The Boat Rocker

boat rockerI picked Ha Jin’s The Boat Rocker off the library shelf on a whim, something I rarely do these days. It turned out to be a short whirlwind of a book, exploring ideas of national identity, patriotism, free speech, fraud, literary merit, journalistic values, imperialism, censorship, family, and more in a packed space of just over 200 pages.

Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin is a reporter at the GNA, a small news agency that produces a Chinese-language website read by the Chinese diaspora around the world. Danlin’s fiery, principled exposés have elevated him in the eyes of his readers, and have exasperated Chinese officials. Danlin has recently become a naturalized US citizen, which he feels protects him from recriminations from the Chinese government, and his parents are retired, so, as he says, “they can’t hurt me much any more.”

But then his boss gives him an assignment: Danlin’s ex-wife, Yan Haili, has announced her forthcoming smash-hit bestselling novel, Love and Death in September, translated into thirty languages, movie deal forthcoming. Danlin knows that Haili’s writing is puerile and that this must be a fraud. How has she pulled it off? His investigation reveals a huge pack of lies, and powerful Chinese government backing for her literary stardom, trying to make Chinese cultural production look good.

But the more he writes about the scandal, despite the support from his readers, the worse things get for him. Are there no lengths to which Haili and her backers won’t go to make this book deal go through smoothly? Danlin clings stubbornly to his role as a voice for those who can’t speak up against the state, and he has less and less to lose as the book goes on.

One thing that’s interesting is that Danlin isn’t always a very sympathetic character. He has strong values about his journalism, certainly, and that’s admirable. But his attitudes towards women, his self-involvement, and his thin skin make him sometimes quite annoying. I really enjoyed the novel for the way it revealed Chinese culture — attitudes toward the government, for instance, or about family, or about censorship and the literary establishment. To see it from the perspective of an expatriate, however, someone who had rejected Chinese citizenship, and someone who had thoroughly mixed motives about his investigation of his ex-wife, was a bold move. It makes the novel much more nuanced than it might otherwise be.

Ha Jin has written at least ten other books, and I’ve never read or heard of any of them. Do any of you have any recommendations to make?

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