“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” That’s how one of my favorite novels begins. Waiting is a story about a man in love, whose good intentions are foiled by government bureaucracy.
Lin Kong spends eighteen years applying again and again to divorce the wife who lives thousands of miles away, a woman to whom he is bound by an arranged, loveless marriage. He wants to marry a woman he loves. But even though his wife and he haven’t had relations in years and she consents to the divorce—getting divorced in the new China isn’t so simple.
Improbably, author Ha Jin makes a story about inaction compelling. Manna is a woman waiting for the man she loves to divorce his wife. Shuyu is waiting for the day Lin Kong succeeds in divorcing her. Lin Kong is waiting for the divorce to go through and in portraying their inability to act, Ha Jin captures the dilemma of ordinary people who let the best opportunities of their lives go by.
The novel is based on a true story: his wife’s parents worked with a man who’d remarried after seeking a divorce for almost two decades. It became de facto by law, after eighteen years.
Waiting is also a window that sheds light on the shifting mores, beliefs, and societal rules that gripped China under communism from the 1960s to the 1980s. Countless precise details describing that world could only have been written by someone who was there, someone personally acquainted with papered ceilings, 25-watt bulbs, Glory cigarettes, mat-covered brick beds, and streets ringing with the anthem “The East is Red” blared from loudspeakers after the news.
Ha Jin was there. His legal name is Xuefei and he was born in Manchuria in 1953. He joined the Red Guards at age fourteen to get out of a town where there was nothing to do. (Schools were closed; books were burned.) After the Cultural Revolution ended, he went to university in Shandong where an American Fulbright scholar was teaching. She suggested he study in the United States and he flew to Boston to study American Literature at Brandeis University. It was 1985. He didn’t know that he’d never return to his homeland.
It wasn’t until the days following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 that he knew he’d never go home again. “I realized it was impossible for me to return because I would have had to serve the state,” he said in a 2009 interview in the Paris Review.
Ha Jin tells a tale in a syntax so stripped down it sometimes seems like a fable. And like all fables, it is layered with metaphor and meaning. His descriptions shine with poetic detail. The wife whom Lin Kong tries to divorce has a bountiful garden where “eggplants curved like ox horns.” A field nearby is “so vast that a red flag was planted in the middle of it as a marker, so that [laborers with hoes] could take a break when they reached the flag.”
No surprise that the novelist was a poet first. He studied poetry in a class taught by Frank Bidart, and a poem he wrote there appeared in the Paris Review in 1986, his first work published in English. But Waiting isn’t simply poetics, it’s superb narrative, as recognized by judges who gave it a National Book Award for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Using the deceptively simple language of allegory, Waiting reminds us of a plain truth: most of life occurs not in dramatic moments, but in its interstices.
Helen Klein Ross is the author of the novel What Was Mine.