I finished Ha Jin’s novel Waiting last night; I wrote yesterday about reading the novel slowly as evidence that I’m not reading as much as usual these days, but the truth of the matter is that the novel rewards slow reading. It’s the kind of book that you can fly through – it’s 300 very quick pages with simple sentences and vocabulary – but it would be a shame to do so because those simple sentences are packed with subtlety and emotion. The writing is Hemingway-esque, with a main character, Lin Kong, who has strong feelings but isn’t entirely aware of them, so that those feelings hit him strongly on those occasions when he is forced to acknowledge them. Often they hit him through his body; he reacts to emotion viscerally, and I mean that literally – experiencing things through the gut.
The story is simple: it takes place in China during the Cultural Revolution, and explores the shift from village life bound by tradition to an urban world controlled by the Communist party. The prologue tells us that “out of filial duty,” Lin Kong agrees to an arranged marriage, so that his wife, Shuyu, can help take care of his ailing mother. This woman, Lin learns with dismay, turns out to look much older than he; she is uneducated, and has bound feet, a tradition which has largely died out, leaving Shuyu as one of the last to suffer from it. Lin was trained as a doctor, works in the city, and, mostly out of shame for his illiterate, old-fashioned wife, leaves her behind in the village, where she works on a farm, cares for his parents, and raises their one daughter.
In the city, Lin meets Manna Wu, and they quickly begin a relationship, which forms the heart of the story. Because of the tight restrictions on behavior in their hospital compound, Lin and Manna cannot spend much time alone, precluding a sexual relationship; they both agree that the risk of getting caught is too great. The “waiting” of the novel’s title refers to the couple’s wait for Lin’s wife to grant him a divorce. Every summer he travels to his wife’s village hoping she will grant him one, and every summer she first says yes, and then changes her mind and says no.
And so Lin and Manna spend their years looking forward to an uncertain event, the divorce, and growing bitter at the passing time. Their lives are hemmed in, both physically and mentally: someone is there to observe every move they make and any hint of unorthodox thought or behavior can mean banishment to the countryside, a life of poverty and hard labor. We see the enormously high personal costs of the Cultural Revolution; the characters lives are shaped by the need for social and intellectual conformity. Their access to books is limited, as is their access to beauty. One of the most moving scenes occurs when Lin discovers Manna has saved a dozen Chairman Mao buttons. Lin “realized that someday these trinkets might become valuable indeed, as reminders of the mad times and the wasted, lost lives in the revolution. They would become relics of history. But for her, they didn’t seem to possess any historical value at all. Then it dawned on him that she must have kept these buttons as a kind of treasure. She must have collected them as the only beautiful things she could own, like jewelry.”
The characterization is complex: we see why Lin abandons Shuyu – he was, in a sense, forced into the marriage – but we also sympathize with her. She is a relic, treated as a freak with tiny feet, and she has known very little pleasure or freedom in her life. Lin, Shuyu, and Manna are all caught in rapidly-changing times, and they all suffer for it, without having made any real mistakes themselves.
I liked this book for its portrayal of China during the Revolution, but also for its exploration of the costs of waiting – and of getting what you want.