Lin Kong seeks divorce
every year for 18 years,
waits for life to start.
Waiting, by Ha Jin, joins that exalted company. Though its setting is closer in time than some of the others, the main character is probably 20 years older than I. And Chinese under a Communist regime.
I chose this book because I was captivated by the first line on 100 Best First Lines: "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu."
At first, I thought the statement would be metaphorical, but no. Lin Kong has moved to the city, where he is a doctor. Though he agreed to an arranged marriage, so his wife could care for his aging mother, he is ashamed of his wife's bound feet (20th Century women simply do not bind their feet!), so he leaves her behind. And every year he spends his 12-day vacation traveling back to his rural village, trying to get a divorce so he can marry his mistress: a very modern nurse with normal feet.
Waiting reminded me of the Samuel Beckett play, Waiting for Godot, and indeed, some themes are similar. Longing for something elusive we don't have, and the sense of waiting until our life will begin. High schoolers think life begins at graduation. Young adults cannot wait for marriage, then for children. Young mothers dream of the time their children will all be in school--then gone from home. Middle-aged folks like me daydream about retirement.
And so we miss the magic in the day to day.
Very little happens in Waiting. People get up, go to work, form relationships. Oh, and a donkey dies.
I'm just kidding, of course. Things do happen, but they are the kinds of events that take place in any, average life. Which makes the story both simpler and more profound. I never considered putting this book aside.
I did find myself ambiguous about whether or not I wanted Lin Kong to get his divorce. I wanted the best for him and for his mistress, but I also felt empathy for the set-aside wife. It really put the situation into perspective. We tend to think in terms of win-lose. Either it's a happy ending or it sucks*. But sometimes even the happy endings suck, at least for someone. And other times, the sucky ending is deeply satisfying.
Either way, the ambiguity is a clear reflection of life the way it really is: almost nothing is simply good or bad--ask anyone who's won the lottery.
Waiting, however, is simply good. A fascinating glimpse into another culture, and the springboard for introspection about what happiness really is, and what constitutes a successful life.
*Hee hee. If Ha Jin is typical of authors and Googles his name, I wonder what he'll think of someone using "sucks" in the review of this clearly literary novel?