A first novel by the Chinese dissident and poet whose previous stories (Under the Red Flag, 1997, etc.) have already entitled to him fair comparisons with Solzhenitsyn. Anyone in the West who picks up Ha Jin for the first time must experience a close approximation of what readers of Arthur Koestler or Isaac Babel felt 60 years ago, insofar as Ha Jin is the first Chinese Communist to make fictional use of daily life under the Party. Here, he describes the travails of Shao Bin, an amateur painter and calligrapher who works as a department-store fitter. Annoyed that his housing application has been passed over in favor of Party relatives and cronies, Shao Bin begins drawing and circulating satirical cartoons accusing the local Party heads of corruption. One of these eventually gets published in a Beijing newspaper, and Shao Bin finds himself at the center of a national debate on Party leadership and local politics. The ease with which Ha Jin’s characters move between the old and new worlds that they simultaneously inhabit (praying to Buddha, for example, in order to receive Party preferment) lends a satiric edge to the daily ironies of Communist life in an essentially feudal society and gives Ha Jin’s account a fabulous, almost allegorical tone much like that of Orwell’s Animal Farm. If his prose occasionally gives off a leaden ring (“They had taken him for a mere bookworm, but all of a sudden he had emerged as a man of both strategy and action”) reminiscent of a Maoist Party slogan, it can only add to the atmosphere. Fascinating, refreshing, and uncommonly subtle: Ha Jin has made China available to a new world and a world of new readers.