cover image In the Pond

In the Pond

Ha Jin. Zoland Books, $20 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-944072-92-9

Prize-winning short-story writer Ha Jin (Ocean of Words won the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction; Under the Red Flag won the Flannery O'Connor Award) offers a wise and funny first novel that gathers meticulously observed images into a seething yet restrained tale of social injustice in modern China. Talented artist Shao Bin has an unsatisfying job at a large fertilizer plant. After being denied a decent housing assignment, he begins a series of retaliatory satirical cartoons, which illustrate his employers' flaws and in turn earn their wrath--which in turn inspires more cartoons. When his superiors try to transfer him, they are chagrined to discover that Bin is much in demand--and that any new job he gets is likely to be a step up. So they decide to keep him on. After an occasionally monotonous sequence of attacks and counterattacks, Bin finally gets promoted to the propaganda office. He is ecstatic, although his family must still make do with the same uncomfortable apartment that started the conflict. Luckily, the characters' complexity saves the story from political overkill. The supervisors, through moments of vulnerability, come to seem like genuinely detestable human beings rather than one-dimensional villains. Bin, similarly, is both justifiably indignant and annoying in his self-absorption. Ha Jin's humor initially appears clownish but almost always has a double purpose: when Bin's supervisor sits on his face to silence him, Bin bites the boss' posterior--illustrating rather vividly his refusal to kiss ass. Through Ha Jin's gently ironic treatment, Bin's struggle both to achieve power in his community and retain his own dignity transcends its Communist Chinese setting, engagingly illustrating a universal conundrum. (Nov.)