Ha Jin, who emigrated from China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, had only been writing in English for 12 years when he won the National Book Award forWaitingin 1999. His latest novel sheds light on an émigré writer's woodshedding … see full wiki
I had the privilege of meeting Ha Jin when he visited Kalamazoo College some years ago, when I still worked there in media relations, and so when his name came up again - this time as an author to read in a new bookclub I have joined at my new workplace - I took up his newest novel, "A Free Life," with warm anticipation. To add to that sense, Ha Jin will be visiting Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a few days from this writing, and I look forward to hearing him speak of his new work.
Perhaps hearing Ha Jin speak will deepen my understanding of his novel about the immigrant experience from communist China to the United States. I would welcome that. At this point, however, reading it wasn't the shining and revelatory experience I had hoped it would be. Granted, that may in part be because, through my own family's immigrant experience of coming from Soviet-occupied Latvia to the United States in WWII, I am already too familiar with this type of tale. It lacks discovery for me. And, since English is not my native language, either, I find myself almost painfully aware in reading Ha Jin's prose - it isn't his. His language has almost a barrenness about it, simple and spare to the bone. It can be so very difficult to absorb the subtleties of language, I know, and to not only communicate in written language, but express color and life in it with the varied nuances of idiom, metaphor, humor. These are often the missing elements in this novel.
The hero of the novel, the young Chinese man named Nan Wu, seemingly always on the silent edge of a ready despair, can be difficult to warm up to - and I can't always say why. It could indeed be that second language limitations don't allow the writer to give him the blood we need to feel pulsing in him to see him as real, thus one with whom we can empathize. His rather absurd longing for a first love throughout the book, the cruel and shallow Beina, who never misses a chance to treat him like dirt, does little to endear him to the reader, either. Not even after the predictable conclusion to that storyline, when Nan takes a trip to find Beina later in life, only to discover she is neither beautiful nor desirable, and his vision of this woman had no substance in reality, she had been desirable only in his mind. Ah, all that wasted time and fantasy, when his devoted wife, PingPing, has loved and cared for him, broken hearted at her husband's chilly heart and lack of passion for her, through thick and thin. His new appreciation for the real love in his life, so late in coming, is satisfying if not quite redeeming.
The immigrant experience for Nan is one of chasing the American Dream, and he does it well. As is often the case, the immigrant does it better, in fact, than most Americans. He doesn't take long to own a business, pay off his mortgage, clear any debt, and blaze a path for himself to become a poet. His trip back to his childhood and youth home in China clears away any remaining nostalgia. As with his misguided love for Beina, though, home is better in the foggy mythology of the past than in reality. He concludes that Home is, indeed, where one has one's loving family and builds a life, not necessarily where one has ancestral roots.
The novel concludes with the poems written by the character Nan, and although that seemed odd to me at first, as I read through them, I found them pleasing. I realized I might have liked to have seen them within the pages of the story rather than in concluding it. It might have given me more reason to emphatize with Nan, which I was never quite able to do.
My final sense of this book is that Ha Jin has had great literary courage to take on the feat of writing in a new language. With that in mind, this is a worthy accomplishment. Compared to the best in current American literature, however, it is a little tempting to urge a writer to hold back a while longer - until the finer points of language are absorbed and mastered.