(Pantheon)Jian Wan is a student of poetry at a provincial Chinese university. His professor, Mr. Yang, suffers a stroke, and Wan is instructed to go to the hospital each day to care for him. During the months of his sickness, the quiet and scholarly Mr. Yang turns strange, telling the nurse, for instance, "I don't want to eat dinner... I want to eat you. You are my best meat, palatable."
He shouts out Revolutionary songs and slogans, gives lectures on the difference between Western poetic tradition and Chinese poetry, and recites, as lurid dialogue, bits and pieces of his love life.
At the university, he was a retiring professor; with this new glimpse into his personal life, we learn that he was immersed in love affairs with colleagues, battles with his quiet wife, self-doubts about being a scholar. He tells Wan that he would prefer to have been a party functionary rather than a stodgy professor teaching Dante, Wordsworth, Ezra Pound, and obscure medieval Chinese poets. "Creeping like a worm among book piles," he says,
Who would want to be a useless scholar and a lifeless bookworm? I'd prefer not to.
Jian Wan had hoped to follow in Mr. Yang's footsteps, and is even engaged to his daughter, Meimei. But he gets caught up in self-doubts all reinforced by the mad rants of his beloved professor. Then there are the politics of the department, party hacks who want him out of the way so that others can get his job, or, most of all, this being modern China, get his spacious office.
Beset with confusion, Wan goes off to join the battle at Tiananmen Square, gets trapped by the soldiers, and barely escapes with his life. When told that the police back at the university are going to arrest him, he heads off to Hong Kong to swim the shark-
infested waters to freedom. § § §
Ha Jin's first book, Waiting appeared several years ago. Many critics found it a treasure. It garnered the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. It also won extravagant praise from the likes of the Times, the TLS, and USA Today.
By contrast, we found the title Waiting to be a perfect symbol, as the reader is forced to wait, page by page, for something interesting to happen:
Much of the tale takes place shortly after the Great Leap forward, in a medical facility in the wilds of Muji, China. That's Muji as in moo-gee. We might think of it as a post-Maoist (or post-partum) version of General Hospital, but it's not as sprightly. Nor as interesting.
Oh, there are moments. The rape scene is a knock-out --- if you are into rape scenes --- as the author gets into the head of poor Manna Wu. Her day-terrors and nightmares afterwards are real and grisly and fearsome. But outside this and outside of the sugar red-bean paste pies, coptis powder (for diarrhea), and salted jellyfish --- it's dark days not only for the characters, but the reader --- stuck out there on the steppes or plains or badlands of melancholic Muji without a dose of coptis.
We suspect that The Crazed will again drive the establishment reviewers crazed with delight. It probably has nothing to do with the story-line, and certainly not with the writer's style --- but, rather, the fact that it's a rare and strange item: a Chinese writer of the Tiananmen Square generation who can create a novel in English about the New China. Ha Jin thus gets high regard not for what he has accomplished but for what he set out to do.
Critics will thus be, yet again, confusing the art with the artist, and the fiction with the times.
§ § §
The device of a deranged professor going on and on about his secret life to a devoted student for three hundred pages is an idiotic one indeed --- nothing more than an extended deus ex machina. Mr. Yang sane or nuts is nothing much to write home about; he is certainly not worth three-quarters of a novel.
His erstwhile student is even less interesting. He wambles. He throws up when he has to clean the good professor's wet bed. He's a nervous wreck: Should he stay with the program? Should he continue to woo Meimei? Should he shut his ears when Yang gets into the intimacies of his love affairs? Should he take his finals in Japanese? Does he dare to eat a peach? Oh he's a regular nightmare of indecision there in the wasting ward.
The Crazed thus becomes a novelistic junk, dead in the water ... until Jian Wan gets hungry. So he goes off to the Deli Bite to get some, yum, "noodles fried with slivers of lean pork and mung bean sprouts." He somehow ends up in a tussle with the cook with a bloody cleaver and shortly after, he runs off to Tiananmen and gets in that mess.
Like the rape scene in Waiting, the action parts of The Crazed are quite dramatic. Ha Jin's ability to pull these off might bode well for his next book. Instead of rattling on about students and doctors and whatnot struggling through the complexities of China in the 21st century, we would suggest a novel planted in the midst of the Tong wars. Give us what Ha Jin does best --- gore and decapitated prisoners, peasant slaughter and rape, smoking cleavers ... and pork and mung bean sprouts.
§ § §
Finally, there is that old bugaboo --- style. There are times when the author's very words set one's teeth on edge:
I know I know --- English is Ha Jin's second language, and we should be impressed that he does as well as he does. But what I am gruffing about is that it's not against the law for the editors at Pantheon to invest in an editor for Ha Jin, someone who could go through the manuscript, spiff it up and get rid of the howlers that faze us, eliminate the phrases that make our brains turn numb and our gums itch.
- "I was so upset that my brain turned numb, though my scalp went on smarting."
- "Toward dinnertime, when the loudspeaker began to play the song Both Hands Water Happy Flowers, my stomach at last rumbled, reminding me that I had not eaten lunch."
- "'Why don't you throw that thing out the window?' he gruffed."
- "His assertion made my gums itch."
- "The air reeked of sweat, diesel oil, vinegar, soy sauce, fried garlic and scallion, roast chicken, and braised pig's feet. Dismounted cyclists kept cranking the bells on their handlebars, some yelling at one another."
- "Among them Yuman Yan, a man of thirty-nine and a lecturer in philology, was the glibbest one."
- "I came on a piece called A Poet, with the subtitle No, Not in the Presence of Others. This painting fazed me."
- "'How are you, Comrade Jian Wan?' he asked, his walleyes looking me in the face."
- "'I'll do my best,' I said, glancing at the blob of phlegm floating on the rust-red water."
If you are really interested in some fine writing out of the New China School, we recommend --- while waiting about for Ha Jin's next thriller on love and politics among the workers in a North Chinese pickled soybean factory --- that you give Da Chen's Colors of the Mountain a try. It will give you a taste of spirited, funny, alive writing of one who emerged from the same generation as this scalp-
smarting Ha Jin.--- C. Q. Wang