Two years ago in The Spectator I praised Ha Jin’s earlier novel, Waiting. It was about a kindly, ineffectual army doctor who waits and waits for a divorce from his peasant wife so that he can marry a nurse, his lover without sex for 13 years. Ha, who teaches English at Boston University after learning it by listening to the World Service, came to the US in 1985 when he was 29. Waiting won the National Book Award. One of the reasons I liked that book was Ha’s creation of a world in which people acted naturally, like real Chinese, as their gripping story unfolded.
The problem with The Crazed is that the same Chinese habits are there, right down to smells, noises and stains, but the story, such as it is, plods. It centres on the dying Professor Yang, a teacher in a minor university, and his favourite graduate student, Jian, who looks after him in the hospital. Jian is engaged to Meimei, Yang’s pretty but unpleasant daughter. Yang’s wife is off in Tibet. For most of the book Yang is delirious, muttering, gibbering, singing, re-enacting the past; in short, crazed. Slowly, very, very slowly, Jian begins to piece the gibbering and singing together, mostly by guessing. Like most intellectuals Yang endured a brutal time during the Cultural Revolution. He also seems to have had an affair very long ago and another one, perhaps more recently. There is also a problem about a bribe or pressure to do something he doesn’t want to do. None of this is clear and after a while one ceases to care. The sordid dreariness, petty politicking and general hopelessness of Chinese academic life are well shown, but without a story it palls.
While the sickroom miasma intensifies, up in Beijing the Tiananmen demonstrations are gathering pace, but they only slightly intrude into the world of the dying Professor Yang and Jian’s unhappiness with Meimei and his academic prospects.