Do you have to like the narrator of a book in order to appreciate it? Do you have to respect them? Identify with them?
I was pondering that the other morning on my drive to church, having set down Waiting, by Ha Jin when I finished my coffee and gathered my Sunday School materials. I don’t like Lin Kong much at all. I’m sure I don’t respect him. I’m not sure I can really even identify him. Married in his youth to a woman his parents feel will be able to take care of them in their old age, he supports her back in his home village while working at an army hospital far away. Shuyu is not what Lin considers presentable in his city life, so he visits on his leave and feels content with how his dying parents are cared for.
Enter Manna. A nurse at the hospital Lin works at, she strikes up first a friendship, then a relationship bordering on the romantic with him. Finally, she asks him whether he is going to divorce his wife and marry her. The first line of the novel tells us “Every summer, Lin Kon returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” Every year, Shuyu backs out at the last moment, or is saved by her brother’s vehement opposition, and Lin returns to the hospital to let a disappointed and increasingly dissatisfied Manna know the news. For seventeen years he continues this, until in the eighteenth year of separation he is allowed to divorce his wife without her consent.
We wait with Manna and Lin, watching their struggles, his changes of heart, her anger and frustration. We wait with Shuyu, who seems simple-minded in her affection for her estranged husband. The ending of the book, too, is rather well-done, where Lin finds himself again waiting, again in confusion.
Lin is not particularly unlikable. He’s honorable in his own way, refusing to sleep with Manna until they are married, supporting his ex-wife after the divorce. He’s intelligent, if a little brainwashed by the political system. But he’s such a spineless fellow. His entire life is guided by what is expected of him, by Shuyu, by his superior officers, by Manna, by his daughter. He questions and re-questions the decisions he’s made, even after making them, and seems unable to throw himself wholeheartedly into any of his relationships.
Manna, on the other hand, is frustrating. She refuses to understand what sort of claim Shuyu might have on Lin’s life and time, even after giving up her life to care for his parents and their daughter. She only sees how the waiting has affected herself, and she ends up taking it out on Lin in passive-agressive arguments and insecurities even after they finally are married.
Other reviews I have read have claimed that Shuyu’s pure heart and easy-going commitment to the people in her family regardless of technicalities like divorce make her the only admirable character in the book. I’m not sure what I think about that. I do think that this was a good novel for considering how often we throw all our eggs into the WANTING of something and forget to appreciate it once we have it. Oh, how lovely my life will be when I finally…get a job that pays all the bills, get married, can stay at home with my kids, retire, etc. We start to build our life around the desire for a certain situation or conclusion, and then when it comes (college is over!) we don’t know how to enjoy where we stand because we’re so used to the discontent.
And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t live with discontent. I think that’s what drives us forwards, and it can be a positive thing. But sometimes, it’s good to read a novel that reminds me to look around and see all the things I’ve come through and all the longings I’ve had fulfilled and how wonderful that is. To dwell in the moment and revel in where I am. I have graduated, both from college and with an M.A. I have a good job. My family is safe and solid (and all on American soil!!) I am not alone.
The rest will come, with time.