In the Pond by Ha Jin was a very quick and light read, but ultimately unsatisfying. It is a satirical story about Shao Bin, an intellectual peasant’s valiant yet comical battle with communist bureaucracy during the Mao years of the Cultural Revolution. Bin works in a fertilizer plant and despite his seniority is denied better housing for the third time by the plant leaders. He and his wife and toddler live in a dreary one room apartment. Bin decides to take matters into his own hands and seeks justice which spirals into a series of escalating counterattacks against the two cruel and corrupt plant leaders. At times it felt like a bizarre game of who could do a better job of humiliating the other.
Bin is described as arrogant, and he is, but in a strangely endearing way. That’s because the reader empathizes with Bin’s noble cause: to improve his family’s standard of living. With all the abuse he receives you can excuse his rash and even dangerous actions and admire him for his boldness. Desperate times calls for desperate measures. But soon it becomes apparent that Bin is not so selfless and that his personal ambitions consume him and eclipses his initial mission to get housing. The anticlimactic yet clever ending shows how Bin paradoxically fights power only so that he can taste it for himself, albeit in a superficial way. Despite the compromise he makes you still can’t make yourself dislike him.
A relentlessly emphasized aspect of Bin’s character is his amazing talent as a calligrapher and painter. Bin is an autodidact, a scholar and bookworm. It is a pity and a shame that such a big fish is stuck in such a small pond. I can agree that Bin’s potential should not be squandered. But it would be elitist to think that it would be any less devastating for an Average Joe to be in similar circumstances. Not that that was implied in this story, but it made me think of how we get these subliminal messages in our culture that if you are smart/pretty/talented/a perfect citizen you especially don’t deserve a run of bad luck or a terrible fate.
I say this story was unsatisfying because Ha Jin has a style of prose that does not move me. It is sparse, minimalist and aloof. It is simplistic and therefore forgettable. At first I thought it was a translation. I learned that Ha Jin moved to the US in 1985, is a university professor there and writes exclusively in English, his second language. Ha Jin has never since returned to China.That triggered in me questions about authenticity and audience. It made me wonder how popular his books would be in the West if they weren’t so strongly anti-Communist. I was eager to read Jin’s most popular book Waiting that won the National Book Award but then I read a few Goodreads reviews critiquing it for exoticizing Chinese culture and recycling stereotypical tropes, particularly this scathing one: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/11671457?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1