At a colleague’s Christmas party I had met the Stanford University economic historian Avner Grief, and he chatted with me for a long time about the role of clans in China and how that kin culture led to different institutional outcomes compared with Europe, where the limited liability city and then corporation emerged. So maybe because I had China on my mind, I was looking at my shelf of unread books and saw Ha Jin’s Waiting (first published in 1999). Something about the blurbs had turned me off way back when. But I started in on it, and quickly found myself engrossed in the novel, a classic “marriage plot” with a backdrop of mid 1960s revolutionary through 1980s transitional China. The focus is personal, but there are frequent anthropological-style descriptive passages (of people and their work, mostly). The China described in the novel certainly could be Europe, so in that sense there is nothing culturally “different” about it. The novel is quite compelling early on, because Jin takes time away from the plot to communicate the “thinking” of the several main characters. The protagonist, Lin, is a diffident partner in his two relationships. His thinking is often confused, slow, and incomplete. The reader, if like me, understands but starts to get frustrated. Towards the end the inevitability of a particular kind of outcome gets hinted at, so the denouement reinforces the tone of diffidence. The novel itself seems to shrink back against a wall… read me if you like, it murmurs.
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