A vigil at the bedside of a beloved teacher and mentor challenges, then changes the course of, a young graduate student’s life: the deeply felt “new” novel by Chinese-born American author Ha Jin (Waiting , 1999, etc.).
A concluding acknowledgement refers to a draft of this novel existing in 1988, and it certainly feels like a young man’s work. It narrator and protagonist, 26-year-old Jian Wan (“a rising scholar in poetic studies”) is preparing, in 1989, for his Ph.D. exams when his department “assigns” him to help care for eminent Professor Yang (also the father of Jian’s fiancée, Meimei), who has suffered a debilitating stroke. Jian watches, horrified, as the dignified academic thrashes in delirium in his hospital bed (“Sometimes he blabbers like an imbecile and sometimes he speaks like a sage”), making “crazed” references to his past sufferings when denounced as a counterrevolutionary intellectual, a possible adulterous liaison with a younger woman, and his regrets for having chosen a scholar’s life. Professor Yang’s bitterness and despair gradually induce Jian to forsake his own studies, in favor of a “useful” life of activism (an ambition sharpened during a brief trip to the country, a development that seems to belong to another novel altogether). Jian’s decision to forego his final exams enrages the industrious Meimei, and impels him to disprove her accusations of cowardice by joining a group of students planning to protest government injustices—in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where the story climaxes. Having become himself one of “the crazed,” Jian now sees where his future lies, and the tale abruptly ends. At its best, this has some of the pacing and texture of a skillfully constructed mystery. And Ha Jin contrives several subtle foreshadowings indicating that Jian will not succeed in living a life “outside politics.” But the payoff is a letdown: it feels more like a general statement about China’s recent history than the result of its characters’ fateful interactions.
Not one of Ha Jin’s better efforts. Still, readers who’ve admired his later fiction won’t want to miss it.