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A cautionary tale of love and betrayal

October 29, 2002

Ha Jin, author of the 1999 National Book Award-winning novel, "Waiting," a quiet love story dancing between human and political tensions as set against the backdrop of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, continues to mine this rich and historically relevant territory in his newest work, "The Crazed."

In spare yet radiant prose, Jin depicts the daily existence of Jian Wan, a young man whose life is neatly ordered.

A graduate student in literature at remote Shanning University, Jian has been studying diligently under his beloved mentor, Professor Yang, in preparation for the entrance exams for the doctoral program at Beijing University. Once he passes the exam, he'll be reunited in the capital with his fiancee, Meimei (Professor Yang's daughter), who's in Beijing preparing for medical school.

Their lives will then unfold as predictably and comfortably as can be expected: he as an intellectual, balancing the exigencies of art with the circumspection required under the Communist regime, she as an ambitious physician.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 30, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 11 inches; 420 words Type of Material: Correction
Book review byline -- The byline was omitted on the review of Ha Jin's "The Crazed" in Calendar on Tuesday. The review was written by Bernadette Murphy.

At least that was the plan before Professor Yang suffers a stroke just weeks before the exam and Jian is expected, as "the only family Professor Yang has here," to care for him every afternoon.

Initially, the only thing disrupted by the professor's illness is Jian's study plans. It's difficult to get much intellectual work done while sitting in a mangy hospital room, listening to the rantings and hallucinations of one's professor. The more Professor Yang indulges his outbursts of singing, poetry reciting, raving against Communism and speaking to people not there, the more Jian is pulled into the mysteries of his professor's life.

He overhears stories of love and betrayal he hadn't anticipated from his sedate teacher, depths of suffering he hadn't imagined and ribald scenes reenacted before his eyes by the ailing man.

Professor Yang appears to be focusing on the buried truths and treacheries of his life, trying to make peace before he dies. "[H]e appeared to be struggling to take possession of his soul, yearning for some free, unsullied space," Jian notes.

Meanwhile, student demonstrators are marshaling in Beijing and steam is building on what will soon become the Tiananmen Square massacre. The novel's tension is ratcheted up a level as the political and the personal are about to merge in Jian's unguarded life.

Professor Yang, through his ravings, presents to Jian a cautionary tale. "I've been a clerk all my life," he tells a colleague who has come to visit him. "So have you. We're all chattels of the state." Professor Yang urges Jian to renounce the intellectual life while he's still able.

Left deliciously ambiguous by the author are important questions: Are Yang's railings only figments of a damaged mind, delusions not to be trusted, or is Yang finally speaking the truth in a country where honesty and defiance are harshly punished? Is Yang the "crazed" of the book's title, or is it the society in which he lives? In this slow-moving but beautifully layered tale, Jian must decide the nature of truth for himself.

Since much of the novel unfolds in a squalid hospital room, Jin works his magic over the reader by way of accretion: Little by little, the details build, as silently as a snowfall before it becomes a blizzard, so that we, like the book's characters, fail to recognize the full significance of the happenings.

Slowly, the weight of each event increases and Jin's plot gains intensity until it erupts as deafeningly as the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the consequences as life-altering as that fateful event.

Determined "[n]ot to be a piece of meat on the chopping block for others to cut," Jian wanders blindly onto a path he's not been prepared to tread, and he finds himself astray of the university's shelter, rejected by Meimei and thrust by happenstance into a political role he'd never envisioned.

Repressive politics, treachery and hunger for power, viciousness and desperation are at the heart of this tale, which Jin balances tenuously against the redemption of love, the importance of art and the vital need for narrative to make sense of our lives and our suffering.

Professor Yang tells Jian that he had survived the ordeal of persecution during the Cultural Revolution with help from Dante. "[D]uring the torture, I would recite to myself lines from 'The Divine Comedy.' [The torturers] could hurt me physically, but they could not subdue my soul."



'The Crazed'

A Novel

By Ha Jin

Pantheon: 330 pages, $24

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