It's hard not to read the story of Nan Wu, the protagonist of Ha Jin's expansive new novel, A Free Life, as an imagining of another life the author might have led.
Jin, whose luminous Waiting won the National Book Award, was assigned by his Chinese college to study English, a field he did not favour, but which eventually led to his traveling to the United States for graduate school. Jin remained here after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre made it impossible for him to return in good conscience. He earned his Ph.D. while balancing gigs as a night watchman and a busboy and eventually chose to write in English, in part because the sort of honest writing he wished to do could not be published in China.
Jin, working painstakingly in a language that he'd learned relatively late in life, published two volumes of poetry before beginning to publish fiction - and the rest is history.
In A Free Life, the fictional Nan Wu is assigned to study political science in college, but while in America at work on his Ph.D., he becomes disillusioned with the subject following the events at Tiananmen Square. Wu decides to forgo his studies and strike out on his own with his family, leaving the sheltered world of academia.
Though his passion is for poetry, he is married and has a young son, and knows he must become a businessman to survive. He takes a job as a night watchman that allows him to read and study the English dictionary, and at one point he asks a Russian coworker with a shady side business for advice. "In America there're only two ways to acquire riches," the coworker advises. "First, use others' money; second, use others' labour."
Wu is never able to follow this formula, having to earn every dollar through his own efforts. Eventually, he takes a job in a restaurant, learns to cook and moves his family to the Atlanta area where they buy a small Chinese restaurant and start taking a crack at their American dream.
Part of what makes Wu so compelling as a character, however, is that his American dream has more dimensions than the typical story of an immigrant saving and slaving until he owns a home and can send his children to good schools. Wu does plenty of backbreaking work at the restaurant, but he is unwilling to abandon his artistic yearnings and pour all his hopes into the life of his son, as fellow Chinese immigrants urge.
Wu's tenacious if spotty pursuit of his development as a poet echoes another great American novel of immigration, Willa Cather's My Antonia, in which the title character's Bohemian immigrant father puts aside his art - fiddle playing - to make a go in America but ultimately can't bear up under the struggle. It's clear the choice Wu makes to continue with his poetry despite his difficulties is a life-saver.
Another dimension to Wu's American dream is that he's an inveterate romantic, still harbouring a crush on his first girlfriend, Beina, who jilted him before he met and married his wife, Pingping. Wu doesn't feel the intense passion toward Pingping that he had for Beina, and the couple's open acknowledgement of this is a source of tension in the relationship.
Pingping is devoted to her husband, a diligent mother, hard-working, adaptable and sharp - the reader falls in love with her far earlier in the book than Wu is able to. The wayward nature of Wu's heart troubles him, and the fact that his continuing crush on Beina causes him such distress, even though he remains a faithful husband, is an insight to his character. He values transparently honest living; for him thoughts and words are the same as deeds.
These themes of the pursuit of the American dream and longing for passionate rather than companionate love underlie A Free Life, but on the surface the book focuses on adjusting to life in this country. The striking insights Ha Jin offers about life in America show what America looks like to an outsider and how odd English idioms can sound to a non-native speaker. At one point, Pingping thinks playing "hooky" must have something to do with being a hooker.
And when the Wus first buy a house, they can't "figure out what the little red flag on the mailbox was supposed to do." So they guess: "Now every morning before going to work, Nan would raise the tiny flag as a way to greet the postman. . . . Then one day Pingping found a slip of paper in the mailbox, bearing these words: 'Don't let your kids play with the flag! Keep it up only when you have mail to go.' "
The American way of using credit to acquire material goods is foreign to the Wus. They live in great anxiety during the years when they have a mortgage on their home, even though Wu insists to Pingping, "We must shed our Chinese mind- set and learn to accept insecurity as a living condition."
Wu can't adhere to his own advice and puts aside his poetry for a time to concentrate on making money. But by the end of the book, he's returned to his art, and the novel closes with a selection of poetry he's written about the events of his life, pieces that any reader who has come to root for him will enjoy.
Wu's choice to write in English, like Jin's, was a deliberate one. Most Americans live their lives in the same language they were born into, feeling no more than a mellow love for it. In A Free Life, another excellent book that, like Waiting, involves the thwarted pursuit of passion, Jin has proved, through crystalline prose studded with unusual words, that he has a rare ardour for his adopted language.
This review first appeared in The Rocky Mountain News.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007