What struck me about Waiting by Ha Jin, was not necessarily what this novel said about love, but instead the way it used a love story to portray life in China under communist rule. At the heart of this novel is, as the title suggests, is waiting – but it is not waiting for love, instead it is waiting for the public acceptance of that love. The need for an outside source to defend and give validity to a relationship ultimately is that relationships destruction.
Lin Kong is a doctor in the army, stationed in Muji City while his wife remains in the remote Goose Village to raise their daughter and care for her husband’s ailing parents. While in Muji City, he falls in love for the first time with a nurse named Manna Wu. For the next 18 years, Lin is torn between the two women. He has never felt love for Shuyu, and never had the chance to let a love grow between them. What he feels for Manna is completely foreign to him, and over the years, as he waits for his wife to grant him a divorce, his feelings for Manna become something that he cannot explain or define.
Every aspect of Shuyu, Lin and Manna’s lives are controlled by the government and it marks every decision and move they make. Manna and Lin cannot be together because the army forbids it. Lin cannot divorce Shuyu because the government will not let him. When one character gets raped, she cannot tell anyone because the government would not believe her. It’s a comedy of errors that is as heartbreaking and frustrating.
She got up from the bed, went over to the wardrobe, and took out the box. Removing the padlock, she opened the lid, whose underside was pasted over with soda labels. A roll of cream-colored sponge puffed out, atop the other contents. She took the roll out and unfolded it on the bed, displaying about two dozen Chairman Mao buttons, all fastened to the sponge. Most of them were made of aluminum and a few of porcelain. Their convex surfaces glimmered. On one button, the Chairman in an army uniform was waving his cap, apparently to the people on parade in Tiananmen Square. On another he was smoking a cigar, his other hand holding a straw hat, while talking with some peasants in his hometown in Hunan Province.
“Wow, I never thought you loved Chairman Mao so much,” Lin said with a smile. “Where did you get so many of these?”
“I collected them.”
“Out of your love for Chairman Mao?”
“I don’t know. They look gorgeous, don’t they?”
He was puzzled by her admiration. He realized that someday these trinkets might become valuable indeed, as reminders of the mad times and the wasted, lost lives of the revolution. They would become relics of history. But for her, they didn’t seem to possess any historical value at all. Then it dawned on him that she must have kept these buttons as a kind of treasure. She must have collected them as the only beautiful things she could own, like jewelry. (251)
This is not the first time that an author has used that concept of waiting to explain or define a corrupt government. One that always comes to mind for me is a movie: La Muralla Verde (The Green Wall) is a Peruvian film that uses the same mix of waiting, inevitability and senselessness; it is a very effective combination that, unfortunately, paints an accurate portrait. Waiting has received mixed reviews as a love story, but as tragedy it succeeds. Lin is a tragic character above all else, unable to rise above his own indecisiveness to have a fulfilled life. Instead it is a life filled with waiting, always waiting for the happiness and love that never come.
So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR