Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Waiting, by Ha Jin

Waiting is a book about—well, waiting. Every year, Lin Kong, a doctor in the Chinese army, returns to his village to end his arranged marriage with the "humble and touchingly loyal" Shuyu. But each time, Lin returns to the city to tell Manna Wu, his unofficial girlfriend and army nurse, that they'll have to postpone their engagement once again. For 18 years they have been waiting to begin their relationship. Following all the codes of conduct (written and unwritten) which rule their lives, they wait for the divorce to come through, and after the divorce they wait to get married so people won’t say they built a happy nest on the ex-wife’s misery. By the time they finally get together, the years of waiting have changed both of them. Lin daydreams about the peaceful life he had before and considers his new life tedious, chaotic and exhausting. Manna has become bitter, depressed, needy and resentful. They both wonder if what they feel for each other is really love, but neither has ever experienced an actual love affair. The end… well I won’t give any more away but will simply say there’s more waiting, and it’s tragic and deeply ironic.

I enjoyed many things about this book: its clear, simple language; its deceptive simplicity (it's got the rhythm of a folk tale or fable but is layered with meaning and feeling); its quiet, deliberate pace; the rich detail, particularly in descriptions of natural settings which shine with poetry.

I have some complaints as well. The dialogue is often stilted and strange (“bye-bye now”) or peppered with odd phrases that distract (“by hook or by crook,” “shilly shallying,” “tut tut”). Also, though the book is written in third person, the author focuses much more attention on Lin than on Manna, gives more insight into his character, emotions and motives. It feels as if the author doesn’t quite understand Manna and therefore limits his attempts to show us her head and heart, glossing over her inner life even in crucial moments, leaving her character sort of flat and underdeveloped.

Despite these points, I don’t hesitate to recommend Waiting. It’s a sad, graceful allegory about how we let outside forces influence us, diminish our chances of happiness; how we’re each isolated in our own suffering, lonely despite close companions. Lin and Manna’s story is complex and ironic—like life—and if the language isn’t always particularly eloquent, its meaning is.

I will also note (because this sort of thing always influences my opinion—I’m such a sucker!) that Ha Jin received the 1999 National Book Award for Waiting.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Marvelous. I had a hard time getting into it, but once I did, it was really interesting, kind of intense, and just marvelous. It's about Okonkwo an African man. Although his father was lazy, and a drunkard, Okonkwo knows he is better and is working his way up in tribal status. He has three wives, two titles, a wealthy farm, and was a great warrior in the intertribal wars. Just at the peak of his greatness, an accident happens and Okonkwo and his family are exiled for seven years. He is forced to start over. Then in comes the white man. Okonkwo's old village is taken over by Christianity. And everything falls apart. The end is just crushing. Seriously. CRUSHING! I didn't even have time to cry because it was just like WAM! But, the story is AMAZING. I don't even want to tell you more, because it would ruin it. Just read it. And besides taking my word for it, Draw and B recommended it. So go, read, STAT!

P.S. Another great thing, I learned a lot about the culture. It is completely different, and of course this was ...however many years ago when white men first went to Africa, but still. It was really great.