What are the elements of the short story "Saboteur"?

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"Saboteur" is a short story by Ha Jin that was first published in 1996. It follows the harrowing experience of a man who, having come from a honeymoon with his bride, is at first enjoying a simple meal with her at a restaurant. Then two policemen arrive and...

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"Saboteur" is a short story by Ha Jin that was first published in 1996. It follows the harrowing experience of a man who, having come from a honeymoon with his bride, is at first enjoying a simple meal with her at a restaurant. Then two policemen arrive and deliberately spill a drink, resulting in his and her feet getting wet.

Upon the ensuing complaints, they accuse him of instigating public disorder. The man does not back down, buttressed by the conviction that he did no wrong. So they arrest him, physically assault him upon his resistance, further disregard his rights, his health (as his anger exacerbated), and place him behind bars.

What makes this rather quick read a deeply potent experience is the way that it delivers the chain of events; it showcases the full extent of human nature, especially set against its political backdrop. Fresh from the Cultural Revolution, the story's main character is seen to be one who is learned, scholarly, and full of hope and belief in the system and the changes it promises. There is a sort of naïveté in the beginning—which is to be expected of his white collar, middle class stature—vis-à-vis the policemen who exhibited brutishness.

He enjoys a delicate exchange with his "sweetheart" and is offended, resorting to his idealism in defending their wet feet against the rather dark figures of authority who were clearly abusing their power. However, we see how this very abuse of their power will later take a toll on him and sow the seeds of anger—staining his own innocence and later on causing him to contaminate the entire town with a figurative and literal sickness.

This is a story that masters the element of irony. We see how, despite the equality that comes with the cultural shift—and with the detail of a statue of Chairman Mao with birds perched on his arm—there is an exhibition of the complete abuse of power that exists in the system's underbelly. In being wrongly accused of being a saboteur, he later undergoes a transformation spurred by this maltreatment, which eventually corrupts him and turns him into this saboteur—the very thing he was indignantly trying to prove that he was not.

Irony is also present in the incarceration scene, wherein the drab situation of being unjustly and brashly detained was belied by the rather peaceful descriptions of his surroundings:

The back yard was quiet on Sunday morning. Pale sunlight streamed through the pine branches. A few sparrows were jumping on the ground, catching caterpillars and ladybugs. Holding the steel bars, Mr. Chiu inhaled the morning air, which smelled meaty. There must be a restaurantor a delicatessen nearby.

Much of the irony draws from a Marxist view of struggle. When victimized by an abuse of power, one maintains idealism until he is pushed over the edge. This polarization between two classes is where all revolutionary energy begins. In the story, it is the man's anger at the very failure of the system that was supposed to protect him that causes him to emerge from jail scorned and hell-bent on sowing the seeds of society's ills and feeding it back to its people. This transformation is evident when the neophyte lawyer—whom he saved from further torture—saw him for the first time as "ugly."

Irony can scarcely be executed without the help of tone, which is another element in this story. The voice of the narrator takes on a matter-of-fact attitude, taking us into the minds of both Mr. Chiu and Fenjin. This is done, however, with considerable distance so as not to be overdramatic. Still, it zeroes in on every minute detail to create a starker contrast—creating irony.

The last line:

Nobody knew how the epidemic started

is perhaps the most ironic of all. We, as readers, could gloat knowing exactly how it started for this particular story. The townsfolk in the story do not. What is perhaps being conveyed by this then is that, beyond the text and in all irony, how much of what ails a society do its people really know and remain impervious to? And this is what perhaps makes many of the world's societies no different from the one that is in the story.

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