Divorce, Chinese-Style

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Dr. Lin Kong, the hero of Ha Jin's Waiting (Pantheon; 308 pages), is hardly the first man, in or outside of fiction, to wish to end his first marriage and wed the woman he now loves. But rarely, if ever, has such a fellow been bedeviled by the array of obstacles Lin must confront. Not only is he scrupulously moral and thus vulnerable to all the guilty pangs of wayward husbandhood, but Lin's travails occur in a place--communist China--and during a time--the early 1960s to the early '80s--when literally all occasions conspire against the quest for such a trivial thing as personal happiness.By Western standards, Lin's argument for a change in his life seems easy to justify. Back in his native Goose Village, his parents arranged his marriage to the peasant woman Shuyu so that they would have someone to nurse them through their final illnesses while Lin pursued his medical career far away in the army. Nearly everything about Shuyu appalls Lin, particularly her feet, which were bound in the old-fashioned way during her childhood. This was the New China, Lin muses. Who would look up to a young woman with bound feet? He sees her only during the 12 days he is on leave each year; after the birth of their daughter, some three years into the marriage, Lin stops sleeping with Shuyu for good.

During the 17 years--17 years--that this situation continues, Lin forms a strong attachment to Manna Wu, a young nurse at his base hospital. That is, she was young when she and Lin first met, but Manna has grown understandably restive during a long courtship that never gets beyond some furtive hand holding. (Army rules forbid unmarried couples from even walking together outside the compound walls.) She keeps urging Lin to divorce his wife, and every year he goes back to his village and tries to do so. And every year Shuyu agrees to his request but then changes her mind when they appear before the local judge. Without her consent, Lin is stymied: It would make no sense to anybody in the countryside if Lin said he wanted to divorce his wife because he didn't love her. He had to find a real fault in her, which he couldn't.

Although there is nothing inherently funny about two people being romantically thwarted for nearly two decades, Waiting turns, page by careful page, into a deliciously comic novel. Ha Jin, who left his native China in 1985 to study at Brandeis University and then remained in the U.S., tells this tale in an impeccably deadpan manner. He casts a wise, rather than a cold, eye on his characters' struggles, both with an inflexible social system and their own weaknesses. With two earlier collections of stories and a novella, Ha Jin attracted notice as a guide to a world few outside China know. His first novel, which has been nominated for a National Book Award, makes local color intimately familiar.