The emergence of Ha Jin in the last decade of the twentieth century as a major new voice in American literature is fraught with the kind of irony that characterizes many of his stories. Jin began writing poetry in English because he found the language more suited to expressing ideas about identity, truth, and freedom than his native Chinese. He began writing fiction partly for the same reason but eventually began using it as a survival technique—publishing was a way to earn a living, securing him a position in the academic world and allowing him to remain in the United States rather than return to China. Survival is a major theme in many of his works, and while quite a few contain comic elements, virtually every one of his stories and novels has an undercurrent of tragedy that dominates the narrative.
Although he emigrated to the United States in 1985, Jin sets his stories and novels in China. Virtually all of the protagonists in his fiction are good people struggling to survive in a hostile, even absurd world. The specter of communism and the totalitarian state is sometimes foregrounded, sometimes masked, but always present as the “big brother” watching every move these men and women make. The plethora of laws and regulations governing the lives of his characters are like filaments in a spider’s web against which characters struggle to achieve a modicum of personal freedom. One of the greatest ironies that emerges from Jin’s stories and novels is that many of his characters have internalized arbitrary conventions and rules, turning them into moral imperatives that cause them to censor their own behavior. Like the writers who have by his own admission most influenced him—the great Russian authors Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Leo Tolstoy—Jin focuses on the harsh realities of everyday life in a country that seems both ecologically and spiritually exhausted.
Jin’s fiction also highlights the cruelty and heartlessness that emerges in a totalitarian system. Those in power in communist China often take advantage of their positions to belittle others simply because they can. Such behavior is the catalyst for the action of one of Jin’s more widely published short stories, “Saboteur,” in which an innocent man suffering from hepatitis is arrested and roughed up by local police, accused of committing sabotage against the state; although he has done nothing before his arrest, when he is released the man visits numerous public food concessions to spread his infection—an act of deliberate sabotage. Such ironies abound in Jin’s fiction, and his deliberate, restrained writing style is effective in heightening the effect on readers.
Perhaps because English is not his native language, Jin’s prose is carefully crafted, full of rich details about the characters’ lives and environments that reveal something not only about their external circumstances but also about the turmoil they feel internally. Critics have described a number of his works as fables, because they possess a quality of surface simplicity that belies the complexity of human emotions that these works suggest. Jin’s style has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, whose deceptively simple style is used to suggest, rather than denote, the feelings of his characters. Like many of Hemingway’s protagonists, the people about whom Jin writes are seldom saints, but they are more frequently victims than villains; and even his villains are victims of a society that demands obedience to a state that privileges those who rise to power within the system.
First published: 1999
Type of work: Novel
A military doctor in communist China waits eighteen years to divorce his wife and marry a nurse at the hospital where he works, only to find that his new marriage does not provide the satisfaction he anticipated.
In its simplest terms, Waiting is the story of a love triangle. The Prologue, set in 1983, introduces the major characters and outlines their dilemma. Lin Kong, a military doctor stationed in Muji, is attempting to divorce Shuyu, the peasant wife his parents chose for him years earlier. Shuyu maintains their home in Goose Village, a place Lin visits only twelve days each year. At the hospital in Muji, he has been courting Manna Wu, a nurse. Lin believes he would be happier with this modern, sophisticated woman than he is with his illiterate wife. Unfortunately, while the Chinese communist government permits divorce, military officers must either have the consent of their spouses or remain married for eighteen years in order to obtain an uncontested divorce. For more than a decade Lin has returned home each year to ask Shuyu for a divorce. With similar consistency, Shuyu refuses, so Lin and Manna must wait until he no longer needs his wife’s consent.
The major sections of the novel highlight Lin’s passivity in dealing with his situation. Ironically, what appears to be his stoic approach to life and his wide learning have gained him great respect among the hospital staff; his stature among his peers is what initially makes him attractive to Manna, who...
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