Ha Jin: Waiting

Waiting is a love story set in communist China. Doctor Lin Kong is in love with a nurse, Manna Wu, but he is trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage to Shuyu. Year after year he goes back to the village with the intent to divorce Shuyu, and year after year he fails. After 18 years he is finally allowed to divorce Shuyu and he marries Manna only to find that he was happier, waiting.

Waiting is a novel of characters, not plot. Although the novel takes place over a twenty-year period, there is nothing remotely “epic” or “sweeping” about it. It is tightly focused on the daily minutia and inner lives of Lin and Manna (and to a lesser extent Shuyu). These characters are finely drawn and all-too human. Lin can be annoying at times — he is passive, lacking in emotional intensity, doesn’t love Manna “enough,” and is generally disengaged from those around him. At the same time, he has a naiveté and gentle humor that makes him quite likeable. Manna is an interesting character too. In contrast to Lin, she experiences some extreme emotional highs and lows during the course of the story. Furthermore, it is she who initiates their illicit relationship, which takes a lot of courage — were the adultery made public they would both lose their careers. Shuyu is the least well-developed and hardest to understand. For much of the novel all we really know about her is that she is illiterate and had bound feet, a source of embarrassment for Lin. She is a long-suffering martyr type who, to tell the truth, kinda makes you cringe.

Sounds pretty dismal, doesn’t it? Actually it was anything but. I was completely engaged with these characters and very eager to find out how the 18 years of waiting would get resolved. There were some wonderfully deadpan comic moments, such as when Lin and Manna have to write a review of Leaves of Grass, of all things. (“To him, this was a bizarre, wild book of poetry that had so many bold lines about sexuality that it could be interpreted either as obscenity or as praise of human vitality. Moreover, the celebration of the poet’s self seemed to verge on a kind of megalomania that ought to be condemned. But on the whole this must be a good, healthy book; otherwise the commissar wouldn’t have let Manna read it.”) There were also sad moments and joyful moments and deeply moving moments. In other words, it was really good!

One thing I regret is that I didn’t think of looking up Mao’s Cultural Revolution until I was about halfway through the book. Although the story is completely focused on the individual characters, with very little mention of actual historical events, the sociopolitical climate of the time is integral to the story. It is (I assume) a big part of the reason why Lin was so ashamed of his old-fashioned wife. Not to mention a big part of why Lin and Manna have to be so circumspect, and why it is so difficult for Lin to obtain the divorce in the first place. Having a little background info definitely added a new dimension to the story.

Waiting won both the PEN/Faulkner and National Book awards. I can see why, and I’m eager to read more by this author.

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