Since the appearance of his first book of stories in English, Ha Jin has won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and garnered comparisons to Dickens, Balzac, and Isaac Babel. "Like Babel," wrote Francine Prose in The New York Times Book Review, "Ha Jin observes everything . . . yet he tells the reader only--and precisely--as much as is needed to make his deceptively simple fiction resonate on many levels."
In his luminous new novel, the author of Waiting deepens his portrait of contemporary Chinese society while exploring the perennial conflicts between convention and individualism, integrity and pragmatism, loyalty and betrayal. Professor Yang, a respected teacher of literature at a provincial university, has had a stroke, and his student Jian Wan--who is also engaged to Yang's daughter--has been assigned to care for him. What at first seems a simple if burdensome duty becomes treacherous when the professor begins to rave: pleading with invisible tormentors, denouncing his family, his colleagues, and a system in which a scholar is "just a piece of meat on a cutting board."
Are these just manifestations of illness, or is Yang spewing up the truth? And can the dutiful Jian avoid being irretrievably compromised? For in a China convulsed by the Tiananmen uprising, those who hear the truth are as much at risk as those who speak it. At once nuanced and fierce, earthy and humane, The Crazed is further evidence of Ha Jin's prodigious narrative gifts.
On the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Jian Wan, the narrator of Ha Jin's powerful new novel, comes upon two weeping students. "I'm going to write a novel to fix all the fascists on the page," says one of them. The other responds, "yes... we must nail them to the pillory of history." Ha's novel is written in the conviction that writers don't nail anyone to anything: at best, they escape nailing themselves. Jian is a graduate student in literature at provincial Shanning University. In the spring of 1989, his adviser, Professor Yang, suffers a stroke, and Jian listens as the bedridden Yang raves about his past. Yang's bitterness about his life under the yoke of the Communist Party infects Jian, who decides to withdraw from school. His fiancee Professor Yang's daughter, Meimei breaks off their engagement in disgust, but Jian is heartened by a trip into the countryside, after which he decides that he will devote himself to helping the province's impoverished peasants. His plan is to become a provincial official, but the Machiavellian maneuverings of the Party secretary of the literature department a sort of petty Madame Mao cheat him of this dream, sending him off on a hapless trip to Beijing and Tiananmen Square. Despite this final quixotic adventure, Ha's story is permeated by a grief that won't be eased or transmuted by heroic images of resistance. Jian settles for shrewd, small rebellions, to prevent himself from becoming "just a piece of meat on a chopping board." Like Gao Xingjian, Ha continues to refine his understanding of politics as an unmitigated curse.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 05, 2004
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Excerpt from The Crazed by Ha Jin
Everybody was surprised when Professor Yang suffered a stroke in the spring of 1989. He had always been in good health, and his colleagues used to envy his energy and productiveness--he had published more than any of them and had been a mainstay of the Literature Department, directing its M.A. program, editing a biannual journal, and teaching a full load. Now even the undergraduates were talking about his collapse, and some of them would have gone to the hospital if Secretary Peng had not announced that Mr. Yang, under intensive care, was in no condition to see visitors.
His stroke unsettled me, because I was engaged to his daughter, Meimei, and under his guidance I had been studying for the Ph.D. entrance exams for the classical literature program at Beijing University. I hoped to enroll there so that I could join my fiancee in the capital, where we planned to build our nest. Mr. Yang's hospitalization disrupted my work, and for a whole week I hadn't sat down to my books, having to go see him every day. I was anxious--without thorough preparation I couldn't possibly do well in the exams.
Just now, Ying Peng, the Party secretary of our department, had called me to her office. On her desk an electric fan was whirring back and forth to blow out the odor of dichlorvos sprayed in the room to kill fleas. Her gray bangs were fluttering as she described to me my job, which was to attend my teacher in the afternoons from now on. Besides me, my fellow graduate student Banping Fang would look after Mr. Yang too; he was to take care of the mornings.
"Well, Jian Wan," Ying Peng said to me with a tight smile, "you're the only family Professor Yang has here. It's time for you to help him. The hospital can't provide him with nursing care during the day, so we have to send some people there." She lifted her tall teacup and took a gulp. Like a man, she drank black tea and smoked cheap cigarettes.
"Do you think he'll stay in the hospital for long?" I asked her.
"I've no idea."
"How long should I look after him?"
"Till we find somebody to replace you."
By "somebody" she meant a person the department might hire as a nurse's aide. Although annoyed by the way she assigned me the job, I said nothing. To some extent I was glad for the assignment, without which I would in any case go to the hospital every day.
After lunch, when my two roommates, Mantao and Huran, were napping, I went to the bicycle shed located between two long dormitory houses. Unlike the female students, who had recently all moved into the new dorm building inside the university, most of the male students still lived in the one-story houses near the front entrance to the campus. I pulled out my Phoenix bicycle and set off for Central Hospital.
The hospital was in downtown Shanning, and it took me more than twenty minutes to get there. Though it wasn't summer yet, the air was sweltering, filled with the smell of burning fat and stewed radish. On the balconies of the apartment buildings along the street, lines of laundry were flapping languidly--sheets, blouses, pajamas, towels, tank tops, sweat suits. As I passed by a construction site, a loudspeaker mounted on a telephone pole was broadcasting a soccer game; the commentator sounded sleepy despite the intermittent surges of shouts from the fans. All the workers at the site were resting inside the building caged by bamboo scaffolding. The skeletonlike cranes and the drumlike mixers were motionless. Three shovels stood on a huge pile of sand, beyond which a large yellow board displayed the giant words in red paint: AIM HIGH, GO ALL OUT. I felt the back of my shirt dampen with sweat.
Mrs. Yang had gone to Tibet on a veterinary team for a year. Our department had written to her about her husband's stroke, but she wouldn't be able to come home immediately.