whatever struggles Jian will encounter in the course of the narrative will be placed in the wider context of the struggle for democracy and the Chinese government’s brutal response to it. Indeed, one of Mr. Jin’s aims in this compelling and subtle depiction of the scholar’s life in China is to show how closely related the personal and the political can be, how individual lives can be quickly caught up in national tragedy.
As the novel opens, Jian finds himself attending to his professor and mentor, Shenmin Yang, who has suffered a stroke and lies in a hospital room in the city of Shanning. Professor Yang1s wife is away in Tibet. His daughter, Meimei (Jian’s fiancee), is stuck in Beijing, studying for her medical exams. And so it falls to Jian, “a typical bookworm, high-strung and a bit morose,” to spend part of every day with his professor and watch over the old man a maddening chore, for the stroke has sent Professor Yang oscillating between madness and clarity, delirium and calm.
He sings nursery rhymes and bits of Beijing opera. He lectures a group of imaginary students. As if drifting from one dream to the next, he relives moments from his past arguments with a university bureaucrat, erotic episodes with a mysterious lover thus revealing secrets to his disciple, Jian, that a healthy man would have kept bottled up. He contradicts himself constantly. Most puzzling of all is the relish and zeal with which Professor
Yang shouts out Maoist slogans and other kinds of Communist propaganda. Once demonized by the Communists, he now seems to be little more than a political parrot. “Oppressed for decades,” Jian says of his mentor, “he dreamed of ruling others. He didn’t know who he was anymore.”
A promising young scholar, Jian spends many an hour by Professor Yang’s side, trying to make sense of the various outbursts, time he should be devoting to preparations for his entrance exams for the Phd program at Beijing University; in the capital he is to reunite with Meimei and begin a life with her. The longer he spends with his crazed professor, however, the more resolute he becomes to abandon his plans altogether.
The disciple now takes to heart the master’s denunciation of the literary scholar’s existence; the sick man can speak of nothing but the apparent uselessless of such an existence. “No, no more poetry,” Professor Yang says, “not a word of truth in it. It’s full of lies. I’ve been fooled by it all my life… . What’s the good of poetry? It just gets your hopes up.”
And so, moved by Professor Yang’s despair and anguished desire to save his own soul, Jian decides against the intellectual’s life. He feels claustrophobic; the hospital room itself, closed in, suffocating, is a metaphor for the life he has planned for himself and his fiancee, the lifehe must escape, in order to breathe, in order to find his true place in the world. (Another prominent metaphor is Professor Yang’s decaying and odorous body, which comes to stand for decaying, corrupt China.).
Jian longs for a life of action, which he thinks, rather naively, he might enjoy were he to become a provincial official. “The former vision of myself as one who must study hard to become an eminent literary scholar had vanished,” Jian says, “replaced by the image of a feckless clerk, who was already senile but wouldn’t quit scribbling.”
The tension between action and inaction, languor and decisiveness, is everywhere in Mr. Jin’s novel. In one wonderful passage early on, for example, laundry flaps “languidly” in the breeze, a soccer commentator on a public loudspeaker sounds “sleepy,” construction workers are seen “resting,” their cranes and mixers “motionless” all the while a yellow sign ironically proclaims, “AIM HIGH, GO ALL OUT.”
“It was so sultry that even mosquitoes were too exhausted to fly,” Jian reports at one point. If the tiny mosquitoes can’t launch themselves into flight, what chance does Jian have to change the course of his life? And yet elsewhere, we learn, students are beginning to protest in the capital, to occupy Tiananmen Square, to demand of the government the rights enjoyed by citizens of democracies.
Mr. Jin wants us to view Jian’s awakening political consciousness with trepidation, I think. When Jian says that “I just wanted to be a man more useful than a lightweight clerk,” while gazing upon his professor, we should realize that Jian is no closer to understanding the world around him than he was before his mentor’s stroke. The word “lightweight” is used with irony, for not long before, Jian describes Professor Yang as anything but physically slight: “Look at this mountain of anomalous flesh! … He reminded me of a giant larva, boneless and lethargic.” Professor Yang’s delirium is far more complicated than Jian construes it to be.
Jian’s ultimate transformation, his progression from innocence to experience, is that of the dispassionate individual waking up to feel the pulse of life quivering within him. Early in the novel, Jian approaches even matters of the heart in a cool, detached manner. One moonlit night, Jian walks down a street accompanied by a fellow graduate student who appeals to him sexually: “To me, she was quite attractive, but I liked her also because she was reliable and well read and had her own opinions.” He is analytical and rational; his passions have yet to be aroused.
Things change two-thirds of the way into the novel, when Jian is sent by his university’s party secretary on an errand in the countryside. Here he moves beyond himself, his own self-absorption, and begins to see his surroundings for the first time. Upon witnessing the plight of the impoverished peasant, he cannot help being moved.
Later, he decides to go to Beijing mainly toprove his worth to Meimei, who has denounced him as a coward where he becomes an accidental participant in the horrifying, historic events taking place at Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in the capital. The coolness of Mr. Jin’s writing evolves into a stark realism here (“Bits of [one students] brain were splattered like crushed tofu on the asphalt”), as his protagonist’s innocence is forever shed.
Jian says of his role in the demonstrations: “I had no grand purpose or dream of democracy and freedom; nor did I have the sense of responding to our national exigencies. My motive was mainly personal I was driven by desperation, anger, madness, and stupidity… . I wanted to puncture a hole in this indestructible cocoon that caged me; somehow I felt that the right place to plunge a knife was Beijingthe sick heart of this country. I was crazed, unable to think logically, and was possessed by an intense desire to prove that I was a man capable of action and choice.”
So the crazed in the title of Mr. Jin’s subtle and compelling novel is not just Shenmin Yang, in the throes of a deathbed delirium, but also young Jian, whose idealism has been shattered and who, despite wanting always to remain clear of politics, unwittingly becomes a part of something far greater than his own hopes and dreams. In this way he begins to understand the intersection of private and public in the China he inhabits, as well as what it means to endure a life of endless suffering, even if that entails abandoning one life and beginning another.
Sudip Bose lives in Bethesda and is at work on his first novel.