Ha Jin, a professor of English at Emory University, won the National Book Award for his novel Waiting (1999) and has also published In the Pond (1998), another novel, the short-story collections Ocean of Words(1998) and Under the Red Flag (1997), and the poetry collections Facing Shadows (1996) and Between Silences (1990). This is an impressive body of English-language work for a writer who only emigrated to the United States from his native China in 1985.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the characters of Ha Jin’s collection of stories, The Bridegroom, is how mean and nasty most of them are to each other. In “Saboteur,” the story which opens the book, Chiu Maguang and his young bride stop at Muji City’s train station on their return from their honeymoon. Without the slightest provocation, but perhaps out of jealously and hatred for the happy couple, a local policeman throws tea at them. When challenged by Chiu, the policeman verbally and physically assaults Chiu and proceeds to arrest him for disturbing the peace. In a chilling turn of events, Chiu has to spend a few nights in jail, and his lawyer, Fenjin, whom his bride sends to rescue him, is tortured by the policemen. Utterly confident that they are untouchable, the police force Chiu to sign a confession for a crime he never committed.
Typically for Ha Jin’s surprising stories, the narrative ends with a bizarre twist. While jailed, Chiu’s “acute hepatitis” has returned, and he uses this to exact a terrible revenge. Upon his release, he visits many restaurants in the city. At each place he orders a few bowls of food, eats a bit, and moves along. Laconically, the last paragraph of “Saboteur” states that soon thereafter, “over eight hundred people contracted acute hepatitis in Muji. Six died of the disease, including two children. Nobody knew how the epidemic had started.”
Here, the story implies how Chiu’s revenge worked. He was able to infect others with his disease because of the unsanitary conditions at the restaurants, which did not thoroughly clean their bowls and eating utensils. The greed of the restaurant owners, who resold the food he had tasted but not consumed, further enhanced his malicious ploy. In the end, victim Chiu turns victimizer himself, randomly affecting those living near the police station where he had been abused.
When characters refuse to act with pettiness or act against their best self-interest, this puzzles everyone, even their families. Beina, in the title story “The Bridegroom,” refuses to divorce her husband Huang Baowen after he is arrested for attending an underground gay club, whose “top leaders were executed” after the Communist police raided the place. Beina’s uncle, Old Cheng, can understand some aspects of a marriage of convenience. It gives Baowen a cover story, and Beina receives the status of a wife rather than ending as “an old maid.” The uncle also “secured them a brand-new two-bedroom apartment.” Yet unlike his wife, Old Cheng cannot understand why Beina would want to do without marital relations, and is baffled by her preference of celibacy over a potentially adulterous husband.
Committed to a mental institution by a society whose mid-level cadres view homosexuality as a “social disease,” Baowen eventually ends up in the arms of a male nurse, Long Fuhai. Surprised by a janitor, Fuhai informs on Baowen and blames him for the incident. For his cooperation the traitorous Fuhai is only put on probation, whereas Baowen is sentenced to three and a half years in jail, and is branded a criminal. Fuhai’s behavior echoes that of Shen Manjin, a character in “Broken,” who betrays his lover, Wang Tingting, to save his own hide. After she commits suicide Manjin drowns his sorrows in alcohol, but is not severely punished himself. Again and again in the pages of The Bridegroom, society tends to reward the more despicable of its citizens.
When Beina still refuses to divorce her husband and insists on his goodness and the inviolability of their marriage vows, her uncle is flabbergasted by her unselfish behavior. Out of his own selfish...