There is no time like the present to cultivate your own garden

Woman with bound feet reclining on chaise lounge, China [Public Domain via Wikimedia].

WaitingWaiting by Ha Jin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a lovely story that has all of the drama of Candide without the travel. If the theme is anything, it is that, rather than "good things come to those who wait", we might often wait for something that was never good, and then regret what we deliberately left behind. I don't think the theme comparison with Candide's "cultivate your own garden" is too far from the author's intention. 

Set in a period that encompasses the Cultural Revolution, this novel captures what it may have been like to live during this period of history in China. Ha Jin's work is brilliant. I saw this book in the bookstore and I was drawn to it. 

After reading Eileen Chang's Lust, Caution, I have decided to investigate a variety of literary works outside of my Anglophone comfort zone. While Chang's work was translated, Ha Jin is a Professor of English at Boston University, so this work was written in English. 

His style is engaging and I found it hard to turn the light out to sleep for two nights as I wanted to finish it in one go. This novel had me reflecting on my own life and the choices I have made. 

Not that I regret the past - or at least I inspire to live in the spirit of amor fati - but I couldn't help think that there are many lessons of the past that I hadn't really embedded in my psyche. After sharing the journey with the protagonist, Lin Kong, I am still returning to memories to mop up the remnants of lessons long forgotten or ignored. 

I think a great novel allows the reader to learn from the experiences of the characters. In effect, to learn from the mistakes of fools rather than make the same mistake. This novel won the 1999 US National Book Award, and no wonder. While I do not pretend that a book award is the be-all and end-all of great books, it provides some reassurance. And I wasn't disappointed. 

Ha Jin has written many other novels, and I hope to be reading another of his works very soon. It was helpful to have a working knowledge of Chinese modern history, and especially Chairman Mao's philosophy, but it is not necessary to enjoy the story. 

At the beginning here I wrote that it is a lovely story, and it is, but in a way that one sits and thinks for an eternity before putting the book down. It is also a very sad story. If I were to sum up the story in one of Poor Richard's (Benjamin Franklin's) maxims, it would be thus:
Would you live with ease, do what you ought, and not what you please.

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