you think he'll stay in the hospital for long?" I asked her.
"I've no idea."
"How long should I look after him?"
"Till we find somebody to replace you."
By "somebody" she meant a person the department might hire as a nurse's
aide. Although annoyed by the way she assigned me the job, I said nothing.
To some extent I was glad for the assignment, without which I would in
any case go to the hospital every day.
After lunch, when my two roommates, Mantao and Huran, were napping, I
went to the bicycle shed located between two long dormitory houses. Unlike
the female students, who had recently all moved into the new dorm building
inside the university, most of the male students still lived in the one-story
houses near the front entrance to the campus. I pulled out my Phoenix
bicycle and set off for Central Hospital.
The hospital was in downtown Shanning, and it took me more than twenty
minutes to get there. Though it wasn't summer yet, the air was sweltering,
filled with the smell of burning fat and stewed radish. On the balconies
of the apartment buildings along the street, lines of laundry were flapping
languidly--sheets, blouses, pajamas, towels, tank tops, sweat suits. As
I passed by a construction site, a loudspeaker mounted on a telephone
pole was broadcasting a soccer game; the commentator sounded sleepy despite
the intermittent surges of shouts from the fans. All the workers at the
site were resting inside the building caged by bamboo scaffolding. The
skeletonlike cranes and the drumlike mixers were motionless. Three shovels
stood on a huge pile of sand, beyond which a large yellow board displayed
the giant words in red paint: AIM HIGH, GO ALL OUT. I felt the back of
my shirt dampen with sweat.
Mrs. Yang had gone to Tibet on a veterinary team for a year. Our department
had written to her about her husband's stroke, but she wouldn't be able
to come home immediately. Tibet was too far away. She'd have to switch
buses and trains constantly--it would take her more than a week to return.
In my letter to my fiancee, Meimei, who was in Beijing cramming for the
exams for a medical graduate program, I described her father's condition
and assured her that I would take good care of him and that she mustn't
be worried too much. I told her not to rush back since there was no magic
cure for a stroke.
To be honest, I felt obligated to attend my teacher. Even without my engagement
to his daughter, I'd have done it willingly, just out of gratitude and
respect. For almost two years he had taught me individually, discussing
classical poetry and poetics with me almost every Saturday afternoon,
selecting books for me to read, directing my master's thesis, and correcting
my papers for publication. He was the best teacher I'd ever had, knowledgeable
about the field of poetics and devoted to his students. Some of my fellow
graduate students felt uncomfortable having him as their adviser. "He's
too demanding," they would say. But I enjoyed working with him. I didn't
even mind some of them calling me Mr. Yang, Jr.; in a way, I was his disciple.
Mr. Yang was sleeping as I stepped into the sickroom. He was shorn of
the IV apparatus affixed to him in intensive care. The room was a makeshift
place, quite large for one bed, but dusky and rather damp. Its square
window looked south onto a mountain of anthracite in the backyard of the
hospital. Beyond the coal pile, a pair of concrete smokestacks spewed
whitish fumes and a few aspen crowns swayed indolently. The backyard suggested
a factory--more exactly, a power plant; even the air here looked grayish.
By contrast, the front yard resembled a garden or a park, planted with
holly bushes, drooping willows, sycamores, and flowers, including roses,
azaleas, geraniums, and fringed irises. There was even an oval pond, built
of bricks and rocks, abounding in fantailed goldfish. White-robed doctors
and nurses strolled through the flowers and trees as if they had nothing
urgent to do.
Shabby as Mr. Yang's room was, having it was a rare privilege; few patients
could have a sickroom solely to themselves. If my father, who was a carpenter
on a tree farm in the Northeast, had a stroke, he would be lucky if they
gave him a bed in a room shared by a dozen people. Actually Mr. Yang had
lain unconscious in a place like that for three days before he was moved
here. With infinite pull, Secretary Peng had succeeded in convincing the
hospital officials that Mr. Yang was an eminent scholar (though he wasn't
a full professor yet) whom our country planned to protect as a national
treasure, so they ought to give him a private room.
Mr. Yang stirred a little and opened his mouth, which had become flabby
since the stroke. He looked a few years older than the previous month;
a network of wrinkles had grown into his face. His gray hair was unkempt
and a bit shiny, revealing his whitish scalp. Eyes shut, he went on licking
his upper lip and murmured something I couldn't quite hear.
Sitting on a large wicker chair close to the door, I was about to take
out a book from my shoulder bag when Mr. Yang opened his eyes and looked
around vacantly. I followed his gaze and noticed that the wallpaper had
almost lost its original pink. His eyes, cloudy with a web of reddish
veins, moved toward the center of the low ceiling, stopped for a moment
at the lightbulb held by a frayed wire, then fell on the stack of Japanese
vocabulary cards on my lap.
"Help me sit up, Jian," he said softly.
I went over, lifted his shoulders, and put behind him two pillows stuffed
with fluffy cotton so that he could sit comfortably. "Do you feel better
today?" I asked.
"No, I don't." He kept his head low, a tuft of hair standing up on his
crown while a muscle in his right cheek twitched.
For a minute or so we sat silently. I wasn't sure if I should talk more;
Dr. Wu had told us to keep the patient as peaceful as possible; more conversation
might make him too excited. Although diagnosed as a cerebral thrombosis,
his stroke seemed quite unusual, not accompanied by aphasia--he was still
articulate and at times peculiarly voluble.
As I wondered what to do, he raised his head and broke the silence. "What
have you been doing these days?" he asked. His tone indicated that he
must have thought we were in his office discussing my work.
I answered, "I've been reviewing a Japanese textbook for the exam and--"
"To hell with that!" he snapped. I was too shocked to say anything more.
He went on, "Have you read the Bible by any chance?" He looked at me expectantly.
"Yes, but not the unabridged Bible." Although puzzled by his question,
I explained to him in the way I would report on a book I had just waded
through. "Last year I read a condensed English version called Stories
from the Bible, published by the Press of Foreign Language Education.
I wish I could get hold of a genuine Bible, though." In fact, a number
of graduate students in the English program had written to Christian associations
in the United States requesting the Bible, and some American churches
had mailed them boxes of books, but so far every copy had been confiscated
by China's customs.
Mr. Yang said, "Then you know the story of Genesis, don't you?"
"Yes, but not the whole book."
"All right, in that case, let me tell you the story in its entirety."
After a pause, he began delivering his self-invented Genesis with the
same eloquence he exhibited when delivering lectures. But unlike in the
classroom, where his smiles and gestures often mesmerized the students,
here he sat unable to move a muscle, and his listless head hung so low
that his eyes must have seen nothing but the white quilt over his legs.
There was a bubbling sound in his nose, rendering his voice a little wheezy
and tremulous. "When God created heaven and earth, all creatures were
made equal. He did not intend to separate man from animals. All the creatures
enjoyed not only the same kind of life but also the same span of life.
They were equal in every way."
What kind of Genesis is this? I asked myself. He's all confused, making
He spoke again. "Then why does man live longer than most animals? Why
does he have a life different from those of the other creatures? According
to Genesis it's because man was greedy and clever and appropriated many
years of life from Monkey and Donkey." He exhaled, his cheeks puffy and
his eyes narrowed. A fishtail of wrinkles spread from the end of his eye
toward his temple. He went on, "One day God descended from heaven to inspect
the world he had created. Monkey, Donkey, and Man came out to greet God
with gratitude and to show their obedience. God asked them whether they
were satisfied with life on earth. They all replied that they were.
"'Does anyone want something else?' asked God.
"Hesitating for a moment, Monkey stepped forward and said, 'Lord, the
earth is the best place where I can live. You have blessed so many trees
with fruit that I need nothing more. But why did you let me live to the
age of forty? After I reach thirty, I will become old and cannot climb
up trees to pluck fruit. So I will have to accept whatever the young monkeys
give me, and sometimes I will have to eat the cores and peels they drop
to the ground. It hurts me to think I'd have to feed on their leavings.
Lord, I do not want such a long life. Please take ten years off my life
span. I'd prefer a shorter but active existence.' He stepped back, shaking
fearfully. He knew it was a sin to be unsatisfied with what God had given
"'Your wish is granted,' God declared without any trace of anger. He then
turned to Donkey, who had opened his mouth several times in silence. God
asked him whether he too had something to say.
"Timidly Donkey moved a step forward and said, 'Lord, I have the same
problem. Your grace has enriched the land where so much grass grows that
I can choose the most tender to eat. Although Man treats me unequally
and forces me to work for him, I won't complain because you gave him more
brains and me more muscles. But a life span of forty years is too long
for me. When I grow old and my legs are no longer sturdy and nimble, I
will still have to carry heavy loads for Man and suffer his lashes. This
will be too miserable for me. Please take ten years off my life too. I
want a shorter existence without old age.'
"'Your wish is granted.' God was very generous with them that day and
meant to gratify all their requests. Then he turned to Man, who seemed
also to have something to say. God asked, 'You too have a complaint? Tell
me, Adam, what is on your mind.'
"Man was fearful because he had abused the animals and could be punished
for that. Nevertheless, he came forward and began to speak. 'Our Greatest
Lord, I always enjoy everything you have created. You endowed me with
a brain that enables me to outsmart the animals, who are all willing to
obey and serve me. Contrary to Monkey and Donkey, a life span of forty
years is too short for me. I would love to live longer. I want to spend
more time with my wife, Eve, and my children. Even if I grow old with
stiff limbs, I can still use my brain to manage my affairs. I can issue
orders, teach lessons, deliver lectures, and write books. Please give
their twenty years to me.' Man bowed his head as he remembered that it
was a sin to assume his superiority over the animals.
"To Man's amazement, God did not reprimand him and instead replied, 'Your
wish is also granted. Since you enjoy my creation so much, I'll give you
an additional ten years. Now, altogether you will have seventy years for
your life. Spend your ripe old age happily with your grandchildren and
great-grandchildren. Use your brain wisely.'"
Mr. Yang paused, looking pale and exhausted, sweat glistening on his nose
and a vein in his neck pulsating. Then he said dolefully, "Donkey, Monkey,
and Man were all satisfied that day. From then on, human beings can live
to the age of seventy whereas monkeys and donkeys can live only thirty
from The Crazed by Ha Jin Copyright 2002 by Ha Jin. Excerpted
by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.
appearance of his first book of stories in English, Ha Jin has won the
National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and garnered comparisons
to Dickens, Balzac, and Isaac Babel. Like Babel, wrote Francine
Prose in The New York Times Book Review, Ha Jin observes everything
. . . yet he tells the reader onlyand preciselyas much as
is needed to make his deceptively simple fiction resonate on many levels.
In his luminous
new novel, the author of Waiting deepens his portrait of contemporary
Chinese society while exploring the perennial conflicts between convention
and individualism, integrity and pragmatism, loyalty and betrayal. Professor
Yang, a respected teacher of literature at a provincial university, has
had a stroke, and his student Jian Wanwho is also engaged to Yangs
daughterhas been assigned to care for him. What at first seems a
simple if burdensome duty becomes treacherous when the professor begins
to rave: pleading with invisible tormentors, denouncing his family, his
colleagues, and a system in which a scholar is just a piece of meat
on a cutting board.
just manifestations of illness, or is Yang spewing up the truth? And can
the dutiful Jian avoid being irretrievably compromised? For in a China
convulsed by the Tiananmen uprising, those who hear the truth are as much
at risk as those who speak it. At once nuanced and fierce, earthy and
humane, The Crazed is further evidence of Ha Jins prodigious
was born in mainland China and grew up in a small rural town in Liaoning
Province. At at the age of fourteen, he volunteered to serve in the People's
Army and was stationed on the northeastern border between China and the
Soviet Union. He began studying on his own and, after six years, left
the army to attend college. But the Cultural Revolution closed the colleges,
so he put in three years as a railroad telegrapher in another remote area.
In 1977, when the colleges finally opened, he enrolled at Heilongjiang
University in Harbin, where the study of English was assigned to him.
He went on to earn an M. A. degree in American literature from Shandong
University and then in 1985 he came to the United States to study at Brandeis
University from which he received a Ph. D. 1992. He also studied fiction
writing at Boston University. "After the Tiananmen massacre, it would
be impossible to write honestly in China," so he decided not to return
to his homeland.
He is the
author of the internationally best-selling novel Waiting, which
won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award; the story collections
The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under
the Red Flag, which won the Flannery OConnor Award for Short
Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award;
and three books of poetry. He lives in Massachusetts and is a professor
of English at Boston University.