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The Boat Rocker 
by Ha Jin.
Pantheon, 222 pp., £20, October 2016, 978 0 307 91162 9
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There’s​ a strange moment in Ha Jin’s new novel when the narrator, Feng Danlin, an expatriate Chinese journalist writing on culture and politics for an independent news agency based in New York, is asked by one of the organisers of a festival of Chinese culture, held in Berlin, to assess a dozen or so translated novels that have been chosen as representative of modern writing in China. Danlin seems to accept the weakness of the domestic product, not suggesting for instance that something has been lost in translation, and says only: ‘These authors are major names and are regarded as the best ones writing now.’ The organiser, Stefan, sighs and says, almost inaudibly: ‘That country has more than a billion people.’ He isn’t convinced that the festival, which cost more than a million euros to put on, was worth the trouble.

Danlin broods over this later that night:

I regretted not having explained to Stefan that those writers, every one of them, were talented but had to toe the line, not only on the page but also in their imaginations, because they received salaries from the state and could not afford to jeopardise their livelihoods. I wondered whether Stefan would have shown sympathy or contempt for my explanation. Most Westerners didn’t have a clue how harshly and subtly censorship worked on an artist in China, whose talent, however prodigious, ultimately became docile and atrophied.

Jin himself was studying in the US at the time of the occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and became an American citizen rather than return. In an interview with Granta in 2009 he explained that his choice of English as his literary language had two motives: ‘to separate my existence from the state power of China and to preserve the integrity of my work’. His books, though banned in China, have been translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan, so that readers in the diaspora have access to them.

A dissident writer makes a brief appearance in The Boat Rocker, though in his case outsider status doesn’t seem to have brought an increase in imaginative range. He’s a poet living in London whose presence at the festival causes the Chinese ambassador to pull out of an evening reception. The organisers regard this almost as a coup, and congratulate him on his power ‘to nettle the top Chinese diplomat’. The poet looks bemused, still holding the long-stemmed rose that had been presented to him at the end of his reading, and gives the briefest possible answers to questions. His priority seems to be getting his wine glass topped up.

A writer like Jin, based in America, has no need to toe the line, and an expatriate commentator like his protagonist Danlin, working for the Global News Agency in New York, has a freedom to hold the Chinese authorities and agencies to account, even if it’s only in the court of public opinion. Danlin has a respectable readership in print, and a large one online. Some of his columns even make it to the mainland, though most of his readership is outside China. He looks young enough at 36 to be asked for ID when buying alcohol, but in the course of the book his name is suggested for a list of the hundred top Chinese public intellectuals published by a news website with the classically euphemistic name Harmonious Times. He is in a good position to get the measure of the relationship between America and modern China, not an easy subject to treat in literary terms, if you discount the simplifying resources of allegory – the spendthrift sustained by the merchant who keeps extending him credit.

Danlin has faith in the transformative power of the internet: ‘It can give every individual a voice and every tyrant a shudder. It makes every computer a potential radio station.’ His boss at the news agency is more cynical, assuming that shared interests will put a brake on any real change: ‘They’re bound together. China has become a large US factory, so the communist regime will remain in place for many years unless China miscalculates and challenges America’s supremacy.’

Culture and education leave permanent marks. Individual assertion against the group is mandated or discouraged by language, among other factors: ‘The word identity is alien to us, and I still don’t know precisely how to translate it into Chinese. I can approximate it by stringing together several terms, each covering a part of the English word, like sameness and distinctiveness and status, but there’s no real equivalent.’ Danlin speculates that the absence of this concept from the language indicates a deficiency in the awareness of self. Chinese also lacks a word for ‘solitude’ as distinct from ‘loneliness’, as if there were no positive aspect to being separate from the group.

At that festival in Berlin, Danlin felt mortified by the quality of the Chinese hors d’oeuvres being offered to guests. The problem wasn’t that the food was inadequate, but the reverse, being ‘excellent, sometimes even exquisite, but for this occasion I felt uncomfortable about all the appetisers. It was as if Chinese cuisine could always outshine our other arts, as if ours was a culture that satisfied only the stomach.’ He can’t quite shed an exacting sense of national dignity, perversely mortified by high standards of catering, even after surrendering his Chinese passport. His dreams are saturated with the imagery of Chinese folklore, though his Westernised consciousness feels that Brahms wrote symphonies for him, ‘beautiful lyricism blended with a measure of pathos’, as much as for anyone else.

His reputation as a public intellectual seems to reconcile him to an independence he has experienced as painful, a disconnection from family – his parents still live in China – and from community:

A vista of possibilities suddenly opened in my mind’s eye, and for the first time in my life I longed to become someone, to create an identity for myself to fit this nomination. I knew that people had nominated me not because I was learned and experienced, but because they wanted an honest voice that could articulate their feelings and opinions in the public discourse. A little guy like me must by chance have risen to the expectations of a frustrated, oppressed, silent multitude.

The possibility that this is a portrait of a naive and inept unfortunate, a Chinese expatriate schlemiel, loses ground as the book goes on.

The plot of the book concerns Love and Death in September, a novel written by Danlin’s ex-wife, Yan Haili, and announced as a landmark cultural event by the Chinese press in 2005. It’s hard enough for Danlin to believe she could write a novel, let alone get it taken on as a major title by a Chinese firm (‘that brassy bitch – she never stopped vying for attention’), when her previously published pieces had mainly been write-ups ‘the size of a block of tofu’ in community newspapers. An article in the Yangtze Morning Post even claimed that President Bush would be endorsing the English translation of the book, on the basis that it was a welcome contribution to the international fight against terrorism – the book, announced as autobiographical, describes the heroine’s loss of her American husband in the attacks on the World Trade Center (‘His laughter echoes in her mind, and makes her eyes brim with tears’). Danlin has never forgiven Haili for divorcing him as soon as he followed her to America, when he was fully expecting to resume their relationship, so it’s understandable that he would want some sort of revenge, even if his boss hadn’t assigned him to dig up the dirt on this strange publicity campaign.

For as long as he’d known her she had been trying to write a potboiler, or a ‘fabulous transnational romance’ as she preferred to call it, but there was no reason to expect anything to come of it:

She was a beauty who could make people break off mid-conversation when she entered a room. But she was certainly not a gifted writer, despite her excellent taste as a reader – she loved magical realism, Agatha Christie, Marguerite Duras and D.H. Lawrence. (‘If I could write a novel like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I would die happy,’ she often gushed. Of course, ditto for me.)

If there’s a whisper of satire here it’s never amplified – and satire as a genre is more shouty than whispery. Danlin’s opening self-presentation is close to burlesque: ‘My acid tongue was legendary, my comments heart-stabbing, my views uncompromising, and my predictions sometimes even oracular. Naturally I was hated by officials and celebrities, and cursed by those I’d exposed. Yet when everyday people of the Chinese diaspora discovered my writing, it was, in their own words, like “discovering a new continent”.’ His memories of Haili are as soupy as those he now denounces (‘Her wild spirit fascinated me and opened a vista in my mind’s eye’). This narrator seems clearly signalled as unreliable, but the signals aren’t followed up. It’s probable that he is being offered at face value, as an ordinary, well-intentioned individual trying to get by. Haili had often railed against him for lacking ambition, ‘but no one can develop more than his potential allows. What can you do if you were born an everyman?’

The war of words over Haili’s novel, conducted in print and online, is amply implausible but lacks the swagger of inspired exaggeration. If Beijing attempted to buy the New York Times, say, that would make an alluring plotline – and a rumour to that effect does appear in The Boat Rocker. The idea is dismissed as absurd, ‘but then, so was everything that had already happened’. Good point, though small-scale, picayune absurdity doesn’t generate any strong desire to turn the page. Even online abuse as practised by a ‘raft of trolls’ in the Chinese diaspora, at a moment when the tide is turning against Haili, seems downright quaint: ‘She told others that she had been born and raised in Beijing. In truth, her mother had given birth to her on a straw mat in some hick town in Liaoning province.’ Such genteel flaming!

At different stages of the book, but not in the logical order, Love and Death in September seems to be a work in progress, a book published and being reviewed, in the process of being translated and already sold as a film property. The supporting detail is often weak: to confirm or refute the idea that the American film rights have been sold, Danlin phones Panorama Pictures and speaks to ‘the manager’ of the studio, who says: ‘One thing I can tell you – we haven’t acquired any script recently.’ Hard to imagine any employee, whether manager or receptionist, making such an admission.

As the passages​ quoted here have tended to show, without being selected primarily as examples of style, Jin can make his adopted language walk and talk but not sing and dance. Though his writing has won him a National Book Award and two PEN/Faulkners, plus a couple of Pulitzer nominations, it doesn’t score highly on precision or flair. A predecessor like Conrad had the advantage that the literary English of his day was relatively formal, and even Nabokov explored a stylised vernacular relatively rarely. (Among current practitioners, Aleksandar Hemon – Sarajevo-born, Chicago-based – shows what can still be done.) The passages in The Boat Rocker where Danlin preens himself on his superior command of idiom are especially awkward: Haili ‘could toss out expressions like “I’ll be damned”, “long time no see” and “twenty-twenty hindsight” but every once in a while she still made mistakes, calling out “break your leg” instead of “break a leg” or urging someone to “crack your brain” in place of “rack your brains.”’ His own manner is stiff even when it aspires fitfully to the conversational: ‘My eyes were welling up, and I averted my face. Haili had made this thorny bed of her own free will and ought to lie in it. It was no use for her to attempt to invoke my empathy – she couldn’t make me cave anymore. A sadness mixed with a modicum of satisfaction stirred in my chest.’

A lack of dynamism on the level of the sentence can be made good in other areas: otherwise a number of genres, including the thriller, would struggle to survive. Some thriller momentum would do The Boat Rocker no end of good, but although Danlin has underestimated the forces opposing him the consequences unfold with a fatal evenness of pace. Of course he has a lot to lose if his professional position is undermined, and it’s not a relaxing experience to be summoned to the Chinese consulate for a chat, but American citizenship gives him a basic immunity, preventing the tension from amounting to more than a background hum.

It’s dialogue, of all the elements of fiction, that can most be relied on to lighten texture and inject pace, but not when dialogue amounts to the alternation of expository slabs of spoken matter. This is part of a discussion between Danlin and his boss:

‘Believe me, no reputable publisher will consider the book seriously. It’s just a shallow romance.’

‘Well, you know in China there’s no distinction between a literary novel and a romance novel. All the genres are just lumped together. Most readers can’t tell the difference anyway.’

‘That’s true. The Japanese don’t make such a distinction either. But still, quality is quality – I don’t think any decent publisher here will give Haili’s book the time of day.’

‘You never know. It can be brought out as a romance novel here and then advertised as a literary novel back in China, where they’re planning to make most of their money anyway.’

In Danlin’s conversations with Niya, a friend of Haili’s, there’s an attempt at greater intensity, even the hint of a romantic affinity. After a discussion in a bar about university education (she thinks Danlin should go to graduate school), Niya goes to the bathroom. He notices what she’s been reading: ‘She’d left a copy of the magazine Open on top of her coat on the extra chair. The cover featured the ping-pong player Lili Liu, who had just won the Asian championship, representing Japan. I knew her story.’ Liu had been a top player on the Chinese national team when she was told to let a teammate win so as to boost the country’s tally of medals. She agreed, but went on to win herself, and was dismissed from the team and banned from national and international competition, though her actions had not endangered the medal count. She responded not by accepting her fate but by marrying a Japanese man, becoming naturalised and representing her new country. Interviewed by the Chinese media after winning the Asian championship, she would speak only Japanese. Niya is keen to talk about the issues involved. They take different sides on the rights and wrongs of Liu’s actions, more or less dictated by their respective passports:

‘I can’t blame her for what she did,’ I said, putting the magazine on the chair. ‘The country betrayed her first – she was justified.’

‘I disagree. She went too far and spat at China.’

‘But the country had wrecked the best six or seven best years of her career, and it’s understandable that she should be angry. I take her defiance as a way of asserting her existence.’

Niya shook her head, unconvinced. ‘The coaches of the national ping-pong team don’t stand for the country, just as the Communist Party doesn’t represent China.’

‘Who represents China then?’ I demanded. ‘You or I, or the waitress over there, or the bartender behind the counter? Or those two dissidents in Maryland who just apologised to the Dalai Lama on behalf of all the Chinese?’

Lili Liu doesn’t exist, but someone fitting her profile, He Zhili, played for Japan as Chire Koyama. Her showdown with the authorities took place rather earlier, after the world championships of 1987, so it’s understandable that Jin should feel the need to come up with a more recent replacement. Still, it’s extraordinary that he couldn’t devise a better mechanism – ten pages before the end of the novel – than a magazine left on a restaurant chair during a bathroom break to provide the climax he seems to have wanted, a school debating team wrangle about the rights of the citizen versus the claims of the state.

Niya’s argument for Danlin’s going to graduate school is that he should take the development of his mind seriously: ‘You’re not a real intellectual yet, but it’s not too late for you to grow into one.’ At first Danlin is discouraged, knowing he will have to spend hundreds of dollars on application fees. Then newsprint again plays a providential role in shaping his thinking. He comes across an article about a professor at a state university in California who spoke out against the Iraq war, and whose institution resisted calls to dismiss him. ‘I was greatly impressed and moved by the school’s position. It made me realise that it was not coincidental that public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said held professorships at universities, which must be the last sanctuaries for freedom of speech.’ He decides to apply.

Of course Danlin is only a hopeful outsider, entitled to his idealism. Jin himself must know a little more about the realities of academic life, its requirements and compromises, since he is a professor at Boston University, where he is in charge of the creative writing programme. It’s not so easy to hang on to your integrity, even in academia, however highly you value it. There’s an example of this on the back cover of the book, under the heading ‘Advance Praise for The Boat Rocker’. Perry Link (also a professor) writes an endorsement that begins: ‘Ha Jin only gets better and better … he continues with his supply of unadorned prose, as evocative as Chekhov’s and sometimes as charming as E.B. White’s.’ He ends by identifying the need for integrity as the key theme of the book. Link is thanked on Jin’s acknowledgments page for his invaluable advice, so this isn’t advance praise but something rather less disinterested, a helping hand from a friend, and not at all the high-minded note the book would like to strike.

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