"For more than seventeen years, Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor, ahas been passionately in love with an educated, modern woman, Manna Wu, but back in his traditional home village lives the humble, loyal wife his family chose for him years ago. Every summer, he returns to ask her for a divorce and every summer his compliant wife agrees but then backs out. This time, after eighteen years' waiting, Lin promises it will be different." --Back cover
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.
The culture represented in this book is SO DIFFERENT than anything I can wrap my head around. The Chinese politics and customs depicted are so different than anything I've ever experienced as a Westerner. I sometimes felt a bit detached from the characters, but I think it was partly because their social customs forced them to interact in a very specific, restrained way.
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.
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."
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, but he lacks daring, fears the consequences to his career if he stirs up any trouble, and recognizes that his legal wife has cared for members of his family over the years. His lover makes a few, listless attempts to marry. Plain spoken, spare narrative. A look into a different world. You can read it in a few hours ... is that good or bad?
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.
characters: Lin - father; Shuyu - 1st wife, Hua -daughter; Manna - 2nd wife; Lake and River - twin boys born when he was old.
I felt no sympathy for the characters – Lin in particular was so helpless and hopeless and weak. He wasted so much of his life – but I wasn’t prepared to waste too much of mine while drifted along – so I didn’t finish it. I think the language and style were very offputting – very spare, flat, and opaque – just descriptions of externalities giving little insight into the psychological and emotional complexities of the characters.
The story does strike a nerve with me, since I can identify with the feeling of always waiting for or looking forward to certain times, instead of enjoying the journey, as well. In a way, Ha Jin's novel is a parable warning its audience that it is best to take a good, positive look at what one already has and how to best enjoy life before deciding to pursue a radically different path.
Unfortunately, I could not identify with any of the characters; I can't imagine waiting eighteen years for a certain man to divorce his wife, I cannot imagine being poor Shuyu, who continued to work hard and love a man who did not want her, but most of all, I did not understand Lin, the man in the center of all this. He rejects Shuyu from the beginning, not even giving her a chance, because he does not consider her to be "presentable." It's hard for me to admire that!
Yes, this was an arranged marriage, but Lin could have backed out. He didn't because he didn't have the backbone to refuse his parents. Lin's indecisiveness, inertia, and fickleness cause all his problems. Shuyu is the one who is forced to wait through no fault of her own, yet--she seems to be the happiest character. Shuyu will always be there for Lin, but she's not waiting, but living her life, one day at a time, in contentment. I think she's a fascinating character.