This sparely-written debut novel by Chinese author Ha Jin pokes delicious fun at the bureaucratic and collectivist mentality of post-Mao communist China. The lead character is Shao Bin, a worker in a fertilizer plant who shares a cramped one-room home with his wife and baby daughter, and yearns for more—specificallly, an apartment in the newly-constructed workers communal park currently occupied by the families of the (Communist) party leaders, plant managers and suckups. Unlike the majority of his colleagues and peers, Bin is self-educated and a talented artist and calligrapher who feels his talents are wasted in his present job, which he nonetheless cannot walk away from.
When he is passed over for an apartment despite his seniority, a furious Bin paints a political cartoon skewering the plant managers, which gets published locally and gains him instant notoriety—and the enmity of his managers, who immediately expose him to mockery before the corps of workers, strip him of his urgently-needed year-end bonus, and demand a self-criticism. His response is to get a second cartoon published, which leads to his further humiliation by the managers, and a physical beating. Even while expressing regret for having gotten himself into such a mess, Bin’s rage causes him to escalate his campaign beyond the confines of his town, involving a fellow artist, a newspaper editor from a nearby town, a prominent doctor, and ultimately Beijing itself.
All the while, we get to see first-hand the insidiousness of corruption and bureaucracy, the class divide in this supposedly class-less society, and the fickleness of “crowd-think,” against which the creative force of art, poetry, and philosophy can nonetheless prove a powerful antidote. Our “hero” Bin is, in fact, not a hero but an ordinary and indeed, rather flawed, character. He is prideful, spiteful, given to rages and jealousy. He is also stubborn, strong-willed, and a creative thinker who, almost despite himself, manages to wage a campaign of unexpected consequences against the system. Bin’s “victory” is ultimately nothing of the sort—his campaign is defused and he is absorbed into the very system he is battling. But our author leaves this resolution deliberately open-ended. From everything we have learned of Bin, new confrontations are in the offing.
While I enjoyed this quick read and appreciated the author’s subtle blending of political satire and humor, I couldn’t help but feel that the characters were too caricaturish, the humor too slapstick, and that Ha Jin’s light-hearted treatment of a mind-deadening system somehow downplays the seriousness of the condition he clearly wants to expose.