Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Review: 'The Crazed' by Ha Jin

Ha Jin (1956- )
The Crazed (2002)

323 pages

In the spring of 1989, during the months of growing unrest leading up to the eventual crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Jian, a graduate student of literature at a university in a small city in China, finds his world turned upside down when his professor has a stroke and Jian must attend to him at the hospital every afternoon.

Jian reveres his professor, almost as a father figure, has planned to emulate his career, and is even engaged to his daughter. Jian had been preparing for imminent exams, hoping that a strong showing would lead to a position for him at a university in Beijing, where his finance is already studying. A successful result on the exams is the only chance for Jian to be able to work in Beijing --- and join his finance to build their lives there together. Now suddenly, his study time is cut short by his daily afternoons sitting with and helping his professor at the hospital.

His professor slips in and out awareness of his surroundings, often rambling for hours on end, holding (one-sided) conversations with people from his past, and recalling songs he was forced to sing during the Cultural Revolution when he was a known as a 'Demon-Monster' for being an intellectual. Over the weeks of sitting by his professor's side, Jian begins to piece together parts of his professor's personal and professional lives of which he had been unaware. The professor, who Jian had only seen as a happy and successful scholar and teacher, has in reality spent his married life longing for an unrequited love and his professional life struggling in a system where success has more to do with playing the game of the party and university systems, than with scholarly capability.

In his more lucid moments, the professor tells Jian that he regrets not having lived a simpler, peasant life, where he could work with his hands and live his own life distant from the complexity of urban and university life. He tells Jian that his life as a scholar and intellectual is in reality little more than that of a glorified clerk, able to do only officially acceptable scholarly research, unable to challenge the ruling dogma (from the party or the university, which are shown here to be two peas in the same pod). Jian begins to question his chosen future as a scholar, instead wanting to live a life that allows him to feel useful by helping the people of China who have been stifled by the social and political systems.

At the same time, students around Jian, and throughout China, grow increasingly restless as the events in Beijing and in particular in and around Tiananmen Square heat up; they begin to question their government, and also themselves for living the easy life of the university student, instead of participating in the demonstrations.

The story lines merge as both Jian, as he re-thinks his future, and the students who decide to join in the demonstrations for the future of China, must confront the power of complex and entrenched structures that are not interested in ceding power and control.

The novel works on several levels in showing Chinese society toward the end of the 20th century. It demonstrates the conflict between an individual's desire to live a meaningful life and the rigid social and political network that can stifle that desire. More generally, it shows the excitement of the students and their hopes for pushing China to a more democratic future in the early months of 1989, and the sudden, harsh collapse of support from the general population and subsequent crushing of the demonstrations by the government in early June, 1989. Finally, more simply, the novel provides a fascinating window into parts of the day-to-day life of Chinese society at this time.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
Sophie Pinkham, in The Yale Review of Books

Sarah A Smith, in The Guardian

A short editorial by Ha Jin on why he writes in English in The New York Times

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