By Ha Jin
Pantheon, 323 pp., $24
It's personal interests that motivate the individual and therefore generate the dynamics of history," concludes the central character, Jian Wan, near the close of Ha Jin's new novel, The Crazed.
This would have been news to the thousands of demonstrators, their lives on the line in the name of democracy, in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989? News to the rest of us too anytime we mistake personal for national goals the world over? Or is Jian Wan wrong? Ha Jin should know and know how to write about it. He left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University, wrote the novel Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award, wrote the short-story collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and today teaches English at Boston University. And who can say? He could be awarded for The Crazed as well. "Why?" would be the good question.
The story concerns Mr. Yang, a 59-year-old teacher in the literature department of a university in Shanning, a city several hours by train from Beijing. The year is 1989, the season is spring, and Yang has just suffered a stroke that leaves him bedridden but not speechless. His wife is a veterinarian on assignment in far-off Tibet, and his ambitious daughter, Meimei, is in Beijing preparing for her entrance exams to medical school. So it's up to Yang's talented if "absent-minded," "morose," "high-strung," "feckless," bookwormish graduate student and Meimei's fiancé, Jian Wan (who's preparing for his own move to the capital once he passes into Beijing University's competitive doctoral program in classical literature), to care each afternoon for the hospitalized Yang. Dr. Wu's one piece of advice to Jian Wan: "[K]eep the patient as peaceful as possible; more conversation might make him too excited." Conversation or no, Yang is unpredictably and "at times peculiarly voluble." Peculiar is right.
Throughout the following weeks, Jian Wan looks on as Yang mysteriously assumes the manner and speech of a Red Guard, a retired stevedore, and a Communist Party functionary, confusingly rehearses lines from his past to persons whose motives may or may not be clear to Jian Wan, lectures Jian Wan on the beauty of Dante, Goethe, and Rilke, urges Jian Wan to burn all of Yang's books then equally urgently orders Jian Wan to salvage all of Yang's books, advises Jian Wan to abandon his studies and become a government clerk then just as quickly advises Jian Wan to carry on the job of teaching, and, in a fit of clarity, characterizes his life's service to scholarship as the actions of a "dumb" laborer "kept by the state -- a retrograde species."
Enlightened, delusional, critical, self-critical: Yang is all these things by turns until death puts a stop to his truth-telling and death opens Jian Wan's eyes to ulterior motives, village poverty, state killings, and, hopefully, an ambiguous future free from political kowtowing and academic in-fighting. Free too of Meimei, of Jian Wan's own very short-lived commitment to his country's ragged poor, and of China itself ("an old hag ... decrepit and brainsick," Jian Wan declares). If the real lesson here is survival at any cost, is Jian Wan not in the end the best student ever?
These are important issues, vital issues. So why is the language here less than vital -- more flat-footed than suggestive, more prosaic than poised? Or is the following analysis really the right way for Jian Wan to summarize his professor's career and passing?
"To me the worst part of Mr. Yang's death was that he had died in hatred. Did he save his soul? Probably not. Possessed by the desire for vengeance, he couldn't possibly have attained the spiritual ascent he had striven for. He failed to liberate his soul from the yoke of malevolence. His soul must still have bogged down in the muck of his life."
Does anyone talk in these terms? Or think in them? Sounds more like an undergraduate's answer to an essay question (Ha Jin's point?) and hardly makes for a ringing finish to a teacher who was called a "Demon-Monster" during the Cultural Revolution and who instilled in his students an appreciation for the poetry of both the East and the West.
But back to absent-minded bookworm Jian Wan. Watch him in The Crazed go from a- to pro- to antipolitical in short order. Like clockwork, yes. Like life as we know it, no. Or as Ha Jin once knew it, guess so.