Thanks to Mee, I put this book on my TBR for a long time. Now I finally read it.
I remember Mee raves about this book and gave it 5 stars, so I thought I’ll give it a go and surprised myself that I finished this book in one day.
Warning: May contain minor spoiler.
Communist China in late 1960’s. Lin Kong is a doctor and also an army officer. Every civil servant including sex worker (recalled Flowers of War) has an army ranking in Communist China. For more than 17 years, this devoted and ambitious doctor has been in love with an educated, clever modern woman, Manna Wu, none too surprisingly as she is a nurse in the same hospital that they worked. But back in the traditional world of his home village lives the wife his family had chosen for him when he was young – a humble, loyal and simple woman. The wife, Shuyu, has served the family well by taking care of Lin Kong’s parents until they died of old age. Lin’s wife is traditional woman, wears a long braid and with bound feet and bore Lin Kong a daughter called Ah Hua. Shuyu looks so old-fashioned and unattractive that Lin Kong wouldn’t deign to take her out or admit to his colleague and friends outside the village that this is his wife. Lin Kong thinks he and his wife is not a good match.
The husband (Lin Kong) looked quite gentle, in no way like an evil, abusive man, whereas the wife (Shuyu) was as thin as a chicken whose flesh, if cooked, couldn’t fill a plate. If they were different, they might not be able to avoid conflicts. But that should provide no grounds for divorce, because it was normal for a married couple to have a quarrel or even a fist fight once in awhile. A good marriage was full of moments of cats and dogs. It was the uneventful marriage that was headed toward disaster. – page 124
And so for 17 years, Lin Kong has gone back to the village to ask his wife for a divorce. One year the wife will say yes and then changed her mind last minute. Another year a relative will stop the divorce proceeding, and the next the whole village. You get the picture. If you have not, then let me explained why it takes 17 years. Part of it is due to Lin Kong’s hesitance and procrastination. Another part of the reason is because he could only see his wife once a year with his limited 12-day annual leaves but also the State demands convincing justifications, evidence and consent from the wife before they could approve the divorce. And by 18 years if there is enough prove of separation and not sleeping in the same room, the couple may proceed with automatic nullification of the marriage.
In a culture in which ancient ties of tradition and family still hold sway and where adultery discovered by the Party (or the State) can ruin lives forever, Lin and Manna’s passions are suppressed and love is stretched ever more taut by the passing years. Clandestine meetings will land them in trouble. Adultery is punishable. The gossips will lessen the couple’s chance for promotion at work. The whole experience became the titular “Waiting” that holds one life in suspension where life couldn’t move on until that big decision is made.
I read from Mee’s review that there were negative reviews of the book and I could find only very few reviews in the blogosphere, perhaps this is a book written 13 years ago, so people who reads this is far and few between. Supposingly if the wider audience didn’t get this book, the judges may have got it because it won the 1999 National Book and the Pen / Faulkner awarda. The caution is that thou shalt not read this book with your own “eyes”, bringing with you all your long held beliefs and version of rights and wrongs and apply this to the characters in this book, particularly Lin Kong; because the setting is Communist China. A very different society.
A part of me was feeling angry and frustrated why Lin Kong can’t make a swift decision on what he needs to do and get on with his life and even came to a point he could be so gallant and altruistic to offer his girlfriend to someone else!! (shock!) but Lin Kong maintains he is a better educated man, reasonable and gentle, different from those animal-like men driven by lust and selfishness (page 153). He straddles between two conflicting claims of two utterly different women. One he loves, but the other one has sacrificed her youth for his parents. In the far eastern society, love is not the be all end all. There is duty and loyalty, to the Party, to the family and filial piety to the parents. So when there are times that the call of duty precedes love, Lin Kong couldn’t go ahead with his plan of divorce.
Having two women in a man’s life is complicated enough but it seems there is no easy way out in Communist China. Our male protagonist is very torn.
But Lin Kong is not the only one who is under emotional turmoil, Manna the mistress gets my sympathy as well. When her youth slips away, from a bride prospect to becoming Doctor Kong’s mistress, Manna experienced the torment of both body and spirit. I ended up feeling sorry for the mistress too.
The summers of decision has to end somehow and when it finally did, it is inevitable that the readers, me included, after the waiting came to an end, we wonder what else is in stored for the couples and the wife that had been wronged? The story settles into a conclusion but the human nature does not let the ones who are tormented before reach their inner peace after, so expect a little drama still after the waiting ends. Perhaps to appease and satisfy the readers who has invested the time waiting for that decision so far (before we throw rotten eggs at it!), the wronged will be right and the one who perpetrate and hurt deserves their ultimate punishment.
Let me tell you what really happened, the voice said. All those years you waited torpidly, like a sleepwalker, pulled and pushed about by others’ opinions, by external pressure, by your illusions, by the official rules you internalised. You were misled by your own frustration and passivity, believing that what you were not allowed to have was what your heart was destined to embrace. – page 295
The book is very easy to read, not a mushy romance story (I don’t do mushy), inspired by a true story of Ha Jin’s friend, won the National Book award and the Pen/Faulkner award, waiting to be made into a movie starring Zhang Ziyi and herald as written in a grace and humour that are reminiscent of Chekhov. What is there not to read? 😉
I have War Trash by Ha Jin sitting on my shelf for 3 years yet to read. The review that inspires me to read the book:
Bookie Mee: “I’m quite surprised to find that not everybody loved the book as much as I did. For me it’s such a poignant book and it speaks to me in many ways. It’s sad in a quiet way, it’s humbling, and it taught me so much about China, or to be more exact, about its people. I highly recommend it for you who have any interest in China. I’m happy to say that I understand why Waiting has won so many awards. They can’t be more well-deserved.”
Hardback. Publisher: William Heinemann 1999 Printed Length: 308 pages; Setting: North China. Source: Reading LIbrary. Finished reading on: 13th April 2013, Saturday.
About the writer:
Jīn Xuěfēi (金雪飞 born February 21, 1956) is a contemporary Chinese-American writer and novelist using the pen name Ha Jin (哈金). Ha comes from his favorite city, Harbin.
His father was a military officer; at thirteen, Jin joined the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution. Jin began to educate himself in Chinese literature and high school curriculum at sixteen. He left the army when he was nineteen, as he entered Heilongjiang University and earned a bachelor’s degree in English studies. This was followed by a master’s degree in Anglo-American literature at Shandong University.
Jin grew up in the chaos of early communist China. He was on a scholarship at Brandeis University when the 1989 Tiananmen incident occurred. The Chinese government’s forcible put-down hastened his decision to emigrate to the United States, and was the cause of his choice to write in English “to preserve the integrity of his work.” He eventually obtained a Ph.D.
Awards and honors
- Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (1996)
- Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award (1997)
- Guggenheim Fellowship (1999)
- National Book Award (1999)
- PEN/Faulkner Award (2000)
- Asian Fellowship (2000–2002)
- Townsend Prize for Fiction (2002)
- PEN/Faulkner Award (2005)
- Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006)
- Dayton Literary Peace Prize, runner-up, Nanjing Requiem (2012)