Ha Jin criticizes communist China through his depiction of Mr. Chiu's unjust arrest and detention, as well as his recurring illness. Early in the story, the setting is established with a reference to a "concrete statue of Chairman Mao." After Mr. Chiu has been locked into his cell for the night, the narrator says,
He wasn't afraid. The Cultural Revolution was over already, and recently the Party had been propagating the idea that all citizens were equal before the law. The police ought to be a law-abiding model for common people.
In theory, Mr. Chiu ought to be safe from unjust treatment and handled fairly and equally, but that is not what happens. He is arrested and imprisoned when he has done nothing wrong, and he's expected to confess to a crime he didn't commit. The ideals of the Cultural Revolution and communism, then, have not been realized. In fact, Mr. Chiu's health can be interpreted as a symbol of this communist political system as well; he literally becomes gravely ill as a result of his treatment. This, in turn, causes him to act out spitefully and irrationally against people who have done nothing to him when he decides to purposefully spread his contagion around the city. It seems to suggest a warning: that communism will result in the mistreatment of people, failing to offer the equality it promised, and that this will lead to violent acts of rebellion.
Style and Technique
Readers familiar with the literary tradition will see parallels between this story and the work of European writer Franz Kafka, especially Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), a novel in which a man is arrested and tried for a crime he did not commit. In Ha Jin’s story, as in Kafka’s work, the power of the state to deal summarily with its citizens is revealed as arbitrary and frightening. In “Saboteur,” the individual who has been wronged is able to achieve some measure of revenge. In doing so, however, he merely stoops to the level of those who have perpetrated injustice on him; there is no sense that retribution is justified.
The central literary device used in “Saboteur” is irony. Readers sense from the beginning that actions and consequences are disconnected and arbitrary. The arrest of Chiu is ironic, because he has committed no crime. The willingness of the citizens of Muji to come forward to give testimony against a visitor to their city is ironic because they do not know him. The arrest and torture of Fenjin is ironic because he had come to Muji as Chiu’s savior. Chiu’s intent to infect the citizens of Muji with hepatitis is ironic because by doing so he has become like his captors, a person who inflicts punishment on the innocent simply because he can.
Ha Jin is particularly effective in conveying this irony because he uses a controlled, understated style of writing that relies on simple sentences to relate facts and conclusions. Seldom does he dwell on the emotions of his protagonist. The absurdity of the situation takes on an air of normalcy. The same kind of effect was created by Kurt Vonnegut in his
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