The Waiting Game

Red Army veteran and author Ha Jin

Ha Jin

Some literature makes its way to us after history has begun to move on. Anne Frank's diary and Victor Klemperer's (just last year) were published after the fall of the Third Reich. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich didn't make its way into print until 1963. And until a few years ago, stateside readers had encountered little literature capable of re-creating life inside China's Red Army. But in the past three years, Ha Jin, who emigrated to the United States in 1985, has quickly brought forth three books about life in China during the Maoist regime: two story collections, Under the Red Flag and Ocean of Words, and a novella, In the Pond. In these titles, Jin brings to life characters--soldiers, commune workers, and low-level officials--who struggle with Mao's rigid, capricious, and ultimately inhuman ideology. Jin has no nostalgia for communism's early days. Ladling out irony in Gogolian proportions, his fiction re-creates a world where bribes and back-door deals buy extra food coupons or sometimes a higher number in the housing lottery.

Jin's first novel, Waiting, employs a more melancholic, lyric tone than his previous work, depicting the thwarted life of an army doctor named Lin Kong. Like Konstantin Levin of Anna Karenina, Lin is caught between two worlds. The first of these is the rural village where his wife and daughter live in a thatched-roof hut and tend a small plot of land. Lin's marriage, arranged to appease his parents, is woefully ill-conceived. His wife, Shuyu, is an illiterate peasant with no ambitions. Lin, however, is what party leaders would call a petty intellectual. He reads Russian novels on the sly and practices calligraphy. As the novel begins, Shuyu and Lin have been separated for almost 17 years. Every year Lin travels from the city where he works to the village to extract a divorce out of Shuyu. Every year, after promising him she will agree to the parting, though, Shuyu changes her mind. Owing to a rule that states a Chinese officer must wait 18 years before he can divorce his wife without her consent, Lin's only recourse is to keep making his yearly visits.

It is not Lin alone, however, provoking this divorce. "His life had been simple and peaceful, until one day Manna changed it," Jin writes. Manna is the energetic, intelligent young nurse who in the course of a year becomes the center of Lin's life in the city. At first he is skeptical of his feelings for her. He is also worried about the harm any rumors could bring them. For a Red Army officer in the 1960s, being seen in public with an unmarried woman is taboo and professionally perilous; the woman might be labeled a slut for the rest of her life. Manna, who is approaching the age where an unmarried woman becomes "used army supplies," is less cautious. "Life is such a precious thing," she says, "[t]oday we're alive, tomorrow we may be gone."

Because Lin will not have Manna waiting around for him, he attempts to match her up with relatives and commissars. Neither proves successful. Instead the years roll by, and soon Manna finds herself with no choice but "to wait for Lin wholeheartedly, as though the two of them had been predestined to be inseparable." Alternating between lush, melodic descriptions of the local flora and the clipped cadence of military names and lingo, Jin's prose does an amazing job of evoking the texture and feel of this period of waiting, of the thwarting of things beautiful by rules and regulations.

The price of Lin's decision to wait is steep. While there are physical considerations (about Manna's ability to have children), what Waiting reveals is the awful spiritual cost of denying one's heart its true wish. Early on, Manna declares her intentions ("In the matter of love, I thought to follow my heart. Even birds may not become mates if you put them together in a cage"), yet Lin continuously keeps her at bay. Thus, for almost 20 years Lin is neither father and husband to his real family, nor lover to his mistress. And in the tradition of the Russian novels Lin reads, and Jin has clearly read as well, there is another layer to this notion of waiting. Like Ivan Goncharov's sleeping Oblomov, or Gogol's (yet to be awakened) hero in Dead Souls, Jin's novel reveals the effects of waiting for an unjust, failing caste system to yield. If literature must wait for history, love, apparently, cannot always do the same.

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