This week, Bookie Monster Anam Sufi goes East, picking up Ha Jin's 'Waiting' but finds herself literally waiting for something to happen.
There are books that demand readers observe the unwritten, books that tiptoe on the elasticity of the reader’s patience, and the fueling of such a frustration and reaction is what blooms the story into the category of magnificence. There are plenty of books that operate in this way; notably one of my all-time favourites, The Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro. However, Waiting, a novel by Chinese-American author, Ha Jin, fell short of arousing much laudation from me.
Written in 1999, the novel was awarded the National Book Award and tells the story of an army doctor (Lin) in communist China who finds himself straddling the line of romance between two women. The first of these women is his wife, Shuyu, whom he was forced to marry at a young age and who epitomises the anachronistic, servile, and bound-feet traditions of the past. The second is an ambitious nurse named Manna who works in the same hospital as Lin. Despite having Manna as his girlfriend, Lin refrains from indulging in sexual interactions with her until they are securely protected under the umbrella of marriage. However, Lin is met with disappointment every journey back home to his village when his wife Shuyu, without much display or celebration, refuses to accept Lin’s request for divorce before the judge. Thus, 18 years transpire with the same routine of request, denial and return. Things are propelled forward with the promise that citizens are able to leave their wives without consent if they have spent 18 years apart, and thus, Manna and Lin are faced with the opportunity to appease their years of restraint and waiting.
While the plot sounds promising enough – after all, I was itching to read this book after reading the blurb – I couldn’t’ quite get into the story. I think a lot of this had to do with the stolid persona and atmosphere that constantly surrounds Lin’s character. He is seldom moved, unnervingly calm and dispassionate, and almost never exudes any inclination of enthusiasm. I previously made the connection with The Remains of the Day because there were points where I felt that Lin reminded me of the butler from Ishiguro’s novel, but upon completing Waiting, I realised that Lin is almost too lacking in passion. At least in The Remains of the Day, Mr. Stevens displays passion for his insipid life of duty. With Lin, I couldn’t help but want to hold him by the shoulders, slap him across the face and scream: “FEEL SOMETHING!”
The plot felt quite static throughout the book, but perhaps due to OCD or just a hope that it would point towards some kind of overarching message by the end of the novel, I read it through to the final lines. I won’t say that it didn’t provide anything of substance, but by the time I finished reading the last few pages, I didn’t feel as though the means justified the end. Each character finds themselves on the cusp of waiting for a promise of happiness and the actualisation of their ideals, but the language used to present the process of ‘waiting’ ended up resulting in a very removed and unsympathetic unfolding of events.
The climatic moment in the story was also a bit abrupt; leaving the already bored reader utterly dissatisfied. In addition, so much is left dependant on a sudden realisation and epiphany, that the reader can’t help but wonder why the protagonist reaches this conclusion now and not before? Moreover, Lin proves to be such a floozy in terms of having a backbone, that you don’t feel sorry for him. But even under such speculation, I can’t be sure whether or not the author was aiming to paint him in sympathetic tones. And although there are books such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denosovich that are granted merit based on the striation of the mundane with the ultimate message that the author tries to drill into the reader, Waiting is not absolved according to such a criterion.
Thus far, this review seems to criticise the plot of Waiting. However, the issue I had with the novel was not just a lack of development. Usually writers subsidise a slow plotline with virile language or similar literary devices. I wasn’t impressed or moved by any such devices throughout the book.
But who knows, maybe that was Ha Jin’s final play of irony: teasing the reader with a promise of a fulfilling story, only to leave them waiting on something that never came.