Sunday, October 28, 2007

The pursuit of liberty

"The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work." This quote of William Butler Yeats' is the bedrock of Ha Jin's latest novel, A Free Life. Set entirely in America, this book, which follows Jin's critically acclaimed Waiting and War Trash, is an intricate peek into the artist's sensibility and ways of surviving material dissipation.

Nan Wu, a poet at heart, emigrates to America from China with his wife Pingping (followed later by their son Taotao), and after passing through a series of low-paying jobs, opens a Chinese restaurant, the Gold Wok, in Atlanta. But Nan, forever trying to make a name for himself as a poet, does not locate happiness in his dreary existence. He is happy at having escaped the Communist excesses of China, but his new position, of a man working day and night to make ends meet, is little consolation for "a free life."

Within this banality, Nan searches for the perfect muse, in the image of Doctor Zhivago's Lara. He senses a deep connection with the book, in its exploration of a poet-doctor, a man torn between two women. It troubles him that Pasternak does not explore the effort that Yuri takes to develop his poetry, and he cannot see how the poems at the back of the book relate to the prose. Jin uses this device masterfully, and includes a stash of Nan's fictitious poems at the end of A Free Life, in an indication of how Nan's personal growth mirrors his evolution as a poet.

Nan also pines for his long-lost love, the beautiful, irresistible Beina Su, who had spurned his advances all those years ago. While he loves Pingping, he sees his life with her as stolid and seeks a return to the passion of his youth. He wishes to write poems that are "dark, luminous, and starkly elegant."

Amidst drawing out a Chekovian portrait of life and its soothing dailiness, Jin is also a deeply subversive writer. On a trip to Beijing, Nan encounters a city intent on destroying every fragment of its past in a race to showcase its modernity to the world. The hypocritical duplicity of a regime that must touch up its Communist ills to make them palatable, is a recurrent theme in the novel.

But this does not imply a simplistic view to life in America. Jin is too nuanced a writer for that sort of easy resolution. Nan must accept his shortcomings and compulsions, yet he must, for his own sake, keep trying to live the life of the artist. It is in Jin's evocation of this compromise that A Free Life breaks free of the shackles of the novel to become something greater--a love song to the pull of art.

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From St. Petersburg Times

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