In the Pond, Ha Jin’s first novel, has the same appeal as his short stories: his work is crisp, unnerving, dramatic, and dominated by full characters. This is an episodic novel in which the central character, Shao Bin, suffers through humiliation after humiliation in his quest for what he sees as justice.
The novel opens with Shao Bin’s name being left off the list of workers at the fertilizer plant who will be given a larger apartment. He feels he has been treated unfairly and that others have been rewarded for political reasons. He responds with his art: despite his position as a fitter in the plant, he is an accomplished artist, and so he draws a cartoon which lampoons his two supervisors (and archenemies in the novel), secretary Liu and Director Ma.
Liu and Ma respond with a pay cut and Bin creates another art piece that attacks their greed and their anti-revolutionary tendencies. Bin never backs down from the threats launched his way, and occasionally with his wife’s prodding, he continues to look for justice at the commune level, then with the county hierarchy, and finally in Beijing. Because his case becomes so famous, his supervisors are unable to just have him beat up, or to simply fire him. He is finally given a promotion by Liu and Ma’s boss, where he will write and draw propaganda pieces for the party. Meanwhile his wife is still yearning for something larger than the single room she must share with her husband and their young girl.
This is not a novel in which characters are fighting—a la Tiananmen Square—for an end to communist rule or greater liberalization. The power of the novel comes from the quixotic attempt of the common worker with the uncommon talent and faith in art to find a suitable outlet for his talents. Ha Jin has succeeded admirably in creating a fast-moving, very readable account of one imperfect man’s search for some version of domestic and artistic happiness.