Winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction, Waiting by Ha Jin is an interesting book among the multitudes which are set in China of the times of Mao Zedong. The narrative itself is not dominated by politics, but there could not have been a story like that if it weren’t for the political circumstances of the time. And yet the story could not have taken the same shape as it did if it weren’t for the quirks of the characters involved. This interplay of larger sociopolitical background – where past and present, remote villages and action-packed cities interact to create curious circumstances – with the everyday idiosyncrasies of individual characters creates a story that makes you “experience another way of being” (to borrow the phrase from Sheldon Pollock). It is for this reason that despite some of the shortcomings in the writing (dialogues can feel stilted and awkward; reader’s intelligence should have been trusted to figure out what really happened to the male protagonist in the story, instead of author spelling it out – that he was always in love with what he didn’t have), I think this book is worth a read.
I must warn that some of the reviews I have read lament that the characters are not realistic. I, however, don’t think so. It’s probably the unrealistic dialogues that weigh the characters down.
While the pressures exerted by societal norms on an individual will not be unfamiliar to an Indian reader, the state, the workplace and politics making inroads into an average person’s most private feelings and decisions can still be unnerving.
Another striking feature of the novel is the character of the male protagonist Lin Kong. I don’t like him; I don’t even sympathize with him, because I demand more decisiveness from people; but I see him. I see that just like it is difficult for a woman to be a superwoman, to be everything to everyone, being strong as well as nice is a difficult demand on men. With one woman (his wife) he is strong and decisive, but not nice; with the other woman (his “lover”) he is nice, but not strong and decisive. When a woman can’t just be happy with whatever is doled out to her, when she has a mind and expectation of her own, she finds him wanting; but doesn’t feel repulsed enough to give up on him either. Because you can’t really blame him for not being everything. There is something achingly realistic there.
There is a lot more to analyze and feel in the book. But I don’t intend to spoil it for you! Go, read it.
Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.
Ha Jin’s novel Waiting was the winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction. This quietly poignant novel of love and repression in Communist China begins in 1966 when Lin Kong, an army doctor, falls in love with the young nurse Manna Wu during a forced military march. They would like to marry, but Lin has a wife at home, in a rural village far from his army posting. His wife, Shuyu, is an illiterate peasant with bound feet, whom he was married to by arrangement so that his parents would have a daughter-in-law to care for them in old age. Each year, Lin travels back to Goose Village to divorce Shuyu in the county court; each year he is defeated, either by the judge or by the intervention of his wife’s brother. Because adultery is forbidden by the Communist Party, the years pass slowly and Lin and Manna wait chastely for their fate to change. By the time 18 years have passed–the interim after which a man can divorce his wife even without her consent–what had begun as a sweet and passionate romance has turned into something far more complicated and more real.Written with grace, wry humor, and an uncompromising realism, Waiting gives readers a story that puts their cherished ideals of individualism and self-fulfillment in a wholly different perspective.