Exile’s Letter

5 minute read

Ha Jin’s novel The Crazed ends amid the aftermath of the bloody Tiananmen massacre of June 1989. Jian Wan, the longhaired grad student and narrator, has been in Beijing and has seen the monstrous crackdown firsthand. Back in his staid university town, he is tipped off that the police are coming to arrest him as a counterrevolutionary. He flees, hawking his Phoenix bike to a fruit vendor for some apricots and enough change to buy a train ticket to Nanjing. From there, Jian plans to board an express train heading south to Guangzhou, then sneak into Hong Kong and eventually make it to another country. In the novel’s final scene, Jian incinerates his student identity card and crops his hair. We never do know if he gets out of China.

Though not a sequel to The Crazed, 51-year-old Ha Jin’s latest novel A Free Life begins, chronologically, where that book left off — a sort of literary diptych. It’s July 1989, a month after Tiananmen, with gloom and anxiety still charging the atmosphere. Chinese student and would-be poet Nan Wu and his wife Pingping are living near Boston while Nan finishes his Ph.D. at Brandeis, and they have no desire to return to a paranoid, post-Tiananmen China. Instead, they send for their only child, 6-year-old Taotao, who has been living with his grandparents in Shandong province. As soon as he joins them in Massachusetts, the family decides to remain permanently in the U.S. (This setup is strongly autobiographical — the Liaoning-born Ha Jin was also a Chinese Ph.D. student at Brandeis at the time of Tiananmen, and also decided to stay on.)

Ha Jin’s 2004 novel War Trash — an exhaustively researched work about the Korean War and winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award — was his first to be set outside China. A Free Life is the first to be set in his adopted home, and he deftly conjures an American landscape of rolling, wide-open spaces spangled by brawny, glimmering rivers (“This sight beats the Yangtze,” Pingping gushes, while she gazes at the “mighty and vast” Hudson, just outside New York City). There are also decent depictions of bland, sleepy McSuburbs like Lilburn, Ga. — a typical bedroom community of electricians, engineers, stucco churches and donut shops near Atlanta, where the family eventually moves after buying the Gold Wok, a local Chinese restaurant.

But while their struggle to make it in the U.S. has the makings of a moving immigrant narrative and meditation on the post-1989 Chinese diaspora, its schematic nature prevents it from being fully realized. The Wus go from sleeping on the linoleum bathroom floor in a slummy, cockroach-infested apartment to full ownership of a lakeside home with a backyard in less than five years; they’re forced to deal with the usual petty racism; Taotao’s Mandarin, to the dismay of his parents, quickly degenerates, as does his filial piety; the Wus are barraged by a snooty Chinese emigrant community that brays endlessly about our protagonists’ lack of national pride, harassing them for large donations to Chinese flood victims; and the Dalai Lama makes a cameo, mouthing platitudes (“It’s not difficult to rationalize injustice”).

The one-dimensional character of Pingping is another disappointment. She wants Taotao to have a good future in America (as a doctor — what else?). She also worries that Nan doesn’t really love her and even tells him he can sleep with other women as long as he comes home to her at night.

It is in the telling of Nan’s story, however, that the book really falls flat. Rather predictably, the swift transition from starving student-poet to middle-class business owner leaves him spiritually barren. He spends grueling days behind a fiery wok pondering how to balance his duty as a breadwinner with his duty as a poet. His writer friends are getting noticed, and he’s not. (If you read his verses, appended at the end of the book, you’ll see why. “Don’t blame me if I am such a man/ who goes to ball games as a major fan,” Nan chimes in “Nan, a Fantasizing Husband.”)

The tension between the everyday and the literary life is a shopworn theme of modern literature; writers love to draw on their own professional struggles as they disgorge novels about being or trying to become writers. But in an age when so many cultural products compete for the public attention, to bring forth yet another work of this kind — to spend a book pondering, as Nan does, the question, “Do you have to live a literary life to produce literary work?” — is risky indeed. Ha Jin’s demotic prose is as smooth as Windexed glass, but A Free Life lacks the dark, propulsive verve of his earlier work. And in the end, Nan Wu is little more than another entry in the world’s brimming catalog of literary pretenders.

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