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Book review: <i>In The Pond</i> by Ha Jin

Some people are entirely happy with their lot in life; with work and a roof over their heads and a decent meal they can be satisfied. Some people live lives of quiet dissatisfaction. And some people have a way to strike back. Such is the political and very entertaining tale of Shao Bin, Harvest Fertilizer Plant worker by day, artist by night, who takes of the corrupt powers that be.

The story

Shao Bin has worked at the Harvest Fertilizer Plant in Gold County for six years. He is sick of living at Dismount Fort in his one room, and feels that he and his wife and baby are sure to get an apartment this time from the Housing Committee. When he is turned down, he approaches the leaders of the plant. They laugh his allegations of corruption away, so Shao Bin takes matters into his own hands and constructs a political cartoon to appear in one of the newspapers in order to reveal their corruption and shame the leaders. This single act sets off a chain of unexpected events, with Shao Bin thwarted at every turn and the leaders more and more desperate to keep their positions. Eventually he takes his battle right to the top in his quest for recognition, fairness, and a decent apartment.

The style

Ha Jin has a droll and descriptive style; his writing is ponderous but at the same time light and easy to read. His manner of describing events is excellent, the reader can see the room in which he lives, smell the air, taste the food, and picture the whole feeling of Gold County. His adjectives are never cliched - some of the passages of note in the story are insults like "son of a tortoise", or a description of Shao Bin being kicked in the testicles: "he was lying on his back with both hands covering his crotch, his legs stretching out in the shape of a flock of flying geese". Who would have thought it? But it works so well! The whole story is infused with a dry humour, all the characters tinged with something slightly ridiculous or caricatured like so it's a bit like the story itself is a political cartoon about a political cartoon. Clever.

In The Pond is written in the third person limited from the point of view of Shao Bin. Bin is creative, thwarted, and fallibly human; everything he attempts in the best of faith goes terribly wrong, leaving him regretting his actions and at the same time plotting something else that is bound to get him in even more trouble. The writing style is similar to that of Waiting - Ha Jin's first novel - but In The Pond shows a more playful and political side of the author.

I think what I enjoyed about In The Pond most was the political aspect without the "ooh, Communist China, better get heavy and moralistic and put my alliances on my sleeve". Sure, it's set in Communist China. And it provides an insight into how certain political elements and systems function. But the humour shines through, and judges the characters not a communists but as people. It was the most political non-political book I've ever read, and it was just great fun.

Who is this book for?

This book is for anyone who wants to read something with an Asian flavour; authentic, rich, and above all, playful. Don't expect to hear about the horrors of modern Communism, but politics, weakness, pride, and determination are all present and accounted for. Did I mention it's really good?

If you like this book, you would also like...

Ha Jin's first novel, Waiting, is of a different storyline but paints a beautiful and insightful view into modern China also. While I personally liked In The Pond better, Waiting has its own humour and value.

In short

Title: In The Pond
Author: Ha Jin
Publisher: Vintage International
ISBN: 0375709118
Year published: 1998
Pages: 178
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Humour, Political
Review Type: 


Great little book. Easy to read. Interesting story and setting. Didn't like the ending much though. It just all wrapped up to quick.