In the Pond

In the Pond, Ha Jin's first novel, is slender almost to the point of fable. Shao Bin is a talented calligraphist and painter working at a maintenance job in the northern Chinese commune of Dismount Fort, ready to speak out against injustice after being snubbed in the housing lottery. His artistic skills, honed in private, as well as his devotion to Maoist principles, lead to opportunities outside the bleak commune— illustrating for a propaganda magazine, attending college— but these are mercilessly snatched away by his defensive bosses. Undeterred, Shao wages a private campaign to expose his self-rewarding superiors.

Shao's potentially disruptive creations— a wickedly satirical cartoon of his bosses, a painting for a crusading journalist that portrays him as a heroic swordsman— are full of vigor, a revolution in small. Ha Jin makes what would seem a circumscribed, solitary process both politically powerful and narratively gripping. Though the theme of the pen almighty isn't exactly new, the portrayal of Shao's talent lifts this tale into the realm of rapt ekphrasis. Inkwork is so vividly described that one sees it dry on the page, and the sheer physicality of the process gets ravishing treatment, as in the passage where Shao compares his prized inkstone, speckled with mica, to a star-filled night over a slumbering town.

Ha Jin concludes In the Pond with Shao promoted to propaganda work, arms raised triumphantly like wings. The book's moral— that every gadfly has its price— is deployed with supreme irony: Shao is happily oblivious of the fact that his new role will mire him in Dismount Fort forever. And his artistry, once so impassioned, seems destined to ebb into weakness, as in a recanting missive to an advocacy journal that had championed his case: "The brushwork in the letter was offhand, so that the characters appeared rather graceful and cloudy." This well-shaped book manages to depict Shao's co-opting with an ambiguity that mimics his delicate grays.


In the Pond
By Ha Jin
Zoland Books, 178 pp., $20
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