Sunday, June 14, 2009

Updike on Ha Jin

From John Updike's New Yorker review (December 3,  2007) of Ha Jin's "Nan, American Man":

A critic cannot but be impressed by the courage and intellect of the Chinese-American writer Ha Jin. Born in 1956 of parents who were both military doctors, he volunteered for the People's Liberation Army at the age of fourteen and served five and a half years, near the northeast border with Russia. He began to take a keen interest in reading in his late teens, by which time the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had closed down China's educational institutions and made any books but Mao's "little red book" suspect. In 1977, Heilongjiang University, in Harbin, admitted Ha Jin but assigned him to study English, even though it was his last choice on a list of preferences. After receiving a master's degree in American literature from Shandong University, in 1984, he came to the United States to do graduate work at Brandeis University. His plans to return to China as a teacher or a translator were changed by the Tiananmen Square massacre, in 1989: he decided to stay in America and to try to become a writer in English. A year later, he published his first book of poems, "Between Silences"; during the nineteen-nineties, he published five more volumes in English, including two collections of short stories, one of which, "Ocean of Words" (1996), won the PEN / Hemingway Award and the other, "Under the Red Flag" (1997), received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. His busy decade—in the course of which he was hired, in 1993, by Emory University, in Atlanta, as an instructor in poetry—was capped by a first novel, "Waiting," which received the 1999 National Book Award and the 2000 PEN / Faulkner. His prize-winning command of English has a few precedents, notably Conrad and Nabokov, but neither made the leap out of a language as remote from the Indo-European group, in grammar and vocabulary, in scriptural practice and literary tradition, as Mandarin.

"Waiting" is impeccably written, in a sober prose that does nothing to call attention to itself and yet capably delivers images, characters, sensations, feelings, and even, in a basically oppressive and static situation, bits of comedy and glimpses of natural beauty. The very modesty of the tone strengthens the reader's belief that this is how private lives were conducted amid the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution, as ancient customs worked with a fear-ridden Communist bureaucracy to stifle normal human appetites. Every simple, bleak detail has the fascination of the hitherto unknown; not a word of Ha Jin's hard-won English seems out of place or wasted. And the first-person, rather documentary prose of a subsequent prize-winning novel, "War Trash" (2004), flows as smoothly.

His new novel, "A Free Life" (Pantheon; $26), is a relatively lumpy and uncomfortable work, of which a first draft, he confides in a brief afterword, was completed in the year 2000. In an interview that same year, with, he declared, "I plan to write at least two books about the American immigrant experience, but not my own story." However, his dedication to "A Free Life" reads, "To Lisha and Wen, who lived this book"; Lisha and Wen are the names of Ha Jin's wife and son.


In an interview with Powell's Books, Ha Jin said that "the core of the immigrant experience" was "how to learn the language—or give up learning the language!—but without the absolute mastery of the language, which is impossible for an immigrant." A striking typographical device conveys the inside and outside of the linguistic problem. Conversations in Mandarin are rendered in italicized English, and we observe Nan's brain and tongue functioning at a sophisticated level. When he applies to an Italian-American supervisor called Don for the job of night watchman at a factory in Watertown, we hear him speak as he sounds to Americans:

"I worked for one and a half years at zer Waltham Medical Center, as a cahstodian. Here's recommendation by my former bawss . . . . My bawss was sacked, so we got laid all together."
"You got what?" Don asked with a start. A young secretary at another desk tittered and turned her pallid face toward the two men.
Realizing he'd left out the adverb "off," Nan amended, "Sorry, sorry, they used anozzer company, so we all got laid off."

And Nan's English isn't that bad; how else do you pronounce "boss"? But he is tripped up here by a peculiarity of English that Dr. Johnson noted in the preface to his dictionary:

There is [a] kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many verbs by a particle subjoined; as to come off [and] innumerable expressions of the same kind, of which some appear wildly irregular, being so far distant from the sense of the simple words, that no sagacity will be able to trace the steps by which they arrived at the present use.

Nan agrees: "Compared with written Chinese, English was indeed a language of common people, despite being hard to master, its grammatical rules too loose and its idioms defying logic." Elsewhere, becoming a handy American householder, he thinks, "Now he loved hand tools—oh, the infinite varieties of American tools, each designed for one purpose, just like the vast English vocabulary, each word denoting precisely one thing or one idea." This exacting language is "like a body of water in which he had to learn how to swim and breathe, even though he'd feel out of his element whenever he used it."

Reaching to encompass the American scene, Ha Jin's English in "A Free Life" shows more small solecisms than in his Chinese novels. We get a character "licking his compressed teeth," a tennis court "studded with yellow balls," "a giant disk [the sun] flaming a good part of the eastern sky," "the lobby was swarmed with people," a victim of violence "booted half to death," eyes that "shone with a stiff light like a crazed man's," a "hilly gravel road filled with doglegs," a swimmer "crawl-stroking to the shore." Complicated facial maneuvers challenge our ability to visualize: "Unconsciously she combed her upper lip with her teeth"; "His eyebrows were tilting as he kept pushing his flat nose with his knuckle"; "His eyes turned rhomboidal and his face nearly purple." Metaphorical overload can occur: "In his arms, she was like a meatball with love handles." Some expressions feel translated from the Mandarin: Pingping says, "You shouldn't have mixed our decision with his fault," and Nan thinks, "If his wife had been of two hearts with him, this family would have fallen apart long ago." Rare words wander in from the hinterlands of the English dictionary: "a short-haired barmaid in a lavender skong," "It was mizzling," "empleomaniac."


Unfortunately, the novel rarely gathers the kind of momentum that lets us overlook its language.


The full text of the review lives here.