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I first came across one of Ha Jin’s short story dealing with homosexuality two year ago. Cannot remember whether it was in Atlantic Monthly or New Yorker. Anyway, I was quite impressed and felt rather jealous about his command of style, plain, yet controlled with ease and elegance. Many novels written by overseas Chinese authors were focusing on their personal or family history in Cultural Revolution, mostly about the tortures, sufferings, and the misery. My impressions is that perhpas when they meant to expose and shock, less attention was to the artistic form. But in HaJin, I feel there’s an artist in him ---- much of painstaking craftsmanship is veiled under his nonchalant style. At that time, I had no idea he was already a recognized poet and short story writer.
In fact this time, it was other people’s recommendation that prompted me to read Waiting. I finished it in one day; then went on with another novel “In the Pond” and his latest collection of short stories, and I realized the first story I read was his title story in “Bridegroom”.
As Chinese we are all too familiar with the story like Waiting: an arranged marriage, an extramarital courtship (the bizarreness is the 18 year time span), a tale of thwarted love and disillusionment after getting what you thought you wanted. When you read between lines, there is a lot more as to how and why something happens, and what and why they are.
The first thing I notice about the novel is the non-dramatization of the plot. There is neither intense love nor hatred. The hero, Lin Kong, is not a passionate lover. His growing attachment to Mana during his 18 years of courtship was largely resulted from his increasing entanglement with Mana because people around them had considered them as a “couple”. Likewise, Mana’s need for Lin Kong was partly derived from her calculated love for Lin Kong (he was one of four doctor’s with real college education), as well as from the social pressure (e.g. couldn’t bear up to be an old maid, her being associated with Lin Kong, etc.). Even during Lin Kong and his wife’s 18 year long divorce process, we can hardly find deep resentment, hatred or bloody quarrel. Instead, we see a scene that more resembles our non-eventful lives: with Mana pushing on the backstage, Lin Kong plucked his confidence and courage every year and return to his village to divorce his wife. There, he was thwarted over and again by his maneuvering brother-in-law, or sometimes discouraged and softened by the kindness and helplessness of his wife. Thus the story develops, built upon utterly convincing details, and causes and effects of life’s own, achieves a delightful truthfulness rarely seen in novels handling similar subjects.
Without dramatization, readers naturally focus more on characters in the novel. The status of the characters' “natural existence” sheds leads me to realize that they are complete unaware of the deeper significance of occurrence in their lives. Seldom anybody reflected the significance of outside world. In another world, they live rather passively.
As hero, Lin Kong’s passivity is the most noticeable. Out of duty to his parents, he let them arrange a marriage for him, burying the seed of the tragedy. In his relationship with Mana, he was the one being pursued and pushed. Even until the end, he was still unsure whether he really loved Mana, or wanted the second marriage.
Through out their life, Lin Kong and Mana, accept and cooperated with the rules, traditions and etiquette the circumstances forced upon them: what hair style to wear, what books to read, where to walk (“unmarried couple cannot walk outside of army hospital’s compound wall”, When to marry (“automatic divorce is to come after 18 years of separation”). They did not question these rules, but just became more adept adopter or opportunists to survive better, as Mana demonstrated she never let go the opportunities that might improve her situation.
Thus passively, everybody in here was waiting. Lin Kong waited year after year to divorce his wife; his wife Shuyu meanwhile waited year in and year out for his homecoming. Even after their divorce, she is still waiting to reunite with him one day (because once when Lin Kong was drunk, he told her to wait for him). Even Mana, the more enterprising of these characters, waited to be selected by her colleagues, by potential marriage candidates from outside, and by Commissar Wu. And she patiently waited for Lin Kong’s divorce, and her being married with him. In the end, she obtained what she wanted, but she is so worn out, shortly after the marriage and birth of her twins, she is already waiting for her death.
Meanwhile, all of them waited to get an apartment to be assigned, a raise, a promotion, a good conclusion in their personal file, a job, or a house registration certificate. During endless waiting, our heroes and heroes all become old, and tired out. Somehow, their characters are transformed. It is especially pitiful to witness the change of Mana from an active energetic young woman to a quite tempestuous and restive middle aged spinster, then quickly into a suspicious and insecure wife. It is in this aspect, I feel Hajin's novel has achieved some universality: Waiting is not about those small groups in that army hpospital, nor only those in Muji city. It is about us, all Chinese living in that time. They lived and struggled, tried to mode their their lives, meanwhile were moded, and constrained by some stron forces within a net of their environment they fail to realize.
Look backward in time, with reference of different world, time, and concepts, it is easy for us to see through the absurdities of time and the predicament of their existence. But not so for our heroes and heroines confined and constrained within the particular sets of social structure and ideology. Although politics such as Cultural Revolution and its aftermath is used mainly as context, it surely enriches the novel’s cultural and social backgrounds for readers (esp. those from outside of China) to make senses of the political forces, social customs and traditions that have shaped the characters of our heroes, limited their perspectives, suppressed their human desires, or deprived them of further insight into their own lives and destinations. Because the “passivity” and “waiting” has become a matter- of- fact daily existence, it is ever so appalling. It is in this sense, I found Waiting is a more poignant novel than many that aim only to expose brutality of totalitarian or absurdity of bureaucracy.
With such a dismay underline, I am not suggesting it is a miserable book to read. Contrariwise, it is comical, sympathetic, and full of fun, depending from which angle you interpret the text. Page after page, you can feel the author’s love and understanding of common people’s desire and struggle; from time to time, his wry humor punches you and units us all into realizing the predicament of human being.
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