This is the story of Lin Kong, a man living in two worlds, struggling with the conflicting claims of two utterly different women as he moves through the political minefields of society designed to regulate his every move and stifle the promptings of his innermost heart. For more than seventeen years, this devoted and ambitious doctor has been in love with an educated, clever, modern woman, Manna Wu. But back in the traditional world of his home village lives the wife his family chose for him when he was young - a humble and touchingly loyal woman, whom he visits in order to ask, again and again, for a divorce. In a culture in which the ancient ties of tradition and family still hold sway and where adultery discovered by the Party can ruin lives forever, Lin's passionate love is stretched ever more taut by the passing years. Every summer, his compliant wife agrees to a divorce but then backs out. This time, Lin promises, will be different. Tracing these lives through their summer of decision and beyond, Ha Jin vividly conjures the texture of daily life in a place where the demand of human longing must contend with the weight of centuries of custom. Waiting charms and startles us with its depiction of a China that remains hidden to Western eyes even as it moves us with its piercing vision of the universal complications of love.… (more)
Lin, a doctor in the People's Liberation Army lives his life according to what he believes to be his duty. He goes through an arranged marriage to a woman in a village but does not love her. He is even embarrassed by her because she has bound feet. His wife stays in the village to raise their daughter and look after his ailing mother. The army does not allow him a divorce except with his wife's consent or unless he has waited for 18 years. He visits his village once a year, and each time, asks his wife for a divorce and each time leaves denied his freedom.
Lin has a girlfriend, Manna, at the hospital he works in but they suffer an unconsummated relationship because of his marital status and she enters the waiting game as well, stoically, hopefully, and frustratingly for him to be truly free to love her.
The prose is deliberate throughout, and you get the sense of Lin's frustration with and resignation to his situation. When he finally does obtain his divorce, the political landscape in China also goes through fevered changes, and the pace picks up quite forcefully.
I found this a moving story of love and missed opportunities as a result of a man's duty to his family and then the army.
And it makes you pause, because Lin isn't the hero, even if he gets more face time than anyone else. Like all of us men, he's just a loser who gets to be protagonist by virtue of his gender. All the situations and arrangements exist at his instigation or sufferance, and he dithers, unaware or maybe even a little little bit pleased with his unassailable ability to set the agenda for these women's lives, interpret all their needs and fears.
They're the heroes - Manna and Shuyu, and by extension, every woman we inecvitably jerk around, whether by being a dick or a "nice man." Lin Kong is the latter or at least a man of thought rather than decisive action, and as such this book is not entirely dissimilar thematically to a Hamlet that knows the real story is what happens between him and Ophelia.
But also totally different. And the insight into Cultural Revolution-era mores and the way traditional society was translated through the Maoist lens (and to an extent through post-Deng capitalism, although the story peters out about then) is fascinating.
As the novel progresses, as Lin moves from waiting for Manna to waiting to be free of her, the author begins to illuminate the depth of the tragedy in which his characters are trapped. Lin's eventual epiphany about the nature of love and the truth about his feelings for Manna is a little contrived--he essentially has a discussion with a wise voice in his head that leads him to the truth--but it does make his reserved character more easily understood. His passivity results in him waiting endlessly for whatever he does not have. At the same time, he is shocked to find out that others, his former brother-in-law, for one, are jealous of his life. "He thought, How we're each sequestered in our own suffering!" As the characters wait on a personal level, wasting opportunities for happiness or enjoyment along the way, the country waits, too--in a holding pattern of a cultural revolution that feels just as static as the rest of the plot. The novel is written in a very spare prose; the details are precise and unobtrusive, and the pace is at times quite tedious. I did have some trouble understanding the necessity of the rape plot, though it does give insight into the societal restrictions and into Lin's typically baffled character, while giving a sort of turning point perhaps for Manna's decline from a somewhat interesting young woman to the unpleasant and fragile person she seems to become, at least in Lin's eyes. Overall, a book I'm almost certain to change my opinion on with time and thought, and I'm glad I read it.
The basic story is this: in Communist China, a couple needs to live separately for eighteen years before a person can divorce his or her spouse without that spouse's consent. Doctor Lin Kong married young to a woman his parents selected -- an unattractive woman with bound feet (which had passed out of fashion with the previous generation) that he was too embarrassed to bring with him to his hospital in the city, so he kept her in the country. (The fact that his wife, Shuyu, is incredibly simple and has no personality aside from blind devotion isn't really a factor, except it plays on one's pity for her.) She cared for his dying parents and gave him one daughter, Hua. Meanwhile, in the city, Lin develops a friendship with a nurse, Manna, that makes him think that he should divorce Shuyu. The novel charts the years spent waiting for the year that Lin can finally divorce Shuyu and marry Manna, and then follows along for a little while later as they all deal with the repercussions.
I've heard that people disliked this novel because they found the characters unlikeable (particularly Lin, who is incredibly weak-willed), but I didn't have that problem. What I did mind was that on all counts, this is a stunted novel. The characters, the novel's revelation, even the language! To start, most of the more complicated aspects of a situation like this (married man intent on someone else, but who still wants to be a "good man") were never touched upon. Both Lin and Manna's thoughts about their relationship were incredibly simplistic, and I could never care about their worries because I knew they didn't really love each other... they simply committed themselves to each other without trying to really discover and love the other person. When Lin finally has this revelation, the tone of the voice in his head is so different it's as though a higher power said, "Enough! Don't you get it?" and had to explain it to him.
I understand that this novel meant to explain how the political situation reduced people to the point where they are incapable of maturing in any way, unable to make decisions or have deeper emotions that they believed should guide their actions. Not one character is a sound emotional being. The only two people who seem to ever actually be happy at any point in time are the rapist and the blank-slate wife. It's meant to illustrate the time period where individuality was clearly not prized and where the only inner feeling that was encouraged seemed to be one's devotion. But there was just something missing at every single turn that made me feel as though the author failed in their attempts at producing something truly good and meaningful. When finishing the novel, I actually looked up to see if it might be a translation, which might excuse some of my issues with the language, but no, it was written in English. I suppose I knew it all along, though, as the language is purposely simple as to illustrate the emotionally stunted characters, but still not lovely in its simplicity.
I'm thankful that this was a quick read, though (and with a title like Waiting, you can bet that I was worried this would make things feel like time was dragging on), and I'm sure that someone in my book club will have thought this book said something truly meaningful about love and life, so we'll be able to discuss it just long enough so that we can then feel justified in moving on to gossip about our personal lives.
What this book lacks in plot makes up for in characters. Righteous, methodical, good-nature people who find themselves caught in a quandary. Each character makes a sacrifice; years of waiting turns dreams into doubts. Their illusions of love is distorted by the reality and practicality of daily life: earning a living, domestic chores, raising children, as well as the stifling social and political influences surrounding them - all takes its toll on them and strains their marriage. In the end, we see how relationships can evolve and it is very much a learning process.
Fave quote: "The grass gathered the essence of heaven and earth, yin and yang, and the material and the spiritual, and that it unified the body and the soul, the living and the dead, celebrating the infinity and the abundance of life. In brief, it was a very progressive symbol, charged with the proletarian spirit."
My library initially shelved this into its
Lin Kong is trying to find a way to be with the woman he loves. He is an army doctor, living in the city but married to a woman in a distant village who he sees once a year. He never chose his bride, Shuyu - his parents arranged his marriage and he meekly accepted. He even managed to produce a daughter with her - and while she took care of his dying parents one after the other, he built his life in the city. Shuyu is old-fashioned even for the village - she has bound feet (which she is the wrong generation for - her mother's generation was supposed to be the last one to suffer with that but she was not spared, she is uneducated and unsophisticated - the wrong woman for Lin Kong in all possible ways.
And there is Manna Wu, a nurse in the same hospital, Lin Kong's sweetheart who he cannot even hold hands with or go on a walk with outside of the hospital compound because of the rules that everyone lives with. China of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s is not exactly known for allowing a lot of freedom.
So when the novel opens, Lin Kong and Shuyu are in front of a judge, after 17 years of separation, in 1983, asking for a divorce. Until Shuyu changes her mind again and the judge denies the request again. That had been happening over and over for more than a decade and Lin Kong is getting disheartened. But that's not really where the story must start - because after this interlude, we go back to 1963 to see Lin Kong becoming a doctor and falling in love and then living through all the years until we can catch up with them in 1983.
And as much as it is the story of Manna Wu and Lin Kong, it is also the a glimpse into the history of China and the relationships in it in this era - restricted, monitored, always on the verge of becoming a disaster. And the two women represent the old and the new, the traditional and the modern and in places become more symbols than actual human beings. But underneath that they are people, with feelings and regrets and the symbolic person and the real one merge into a single entity. People are people - it does not matter what ideology you believe in, love is always going to be there. But at the same time the novel is also an exploration of what happens to love when it needs to wait and what happens when people try to hang to dreams from decades ago.
In a way the novel has a happy ending but not in the way one would expect. It makes one wonder what is worth fighting for and if dreams are worth getting realized at the end. In that triangle, the weakest link is always Lin Kong - his indecisiveness ends up costing decades of the lives of both women connected to him and at the end he is the one who gets to complain. There is a lot to be said about the female characters here and the place of women in the society - the "we are all the same" of communism was always a nice slogan but never really worked like that.
I ended up liking this novel a lot. It has a melancholy feeling that works in a way I did not expect it to work - underneath the seemingly easy novel sits a meditation on love and choices, on dreams coming true too late and on human nature.
The culture represented in this book is SO DIFFERENT than anything I can wrap my head around. The Chinese politics and customs depicted
About halfway through, I found myself trying to decide whether I really liked or disliked anyone. The only answer I had at the time was that I liked the long-suffering Shuyu. By the end, though, I think I felt differently. Behaviors that irritated me. The characters were simply acting within the constraints of the society in which they lived, and this prevented them from figuring out HOW they wanted to live, and what would bring them real happiness. It made me sad for them.
This book really made me think, and forced me to leave my own comfort zone, which is something I really appreciated.
A Chinese man and woman, army doctor and nurse, both restricted by Mao's rules, which they've internalized, carry on an affair that lasts for years. The doctor is married to a village woman, whom he repeatedly visits to ask for a divorce,
I was fascinated by the descriptions of the beauty and grittiness of the landscape, Lin and Manna's evolving relationship, and the mouth-watering descriptions of food. But the ending was unsatisfying to me. Perhaps that visceral dissatisfaction was what Ha Jin was attempting to evoke in readers' hearts.
The book deftly portrays the interplay of rural Chinese traditions and the Communist Chinese bureaucratic rules - both of which seem designed to prevent happiness and to constrict and bind the characters (sometimes literally). The restrictions force Jin to live in his head and make the reader want to strangle him at times.
Not necessarily a 'fun' book, but a fascinating read nonetheless.
I felt no sympathy for the characters – Lin in particular was so helpless and hopeless and weak. He wasted so much of his