Monday, 18 July 2011

Waiting (for the Great Leap Forwards?)

Waiting - Ha Jin
(Winner: National Book Award, 1999)
This is a story of army doctor Lin Kong who, having married the woman his parents chose, Shuyu, leaves her to care for his parents while he works in the city. Even when his parents die he feels too embarrassed to bring her to the city because she is uneducated, older and her feet are bound.
In the hospital he works at he falls for Manna Wu, a younger nurse. He cannot get a divorce and so they must wait, and wait, for eighteen years.
There is a startling blankness at the heart of this book. The tone is similar to a folk tale where the most outrageous events are treated as if they were totally normal. And so they were, as far as I can tell.
The insight into China at the height of the cultural revolution is one reason to read this book. It is a vision of a bureaucracy of Kafkaesque proportions.

The control goes to the very heart of the lives of the characters. Their contact with each other is strictly controlled. Indeed it is so strictly controlled, and for so long, that the characters internalise the rules. "Because Lin was a married man and Manna couldn't become his fiancee, they were not allowed to walk together outside the hospital grounds. By now, after so many years of restriction, they had grown used to it."
Even the language used is touched by the state. Some words are no longer needed. After Manna Wu, as a child, is called an 'angel' she wants to know what the word means.  "Later I tried to find out what an angel was. I checked the word in some dictionaries, but none of them carried it. I dared not ask anybody. You are the only person that I've ever asked." Manna is an orphan and so has grown up without even the shelter from the state that a family can offer. In a country where your loyalty or otherwise to the great leader can affect your life in profound ways the importance of having someone you trust to talk to cannot be overstated.
Ironically, considering how even the words associated with religion are being erased, much of the control exercised seems very similar to that the Catholic Church tried to exert here in Ireland (and elsewhere). ""Promise me that you and Manna Wu will have no abnormal relationship unless you have divorced your wife and married her." By "abnormal" he meant "sexual."" And, once again echoing the church, it often appears that the rules of behaviour become less strict the higher you progress up the hierarchy.
Lin Kong isn't the usual protagonist, he doesn't rail against the inequity of the system, he looks for the most comfortable spot that he can find within it. "If only he had never known Manna; if only he could get back into his old rut again; if only he could return to an undisturbed, contented life."
His thoughts are largely for himself and he does try to find a way out of his 'relationship' with Manna. He also tries to divorce his wife on his annual trips to see her and his daughter. This ambition is often thwarted by the interventions of his brother in law Bensheng. On one of these trips Shuyu asks to come into his bed at night (something she has not done since the birth of their daughter). "Her words  made him realize that his wife must have been lonely when he was away. He hadn't thought she had her own ideas and feelings."
He ends up spending time in a hospital ward with a man who is his opposite, a man who is active and brash rather than passive and retiring.  He gives Lin his advice. "You've been shilly-shallying and made yourself miserable. I've handled hundreds of men for many years. I know your type. You're always afraid that people will call you a bad man. You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat. Your problem originates in your own character, and you must first change yourself.   Who said 'Character is fate?'"
It wasn't Beethoven, but he did say "Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!" (Must it be? It must be! It must be!)  Lin seems to believe this and as with his waiting, his actions too seem exercises in passivity."He felt as if there was some force beyond his control, of which he merely served as a vehicle, that would realise the divorce and start him on a new life. Perhaps this force was what people called fate."
This book shows how doing nothing is often the most drastic action of all and how time changes everything. It also gives an insight into Chinese life, the split between the peasant class and the workers, the ongoing evolution of ideology and the perseverance of tradition. It is at times brutal, often funny and very moving.

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