Ha Jin was born in 1956 in China, lived through Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward”, spent his teenage years in the People’s Liberation Army, and earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Studies and a Master’s degree in Anglo-American Literature.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China happened while he was on scholarship at Brandeis University in the United States and led to his decision to make America his home. Despite being openly critical of the Chinese Government he refutes claims that he is a dissident, though most of his books are banned in China. Among his many awards are America’s National Book Award, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award twice. He currently directs Boston University’s creative writing programme.
The Boat Rocker is his eighth novel. It has a striking but simple cover in a particularly friendly shade of blue. The book’s flysheet notes describe it as “a tour de force of modern fiction”.
I was looking forward to reading it. I wanted to like it – I tried very hard – but I found it difficult to correlate the book with the hype. Not having read anything else by this writer I can’t declare that the emperor has no clothes, but with such a formidable reputation I was surprised to find the writing so ... mediocre.
Without wanting to switch to full conspiracy theory mode I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t some clues to Ha Jin’s success embedded in the plot of this book. Because The Boat Rocker, apparently based on a true incident, is about a book that receives an inordinate amount of hype even before publication, so much so that it raises suspicions.
Danlin, a Chinese reporter based in New York, sets out to discover the truth about the supposedly autobiographical story of Haili, an expatriate Chinese woman married to an American stockbroker named Larry. Haili’s book describes how she copes when Larry dies in the 9/11 terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001. By her own accounts she is dynamic, multitalented, and, above all, resilient. She recovers and surmounts any difficulties with exaggeratedly assured poise and elegance.
But Danlin knows that much of this is not true. He knows because Haili is his former wife. Moreover, Larry is alive and well and, before he meets Danlin, is unaware that he is a character in his wife’s book, and a dead one at that.
Danlin is under no illusions about his ex-wife’s literary talents and is vindicated in his appraisal when he convinces her to let him read several chapters of the manuscript. But Haili’s literary contacts are directly connected to the Chinese Govern-ment. China’s best regarded literary critics ooze praise for her writing. Her agents assure China’s journalists that Haili’s book will be an instant success. It will be translated into 30 languages. It will be made into a movie. It will win her the Nobel Prize for literature.
In his articles, Danlin attempts to expose all this as nonsense. While his claims receive some attention they are drowned out by a flood of superlative enthusiasm for Haili’s yet to be published, and perhaps even yet to be completed, book.
Dailin is determined to expose his ex-wife as a fraud, partially (or maybe even largely) in revenge for the way she dumped him. She in return goads him, publicly casting aspersions on his character and revealing intimate details of his sexual inadequacies.
This is a sensitive issue for Dailin and we are treated to accounts of his erectile dysfunction and the largely unsuccessful relationships he has had with women since Haili ended their marriage.
Meanwhile, staff of the Chinese consulate in New York are implicated in a crackdown on members of the Falun Gong cult, beating them in public on New York’s streets. Incensed, Dailin writes about this, and even though he does so behind a pseudonym, the Chinese authorities have little trouble in identifying him as the author.
The Boat Rocker is a tolerably engaging read, but in this reviewer’s eyes, doesn’t even remotely live up to the hype about its author.
The Boat Rocker
Author: Ha Jin
Publisher: Pantheon, fiction