I think I bought this book at the Oxfam bookshop in Exeter (I miss Exeter). I’ve been meaning to read it for a while because I’ve been working on Ha Jin’s short story “In the Crossfire” with my translation students for God knows how many semesters now – I memorized the words in the first five pages, alongside the various options for each in Turkish – so I feel that I got quite intimate with his style. I find his narration soothing. When I finally got round to reading Waiting, I initially liked the book. It tells of the impossible love between Lin, a military doctor, and Manna, a military nurse, in a Beijing army hospital during the Cultural Revolution. Lin is married to a traditional woman who lives in his hometown. She’s so traditional that she can’t read and write, and has bound feet. She is a very hardworking woman though, and has dutifully taken care of Lin’s parents in their old age, so he feels that divorcing her will be morally wrong. But Manna has been waiting for him patiently, and everyone in the military compound knows that they’re having an affair, and she’s getting old. So Lin is stuck in this dilemma, coupled by the local court’s refusal to grant a divorce without a “legitimate reason,” for a very long time: 18 years.
I enjoyed the idyllic descriptions:
“Somewhere in the roof two crickets were exchanging timid chirps. Moonlight slanted in through the window, casting a pale lozenge on the cement floor” (52)
“[Lin and Manna] talked about the condition of a patient dying of gastroesophageal cancer, as though nothing had happened between them the previous evening. […] Outside the window, the sunlight was flickering on the cypress hedge, and four white rabbits were nibbling grass behind an enormous propaganda board” (53).
“Lin was reading a picture-story book under their eaves with Hua sitting on their lap. The baby girl held a thick scallion leaf, now and again blowing it as a whistle. The toots sounded like a sheep bleating. In front of the house was a deep well walled up with bricks to prevent the child and the poultry from falling into it. […] To the right of it stretched a footway, paved with bricks, leading to the front gate. Beside the pigpen, a white hen was scraping away dirt and making go-go-go sounds to call a flock of chicks, the smallest of which was dragging a broken leg. It was warm and windless; the air reeked of dried dung” (86).
However, when I hit page 99, those old-fashioned (well, almost misogynistic) ideas about women and marriage put me off. They are probably not the author’s but the character’s views, but still… I also found life in the military compound claustrophobic: the reveille sounds at 05:30 am, comrades of the opposite sex cannot meet outside the compound, you can’t just read whatever book you like; they have to be approved by the Party etc. And I also feel that all that “waiting” is going to make me tense. So, unfortunately, this volume goes back to the bookshelf.