Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ha Jin: The Crazed

A nice companion piece for "Lily" -- this is yet another story that ends in the streets of Beijing in June of 1989 with the demonstration and military crackdown at Tianamen Square.

And yet again, the protagonist, from the intellectual class, "had no grand purpose or dream of democracy and freedom" -- and did not actively participate in the demonstrations or fighting --- so much as he tried to help those who did.

In the final pages, this protagonist, Jian, "was driven by desperation, anger, madness, and stupidity" -- all of which was explained within the first 33 chapters -- as he attended the convalescence of his professor of Chinese literature -- who was also his mentor, role model and prospective father-in-law.

And this is where the narrative - for me -- was most problematical.

His teacher, professor Yang, has had a stroke and is blabbering away in his hospital bed. O.K. -- strokes happen -- and since they can affect the mind -- sometimes the victim can start running off at the mouth.

The problem is that, as it turns out, the reader needs to be accepting all this blabber as true --- as revelatory of the reality of Yang's life -- so that we can join his student, Jian,in piecing together what that life has really been like.

The author never gives any hint of fantasy in anything Yang is saying -- as he shouts at the ceiling of his hospital room --- so I suppose that the reader has to join the narrator in accepting it as true as if Yang were confessing everything to a close friend. But I just don't accept it -- and I don't know why the protagonist would accept it either.

It seems like all of the characters in this book (including the author ?) is as "crazed" as the book's title.

It's a ugly a book about an ugly world -- but not necessarily a real one.

Here's a late scene, as he helps his ailing mentor relieve himself in the chamber pot:

"I felt giddy and like vomiting. Look at this mountain of anomalous flesh! Look at this ugly, impotent body! What a hideous fruit of the futile "clerical life", disfigured by the times and misfortunes. He reminded me of a giant larva, boneless and lethargic... the foul odor was scratching my nostrils, stifling me, and I tried not to breathe. Yet despite my revulsion, my horrified eyes never left him"

Whew ! this book smells as bad as the old running shoes, abandoned by Jian's room mate , the one who suffered from athlete's foot. (our author seems to be attracted to this kind of detail)

The family history here is similar to the other books I've read about this generation
(Jian does have a sibling -- although we never meet him in the story) The parents are intellectuals who are sent to the countryside for re-education -- where they spend the rest of their lives. Like the protagonist in "February Flowers", Jian is an academic over-achiever -- and his parents are very supportive for him to have the kind of life that was denied to them.

But again -- it doesn't work out that way. The more Jian comes to understand the world -- as revealed by the stroke-damaged but truth-telling mind of his teacher -- the more he despises it -- and longs to break free and get out.

The truth is -- his teacher has been profoundly frustrated, angry, unhappy, miserable, self-loathing -- all the time that he's been apparently leading the life of a successful academic, husband, and father. He's cheated on his wife -- she's cheated on him -- the communist party has corrupted his academic department --everything is just as rotten and foul as those old stinking shoes. If only he had worked at an American university instead ! (apparently -- he hasn't read similar novels about the lives of American academics)

Meanwhile -- where is the great literature in all of this ? It doesn't seem to be an important part of their lives -- except as an occupation for instructors. There isn't that thrill of poetry that filled Prospect garden (in "Dream of Red Chamber") The only poetry that seems to have captured their imaginations is Dante's "Divine Comedy" -- because, of course, the setting is Hell.

I guess that's why Jian is all too ready to suddenly alter his life plan right on the brink of taking his final examinations that will make him a professor. He realizes that being an academic is just like being a clerk -- and if he's going to be a clerk, why not be one who can have a positive impact on people's lives ? (so obviously, he's never been that involved with the teaching that he's done)

And yet -- I've been reading several novels with 1960's born Chinese authors/protagonists -- and this is the first one where I really want to read a sequel -- i.e. it looks like the protagonist has broken free and is ready to do something more interesting than stagger around as the walking wounded.

So I'm taking this to be the first chapter of a glorious epic -- and tedious and miserable as it may have been -- I feel it might be redeemed by future volumes.


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