Saturday, January 30, 2010

In the Pond

A friend recently asked me, 'how do you read so many books?' I truthfully answered, 'I read very short books.'

Ha Jin's In the Pond is a short book but it is powerful and provocative nonetheless. It takes place in a small town in Communist China. A fertilizer factory is lorded over by a pair of corrupt and ruthless bureaucrats. When a dutiful worker named Shao Bin gets passed over for an upgrade to decent housing for his family, he loses it.

In his anger he begins a one-man assault on the micro-system version of the bigger system that governs the lives of the Chinese people. He is a talented artist and most of his vengeance comes in the form of the essays and illustrations he submits to local newspapers. Ha Jin's presentation of the revenge - counter revenge between Bin and his bosses becomes an almost slapstick routine.

Ultimately, this is a story of the little man with a big artistic heart going against the machine. The most powerful passage for me came in mid-story, when an air of conciliation appears to be possible between Bin and his bosses. The factory is preparing to make patriotic signs and banners for an impromptu propaganda effort. Bin aches to use this project to demonstrate his artistic abilities. But knowing this, his bosses purposefully keep him out of the project:

"We know you're talented, but we don't want to utilize your talent...we've decided to have someone from the outside and let your talent rot inside you. Go back and learn to do your own work well. Stop dreaming that heaven will drop a roasted quail into your mouth."

A stab in the heart to any artist shackled to a day job.

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