Much Madness is divinest Sense/To a discerning Eye, wrote Emily Dickinson. Ha Jin, the National Book Award-winning author of Waiting, revisits this connection between insanity and sagacity in his new novel, The Crazed. The year is 1989. The country: China. Jian Wan is the protÅ½gÅ½ of Yang, an ailing professor of literature. Jian is also engaged to marry Yang's ambitious daughter, Meimei, who expects Jian to follow in her father's academic footsteps. But when Jian is charged with caring for Yang, he discerns divine career advice in the old man's demented outbursts. Don't become an academic like me, he moans. You should learn how to grow millet instead. Yang argues that intellectuals in China are mere stooges for the regnant Communist Party, glorified clerks doomed to enslave knowledge to ideology. As long as foreign influences are shunned and, George Bush is the number-one Current Counterrevolutionary, intellectual endeavor is absurd. Yang persuades Jian to abandon years of study, and Jian resolves to become an actual, rather than a glorified, clerk a knife rather than meat. Even though it was her father who led Jian astray, Meimei calls Jian a coward and gives him the slip.
As Jian plummets into apostasy, pro-democracy demonstrators are massing in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Jian joins them, but his motives are less than pure: He wants to show Meimei that he is not a coward. It's personal interests, he concludes, that motivate the individual and therefore generate the dynamics of history. But we all know what comes next. The People's Liberation Army arrives, butchering the demonstrators and horrifying the world. Surprisingly, the actual death toll is still unclear. According to Ha Jin, the BBC reported 5,000 deaths; official China, not surprisingly, reported zero. Jian escapes with his life, but without his illusions. And he sets out for Hong Kong, then a British protectorate. Like many books by Chinese dissidents, The Crazed occasionally reads like anti-Communist propaganda, and its pro-Western subtext will certainly promote its success with Western audiences. The dying professor offers lengthy orations in praise of Canada and the United States, and Ha Jin himself, a professor of English at Boston University, praised America as a land of generosity and abundance in his National Book Award acceptance speech. In some ways The Crazed is one long thank-you note to Ha Jin's new home, and a Dear John letter to the China he left behind. As a work of art, The Crazed is hard to fault. Ha Jin, who writes in English, has perfected a prose that is accomplished without being ostentatious. His characters are credible precisely because they are as benevolent as they are flawed and confused. And though the novel's events proceed in a natural and captivating way, the author still finds room for meditations on Genesis, The Divine Comedy, Bertolt Brecht, the questionable value of suffering, the sublimity of carnal pleasures and China's empleomania: a mania for holding public office. American literature is dominated by sprinters (as opposed to milers) and professors (as opposed to writers). But Ha Jin's new novel proves him a laudable exception to this rule. May his madness, such as it is, continue to make such admirable sense.
Kenneth Champeon is a writer based in Thailand.