Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ha Jin – ‘Waiting’

More than with most novels, there is a feeling about Waiting that the blurb on the back tells you all you’re going to find out from the book itself:

For more than seventeen years, Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor, has been passionately in love with an educated, modern woman, Manna Wu, but back in his traditional home village lives the humble, loyal wife his family chose for him years ago. Every summer, he returns to ask her for a divorce and every summer his compliant wife agrees but then backs out. This time, after eighteen years’ waiting, Lin promises it will be different.
The story opens with Lin back at the family home in Goose Village. Manna is not hopeful about the outcome:
By 1983, Lin and his wife had already been separated for seventeen years, so with or without Shuyu’s agreement, he would be able to divorce her next year. That was why Manna was certain that he wouldn’t make a great effort this time. She knew the workings of his mind: he would always choose an easy way out. (p. 15)
The action swiftly moves back twenty years, takes in the meeting of Manna and Lin, and everything indicates that we are in for a narrative framed by its culmination: end, start, middle, end, like an unimaginative biography. Dropped back to 1963, you already know that there is going to be an extra-marital affair of some kind, that it will start around about 1966, and that by 1983 it will be stuck, not very much further on, awaiting the divorce. There is no suspense about this either: the divorce is bound to happen after the eighteen years are up, whereupon Lin and Manna will marry. But how happy an ending can this really be, after all the waiting?

There is precious little passion about Lin and Manna’s love, either. Strange to say about such an inconvenient situation, but it is essentially pragmatic: he doesn’t want an old fashioned, village-dwelling, village-minded wife with bound feet. He’s an educated man, and wants someone he can relate to – what could be fairer than that? She falls for him on the rebound, and after he takes care of her badly blistered feet on army exercises. It all makes some kind of sense at the time, and soon they come to accept each other as partners-in-waiting, emotionally dependent but never consummating their relationship. To begin with they believe they will be married soon, though the reader knows otherwise. Their abstinence is largely due to the fact of living and working in a Communist-run army hospital: there are restrictions on where unmarried couples can walk together, and there can be little privacy when the whole staff live in shared rooms. There is the suggestion, though, that Lin is weak to allow these difficulties to stand in their way:

‘To be honest, if I were you, I wouldn’t think of leaving my family. I’d just keep Manna as my woman here. A man always has more needs, you know.’ He grinned meaningfully.

‘You mean I should have her as a mistress?’

‘Good, you’re learning fast.’

Lin sighed and said, ‘I can’t do that to her. It would hurt her badly. Also, it’s illegal.’

Geng Yang smiled thoughtfully. A trace of distain crossed his face, which Lin didn’t notice. (p. 166)

Geng Yang brushes aside the idea that this illegality would be damaging, offering bribery as a solution. This unpleasant character is more brash, more willing to act than Lin Kong, and is ultimately rewarded for it when he makes a fortune in the construction industry.

The inevitability of the storyline means that Waiting can work as a fable. The moral being that selflessness and generosity of spirit are their own reward, and are worth more than any tangible prize. Ambition is shown to be a drab and ugly thing – whether this is Lin and Manna’s modest ambition to marry, or Geng Yang’s more worldly grasping for sex and wealth. More engaging than any of these characters are Shuyu and Hua, Lin’s first wife and their daughter. Once the eighteen years of separation are over, the novel emerges from stasis in Part Three, when Shuyu travels to Lin’s hospital for the divorce. With her arrival the spell is broken, and the reader no longer knows what is going to happen next. Lin gives her money for a haircut and, not knowing what to ask for, Shuya plumps for the same style as the hairdresser (a bob), and accidentally ends up looking quite good. It doesn’t occur to her to be embarrassed by this ignorance, and by the time the cut is finished she has charmed a small audience with her calm simplicity. Likewise the nurses who treat her sciatica, and who are fascinated by her bound feet (she won’t show them, they are for Lin’s eyes only). Incredibly, Shuya never abandons her idea of herself as Lin’s wife, and she is almost always obedient to him, during and after the divorce. Her circumscribed, unchanging outlook ends up seeming far preferable to the vacillations of Lin and Manna – especially Manna, who builds up such resentment during the years of waiting. Their love, strained beyond endurance by a constant focus on the future, seems as though it has never been real at all; hers simply is, and it endures.

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