Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I miss China, too.

I started Waiting on the plane ride from China. Strange, considering that Waiting is written by Ha Jin. The story spans years, following a man as he tries to divorce his countryside peasant wife that he was married to in an arranged marriage, so that he can marry the modern nurse he has met while working in the city.

I liked this book. It's quiet, paced slowly, but it bears the unmistakable mark of a native Chinese writer. I believe it was written in English, and yet the way it is written is so Chinese, I wonder if those who do not know Chinese have the same experience as I do. Idioms, phrases, even names of things, endearments, are often translated literally, that for a foreign reader who didn't know the essence of the meaning in Chinese, it might seem awkward. I'm not quite sure why Ha Jin chose to be so literal in his writing, but in a way, I really like it. It gives it an overt feeling of being foreign, set in China. Also, there's something about his style and pacing that reminds me a little of the Russians, which is interesting considering in the book, the novels they read are often Russian, due to the Communist tie.

Interesting too, is that China from the 50's-80's is a backdrop for the story, so while you could pick out the implications of history if you were careful, it is never an overtly political piece. Nevertheless, you get a sense that Lin's own story is strongly affected by the climate that surrounds him.

While reading this book, I wasn't sure where it was going. I have my own misgivings about the nature of the plot for personal reasons, and yet, the omniscience of the narration made it difficult for me to really blame anyone stuck in the situation. It was a no-win situation in many ways, and you could sympathize somewhat with everyone involved. So the ending, while I would call in a way, inevitable, once I got there, still took me a little bit by surprise, only because I couldn't tell what the moral was. What was he to learn?

And I guess that's where the genius of it lies. You get to the end and you realize Lin is in so many ways, a coward. Even though he's so respected and well-learned, and in essence, good, he's passive and lets things happen to him, instead of making things happen. He is indecisive. And in the end, nothing much changes - he's still that indecisive person letting things happen to him. The difference is: he's finally aware of it.

And inkling of thought: I wonder if the book represents China in a way. Like Lin is China, trying to divorce himself from old feudal ways (represented by his arranged marriage) and constantly trying to become new and modern (like Manna). And then the end, he is unsure of if he's made the right choice, if that's what he wanted. I even wonder if the rape is representative of something -- the way the rapist then in turn still becomes rich and prosperous. Like if maybe he represents one of the capitalist countries who benefited from China's downfall (*ahem* Opium Wars...). Just a thought... The wavering between the old and modern just seemed so symbolic of so much of China's own growing pains at the time.

Random: I really liked this description- "There were also two lines of balloons wavering almost imperceptibly; one of them was popped, hanging up there like a blue baby sock." (pg. 238). The image is so fresh and describes a popped balloon so perfectly. It really caught my eye. I think Ha Jin is really good at his details -- setting is always painted so carefully, down to the smallest things, making me feel like I completely understand my surroundings. And yet he's never overly verbose. It's done succinctly, quickly, but effectively. It's really well done.

I liked this book, and I think the more I think through it, the more I like it. The ending does it for me, because it makes me change the way I think about the rest of the novel. I would say that prior to the ending, I liked the book, but wasn't particularly impressed either way, but having read the ending, and having turned around the themes in my head a little bit, I'm definitely more appreciative.

3 drops:

moonrat said...

i really liked Waiting, and i read it in 2000, before i spoke a word of chinese. so it DOES cross over into english, somehow. i think that's part of his genius.

i really admire Ha Jin because he manages to be an award-winning (and -deserving) writer in a language that is not his native language. that takes some complex brain mastery.

cyn said...

hmm. will have to look into this book. i tried doing a "save my life" (jiu ming!) almost literal translation for "help" in my novel.
one crit group didn't comment on it, the other one didn't like it.

so i changed it to help!

i also use old brother a lot for "lao ge".

angelle said...

i think the reason it worked so effectively for jin was that he used the literal translations pretty consistently, but it wasn't too awkward or misplaced, just gave you a very authentic feel for the world we were inhabiting.

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