Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The first few paragraphs of “Saboteur” bring readers into a Kafkaesque world in which unprovoked action and nameless crimes place an individual in a situation over which he has no control and for which he has no rational explanation. On this level, Ha Jin’s story is an existentialist tale in which the protagonist must strive to understand what seems to be a meaningless universe and take control over his own life. What may seem a macabre ending in which Chiu exacts poetic justice on the people who imprisoned him is, on the philosophical level, his attempt to assert his own importance in a world in which the individual is worth nothing.

There also is a political dimension to the story, and it is possible to read “Saboteur” as an indictment of communist Chinese society. The police arrest Chiu simply because they can; he is powerless to stop the action of men he calls hooligans, even though he is a member of the Communist Party. Ironically, Chiu believes in the communist dogma that all people are equal under the law; his experience teaches him the emptiness of that platitude. The authorities in the outer reaches of the country seem little concerned about any form of retribution they might suffer from national leaders; in their region, they are, in essence, petty kings.

Through this story Ha Jin demonstrates what happens too frequently when those in power deal ruthlessly with those under them. As he lies in jail, Chiu settles into his role as victim; although he never accepts his status completely, he quickly accommodates and even begins to be impressed with the ability of his captors to build a case against him. When he is released, however, instead of turning to higher authority to give him justice and reestablish the social order, he becomes a perpetrator of evil. His behavior toward the innocent citizens of Muji is as reprehensible as that of the police who had arrested him without cause.