I loved this book, but it took a while for me to find the first passage that struck me as great. I read along passively: it’s so well-written but the prose doesn’t overwhelm you with its power or skill at first. Then, suddenly, the crackle of this amazing description of the springtime hit me:
Then spring descended all of a sudden. Aspen catkins flew in the air, so thick that when walking on the streets you could breathe them in and you would flick your hand to keep them away from your face. The scent of lilac blooms was pungent and intoxicating. Yet old people still wrapped themselves in fur or cotton-padded clothes. The dark earth, vast and loamy, marked by tufts of yellow grass here and there, began emitting a warm vapor that flickered like purple smoke in the sunshine. All at once apricot and peach trees broke into blossoms, which grew puffy as bees kept touching them. Within two weeks summer started. (27)What moved me? I like the phrase “Aspen catkins” with its internal rhyme; I like the excess of it--the catkins scent is not only so thick you breathe it, they are so abundant that you flick them away; I love the immediate image of Chinese old people in conjured by “cotton-padded clothes”; best of all, the second moment of excess, when apricot and peach trees break into blossom and those blossoms themselves then grow puffy from the bees.
From this moment on, the experience of reading the novel changed. That passage made me know for myself what I had heard (and believed) from others: that Ha Jin is a great writer.
Then, I was surprised at how affecting the plot is. I can’t quite explaine it--it’s partly that it made me remember the years and years of my life that I spent working and lonely, longing for a partner. Those years were far from monkish years, not solitary at all, but I did spend a lot of time waiting.
But there is something more. The hospital setting, full of doctors and nurses, most of them far from their home villages, educated beyond their parents and in a different field from them, is familiar and modern. But rather than focusing on alienation or bacchanal, Ha Jin emphasizes the sense of lives in suspense. (The austerity of the Chinese Communist setting only aids this.) When the protagonist goes back to his home village annual (to request a divorce from his wife), he is simultaneously relieved to be among familiar, easygoing faces and appalled at the parochialism of the villagers--symbolized most potently by the bound feet of his wife.
When you have lives in two places, in two worlds, and before you have definitively broken with one in favor of the other, it’s easy to live--as the main character does--in a fantasy in which the life that is “real” oscillates between places according to mood--in harmony, one can feel that the real life is here, wth only a dull awareness of another life ongoing there; out of sync, the real life seems to be there, this life here, only a figment.
The book is wonderful and I wouldn’t want it to be a sentence shorter. The ending really took me by surprise--watching his decisions grow dumber and thicker and then watching the lovely and disastrous consequences of his passive, suspended life, was a really gorgeous and moving reading experience.
But now, weeks later, I can see the book as a fable, too. I can imagine boiling it down to five hundred words and a moral and finding that equally worthy of meditation.
That duality--its beautiful length and its powerful précis--may be a sign of a certain kind of greatness.