The cultural and economic consequences of capitalism vs. communism are dramatized in unforgettably human terms in this brilliant third collection of 12 stories (Under the Red Flag, 1997, etc.) by the Chinese-American author (Waiting, a 1999 National Book Award winner).
Ha Jin is a master of cunningly shaped anecdotal tales, like “A Bad Joke,” in which a careless remark misinterpreted as criticism of Chairman Deng Xiaoping earns two naïve peasants prison terms, and the stunning “Saboteur,” about a dedicated Marxist whose arrest on a trumped-up charge leads him to take a hideous revenge. His mastery of mixed tones and narrative surprises is also showcased in the unusual title story, about a young husband’s apprehension for the supposedly Western-inspired “crime” of homosexuality (as observed by his initially sympathetic, sexually befuddled, eventually disapproving father-in-law), and the double-edged “A Tiger-Fighter is Hard to Find,” which deftly satirizes both the warrior’s mentality and the issue of property (in this case, a tranquilized, though far from tranquil, 300-pound Siberian tiger). Of several stories dominated by pointed East-West contrasts, the most plaintive are “The Woman from New York,” who fails to return from work and study abroad to a culture that rejects her as corrupted by “foreign influence,” and “In the Kindergarten,” a delicate portrayal of a young girl’s introduction to communal living in the form of day school. More ambitious exposures of lives altered by politics appear in “An Official Reply,” about a charismatic teacher whose rise in the Party offends his former admiring student, and “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,” about a crisis created by an American fast-food franchise that prospers in China. Even better is the Chekhovian “Alive,” which deposits the amnesiac survivor of an earthquake in a satisfying “new life”—a life that he’ll never reconcile with his former one.
Marvelous fiction. Ha Jin’s work is getting better and better.