Books in Review

Ocean of Words: Army Stories (Zoland Books, 1996) and Facing Shadows (Hanging Loose Press, 1996) by Ha Jin

In Ha Jin's story "Love in the Air," the most important character is represented by a distant voice on the phone and a telegraph message over the wire. But the telegraphic messages hold important meaning: "The dots and dashes sounded like amorous messages inviting him to decode their secret meaning." The message and the ensuing emotional trials illustrate how human desire might overcome the most censorious of times and places (Mainland China, 1970s) or the most stifling of circumstances.

Like the subtle codes of the telegraph, Jin's narrative voices emerge in his recently published collection of stories, Ocean of Words: Army Stories, full of meaning but unsure of their destinations. Jin, an assistant professor in the English department, daringly sets these stories on the Chinese-Russian border in the early 1970s and populates them with characters such as Commander Gao, Uncle Piao, Dragon Head and An Mali. And yet these stories might best be defined by what they are not. They are not written in Chinese (or translated from Chinese). They are not political tenets. It might be argued that they are not even about war. These "Army Stories" are concerned with the battles of the heart and soul rather than battles between governments. And yet, battles of the heart and political wars might serve as emblems of one another.

In "Dragon Head" a group of would-be soldiers sing a quotation by Chairman Mao about revolution: "A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another." Like Mao's revolution, Jin's stories reveal upheavals of all sizes.

But Jin, who spent six years in the People's Liberation Army on the northern border of China and worked as a railroad telegrapher during the Cultural Revolution does not intrude upon the stories with autobiographical angst. Like the mysterious Wang Lili in "Love in the Air," whose smooth hand on the telegraph wire seduces Big Kang and Shi Wei, Jin's identity remains subtle and elusive and yet powerfully present. Indeed, the issue of identity becomes an important problem in these stories.

The story of exiled lovers Kong Kai and An Mali, "Too Late," presents a battle of loyalties. The question of who is in power is always being challenged in the stories. The story of Dragon Head asks who the real military leaders are while other stories explore questions of authority and identity.

In "Love in the Air" Jin describes a confused Kang, who questions his place in the world: "The sky was so high and the land so vast. Kang took a deep breath; a fresh contraction lingered in his chest. For the first time he felt a person was so small." Jin's stories of small events in the lives of "small" people have meaning that is perhaps too big for one identity, one language or even one genre.

The recently published book of poetry, Facing Shadows, presents Jin with a brash clarity and sexual charge appropriate to his compact verses. Read in order, the poems reveal a deliberate outline of the writer's identity beginning with his Manchurian grandmother and leading to his present-day home in Lilburn, Ga. And yet all of the poems hark back to ancient ways, lost cultures and painful transitions.

The parents in "A Child's Nature" try to explain the horrors of murder and political terror to their 6-year-old child. In "Gratitude" the narrator recalls the fate of poets Tu Fu and Li Po "who had the bitterest lines./ The Lord of Heaven wanted them to sing,/ so he made them feed on misfortune./ He cut their wings and put them into cages and forced them to watch other birds soaring."

Constantly reminding us of his debts to others, Jin celebrates the surprise joys as well as the fateful traps in life. He writes in "Nets," "I have fled many nets/ but always wandered into another one--/ there are nets outside a net/ and nets within a net./ I am a frog with useless wings."

His poem titled "Lilburn, Georgia" suggests that place and identity are intertwined and sometimes at odds with one another. In "The Scent of the Sun" he writes, "If someone tells me again,/ `The sun smells the same anywhere,'/ I will say to him,/ `Not in every home.'"

Jin, as the winged frog, delivers a brave voice from the trenches of his internal battles, daring to fight shadows and invisible enemies with songs rather than guns. And we are grateful for the opportunity to decode his flowing dots and dashes.

--Matt Montgomery

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