Friday, August 28, 2009

The Long Wait

"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu," so begins the Prologue to Ha Jin's novel Waiting (1999). The beginning must rank as one of the most striking openings in English-language fiction. Persuaded by his parents, Lin married Shuyu so that she could look after them in the country. But the army doctor working in the city falls in love with Manna Wu, a nurse, who returns his feelings, and so condemns herself to wait for the divorce. The novel traces waiting's terrible and quotidian effects on love.

Manna Wu reminds me of another lover who waits for years, Florentina Ariza in Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. However Ariza maintains his idealistic passion for Fermina Daza, mostly because, I think, he does not have much contact with the beloved through the years. Distance enables one to keep up one's illusions. There can be no distance in the army hospital. No distance between the lovers who work together. No distance between the lovers and their gossip-mongering colleagues. At different times, the couple is viewed as adulterers (though they do not have sex), fiances, comrades, and spouses. Such pressures, both external and internal, Ha Jin depicts in a way described by The New Yorker as "bracingly tough-minded," but he is also delicately attentive to the flux of human emotions.

Love decays into compassion when Lin pities Manna for "waiting, waiting, only for a beginning or an ending between them." Jilted by a Commissar who might have provided an escape from the wait, Manna refused to look for another man, and so bound herself, with marital finality, to Lin. "Now, for better or worse, she preferred to wait for him. Probably it was already too late not to wait. So with rekindled passion and a heavier heart she returned to Lin." The mixture of "rekindled passion and a heavier heart" is a fine insight. Since they were not married, they were not allowed to walk together outside the hospital grounds. The hospital is thus also their cage, although "after so many years of restriction, they had grown accustomed to it."

In the background of the wait, China changes: the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, the early years of Deng Xiaopeng. The national changes provide point and counterpoint to the personal story. And so without explicit comment, Ha Jin also alludes to the disillusionment and compromise in one's love for one's country. At the end of the novel, when another woman decides to wait for Lin Kong, a reader may feel what Lin feels: a clutching in the chest.

Ha Jin is the pen name of Jin Xuefei, born in Liaoning, China, in 1956. After the Tiananmen massacre, he decided to stay on in the USA, and to write in English. Waiting won the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award.

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