Ha Jin’s Waiting, a love story set in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, won last year’s US National Book Award for Fiction, and has just received the less munificent, but classier, PEN/Faulkner Award. Dubbed, then, on both shoulders – once by the book-buying public, once by the literati. This is surprising, given that in places the novel is strikingly badly written. Why has it done so well?
One reason is that the East, and China in particular, sells books in the West and always has done. Marco Polo knew this, as did John Mandeville, that great early impresario of the exotic. It has appealed at a general level as a substantial, unknown space into which, with the right promptings, the individual imagination could rush, expand, unfurl and luxuriate. More specifically, it has incited in Western audiences the mixture of fear and fascination which sells books. In 1822, Thomas De Quincey (who had never been further east than Blackfriars, though he once met a Malay in the Lake District) spiced his Confessions of an English Opium Eater with Oriental reveries – edgy fantasias on themes of cruelty, deep time and overpopulation. ‘I know not whether others share in my feelings on this point,’ he confessed:
but I have often thought that if I were forced to forego England, and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad. The causes of my horror lie deep, and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia, in general, is the seat of awful images and associations ... The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith &c. is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual.
Thanks no doubt to a thick haze of laudanum (this passage comes from the later, paranoiac stages of the Confessions), De Quincey saw the Sublime in everything, and even to contemplate an ‘Asiatic thing’ was to induce a vertiginous sense of history. More than that, his sensibilities were, he wrote, ‘overpowered’ by the faceless superabundance of the Eastern races.
De Quincey’s lurid dreams revealed more about him and his culture than they did about China. But the Confessions also contributed to the image of China in Western eyes. It’s an image that has fluctuated in its details over the centuries, but certain features have remained constant: the numberlessness and identicalness of the Chinese, for instance; their cruelty, and its constant companion, suffering. When De Quincey shuddered with pleasurable fear at the ‘cruel and elaborate’ nature of Orientals, he was anticipating the prejudice which more than a century later had James Bond remark suavely to the half-Chinese Dr No: ‘With your disregard for human life, Dr No, the East would welcome you.’ (Dr No, to give him his due, replies that ‘East’ and ‘West’ are ‘just points of the compass each as stupid as the other’.)
Three decades of literary silence followed the advent of Communism in 1949. Writers inside the country were forced into alignment, and foreigners were kept out. The moratorium helped to preserve Western illusions about the virtues of the Revolution. Only after Mao’s death did things become sufficiently kaifang (open) for accounts of what had been going on inside the country to reach the West. Suddenly the much-vaunted cruelty of the Chinese was no longer dynastic and elaborate: the stuff of warlords and foot-binding – it was the systematised brutality of an ideology gone wrong.
It soon became apparent that there was a large audience in the West keen to read about the horrors of Maoism. In the early 1980s came A Small Toum Called Hibiscus by Gu Hua, a short, tragic fiction about life, love and death in a Hunanese village during the Cultural Revolution; translated by Gladys Yang, it proved extremely popular in America and was made into a successful film. Along with Nien Cheng’s memoir Life and Death in Shanghai, it prepared the ground for Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (1993), an epic of mass delusion and mass hardship. The critical and commercial success of Wild Swans produced, and is still producing, a skein of lookalikes: Cultural Revolution memoirs, often simply (or in blurb-speak ‘starkly’) written, aimed at the lucrative market for Chinese suffering. China’s troubles have become the country’s most valuable literary export, and the China-effect, as it might be called, has become a publisher’s Midas touch.
There are two curious side issues to all this. One is that home-grown Chinese literature in translation hardly sells at all. The other is that the present Government in Beijing is not entirely displeased to see foreign readers hoovering up memoirs of Cultural Revolution calamities. As Deng Xiaoping announced in 1981, Mao was only 70 percent right, and the Chinese Communist Party now wants the excesses of his reign to be acknowledged as excesses, as a way of casting their own efforts in a better light.
All of which helps to explain why Waiting has done so disproportionately well. Jin lived in China until he was 29; he served in the Army and then worked for a railway company. He moved to the US in 1985 and is now an American citizen. What is unusual about him is that he belongs in the very slim category of writers of fiction who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and who write in English. Amy Tan and her imitators are American-Chinese writers who have grown up in the States and who, when they do write about China, construct an imagined country out of what they have been told by parents and grandparents. Jin draws on first-hand experience of life under the CCP, and is one of the first writers in English to do so. On the other hand, the fact that he writes about an unfamiliar world doesn’t mean that his work should be prized above and beyond its literary value.
The China-effect was clearly at work in the American reactions to Waiting. The quality of Jin’s writing was often left undiscussed by critics whose interest centred on Jin’s political status and the infringements of personal liberty depicted in the book. An excited susurrus arose from reviewers. ‘Dissidence’ was the buzzword. ‘He’s a Chinese dissident,’ they whispered. Jin’s American publishers must have rubbed their hands with glee: people like to feel they are reading something that might be banned elsewhere. (In fact Waiting is freely available here in Beijing.) One critic was delighted by the ‘peek behind the Bamboo Curtain’ that Waiting offered, and Jin was several times likened to Solzhenitsyn – a bland and witless comparison. Tasting the forbidden and glimpsing the exotic are intoxicating pastimes, and Waiting provides the opportunity for a bit of both, but it’s not a politically motivated novel. The madness of the Cultural Revolution years may form a distinctive backcloth, but very firmly in the foreground is that familiar figure, the love triangle.
As the title suggests, not very much happens in Waiting. Lin Kong, a medical officer in the People’s Liberation Army, is forced by his dying mother into an arranged marriage with a woman he has never met. Shuyu, his peasant bride, turns out to be a relic from feudal China who totters about on four-inch bound feet – the Golden Lotuses of concubine legend – and wants to live an uncomplicated rural life. The couple have a daughter together, and then, in 1966, Lin is posted to an Army hospital in Muji City, close to the cold, tense Sino-Soviet border, with only 12 days’ leave a year. Here he becomes involved with a nurse, Manna Wu. Adultery is considered by the Party to be an unacceptable bourgeois indulgence, and Lin and Manna are forbidden by the hospital’s senior cadres from initiating any kind of physical relationship while Lin is still married. The two ‘lovers’ are not allowed even to walk alone together inside the hospital compound.
During his first furlough, Lin returns to the countryside to seek a formal separation from Shuyu, but she backs out of the divorce at the last minute. And so begins the cycle of waiting, frustration and disappointment with which the bulk of the novel is concerned, and which is so splendidly caught by its first line: ‘Each summer, Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.’ There is only one escape hatch. If a husband and wife do not share the same bed for 18 years, Party law will allow divorce without mutual consent. Lin and Manna decide to wait. Manna settles down and bides her time. Lin gradually, terribly, falls out of love with her, or at least realises that he never really loved her in the first place.
Prolonged inaction isn’t an impossible subject for a book but it does throw a greater burden of responsibility onto the language, and this is where Waiting is found wanting. Ha Jin began to teach himself English when he was a teenage soldier in the PLA, and his English prose went through the car-wash of at least one creative writing programme after he moved to the States: at present he teaches poetry and writing at Emory University. That he is an autodidact and not a native speaker doesn’t mean that the shortcomings of his style should be excused as the inevitable errors of a learner – Nabokov wasn’t given a headstart for having written Lolita in English, not that he needed one.
Jin’s habit of veering between the unbearably cutesy and the downright clichéd is one problem. When we first meet her, Manna is a young woman ‘with a pixieish smile’ or, in a clumsy alternative, ‘with a vivacious face smiling radiantly’. As she lies awake at night, thinking of Lin (who is ‘well read in chivalric novels’, and whose ‘pale face was smooth and handsome’), her ‘heart brimmed with emotions’. When Lin and Manna have an argument, ‘an emotional tug of war was waged.’ Descriptions of sex and physical contact are as gauche as an adolescent’s fumbles. At the opera under cover of darkness, Lin holds Manna’s ‘pinkie, twisting it back and forth for a while. Then she caressed his wrist with her nail. The itch was so tickling that he grabbed her hand and their fingers were entwined.’ That ‘pinkie’ would be much better as a little finger; and itches are either itchy or possibly ticklish, but certainly not ‘tickling’.
Another difficulty: in much of the dialogue, US/British slang pokes through what aspires to be an international style, and damages the texture of the writing. At one point, Manna is raped by Geng Yang, a demobbed PLA officer. ‘Listen to me my little virgin,’ he hisses at her, ‘am I not a better man than Lin Kong? Why are you so devoted to that sissy?’ The choice of the word ‘sissy’ puts the brutal violation on the level of a playground taunt. ‘Wow!’ exclaims a nurse, impressed by Lin’s ability to skim stones. ‘Such a wimp!’ Lin mutters, hating himself for being indecisive. ‘My, you have a nice butt,’ Geng Yang says to Manna as he rapes her.
The novel reads at times like a second-rate translation from the Chinese, at others like a Mills and Boon parody (or just straight Mills and Boon), and this is a great shame, because Jin is capable of writing extremely well when he isn’t reaching for the handrail of cliché, or trying too hard. Under the Red Flag (1997) and Ocean of Words (1996) are powerful collections of stories and contain some startling images: a swarm of angry bees is a ‘golden cloud ringing madly’, snow-flakes ‘were swirling like duck down’, flashlight-beams ‘scrape’ a dog’s body; there’s a woman ‘who had kung fu in bed’ and a Chinese soldier who declares that speaking Russian is like ‘having a donkey’s penis in his mouth’. Unfortunately the unexpected images in Waiting are often bizarre, if not ridiculous: ‘Her dark eyes were not bad-looking, like a pair of tadpoles’; ‘the setting sun was like a huge cake sliced in half by the brick wall of the compound.’
Behind the linguistic irritations, however, is a good storyteller telling a good story. Everything works towards the troubling, inconclusive final section of the book, in which Lin and Manna marry after 18 years spent at arm’s length, and neither discovers the absolute happiness they had been waiting for. The impressive descriptions of the Chinese landscape, which lend a strong sense of place to the novel, show what Jin’s prose is capable of.
Winter in Muji was long. Snow wouldn’t disappear until early May. In mid-April when the Songhua River began to break up, people would gather at the bank watching the large blocks of ice cracking and drifting in the blackish-green water. Teenage boys, baskets in hand, would tread and hop on the floating ice, picking up pike, whitefish, carp, baby sturgeon and catfish killed by the ice blocks that had been washed down by spring torrents. Steamboats, still in the docks, blew their horns time and again. When the main channel was finally clear of ice, they crept out, sailing slowly up and down the river and saluting the spectators with long blasts.
This passage has the unadorned, unhurried magnificence of 19th-century realist prose: an ability to change focus – from the opportunistic boys to the steamboats – and to move about effortlessly in time, from winter through the discrete stages of the spring thaw. There are many like it in the book. Again and again Jin restores one’s confidence in him after it has been lost by an errant ‘wow!’ or ‘pinkie’.
If a film is made of the novel – and one surely will be – Beijing may well not let the film crews in. A lavish performance of Puccini’s Turandot has been staged in the Forbidden City, which is also where Bertolucci filmed The Last Emperor, but these were both propaganda exercises for China, set safely back in the Imperial past. If the Chinese Government puts its foot down, a director might have to indulge in the Orientalism of De Quincey and construct a Cultural Revolution village in the Lake District, or a Communist hospital in Blackfriars.