I’m reading the books that I’m clearing off my shelves, preparatory to making more room in the office. This week I finished In the Pond by Ha Jin.
It reminded me of a family event. Years ago, at the high school graduation party of her daughter, my cousin lifted the three-tier, professionally decorated cake off the table to show it to her guests. In a sequence of moves that would put a Melissa McCarthy movie to shame, my cousin slipped on something, her foot shot forward, and her arms jerked up. The cake separated from the plate and summersaulted high into the air before the horrified gaze of all the guests, doing a beautiful swan dive straight into the retired, but still usable, chamber pot.
Somebody went out for donuts.
The story of Shao Bin, as Ha Jin writes it in In the Pond, is like that. A self-educated scholar and self-taught artist who works at a fertilizer plant in China, Shao Bin feels deeply wronged—and his wife deeply disappointed—when he is not assigned a bigger apartment for his growing family. Instead, only the party cadre “earn” larger spaces. Shao Bin—everyone—knows that the apartments are not allocated by need, as party rules dictate, but by party alliances, kickbacks, and bribes. He takes action, drawing a cartoon mocking the party leaders, which the local newspaper publishes.
This maneuver sets off a cascading series of events in which things can only go from bad to worse. Shao Bin applies for other jobs and is accepted for one, but the fertilizer factory party chairmen refuse to let him go because they don’t want the other workers to know that Shao Bin is qualified for such a good position. Bin applies to college and is accepted, but the factory party chairs refuse to let him attend because he is needed to draw propaganda at the plant. (And with slogans like “Utilize Methane; Turn Waste into Treasure,” who can blame them?)
Shao Bin challenges the leaders at every opportunity, breaking up meetings, writing letters of complaint, drawing cartoons and even graffiti to protest the actions against him. In time, the leaders at the factory find a solution for their troublesome worker, but it comes at a price—and it’s not exactly what he expects.
Winner of the National Book Award in 1999 for Waiting, Ha Jin paints a picture of life in a provincial Chinese town, with its depictions of the pettiness of the officials and their scheming to maintain status, that feels very true to life. And I had to root for Shao Bin, who takes up his narrow calligrapher’s brush to confront the powerful party leadership, with repercussions that reach far past his home town and the Harvest Fertilizer Plant. This book is dark and funny, even as you see the cake take off into the air and know that it can’t land anyplace good.