“Your hardship is just commonplace,” writes Nan Wu, the aspiring immigrant poet of Ha Jin’s latest novel, “a fortune many are dying to seize.” The paradox and irony compressed into those lines of verse also inform the novel’s title: A Free Life. Like many of Jin’s previous protagonists—the trapped Chinese husband in the National Book Award–winning Waiting, the Korean War prisoner in the PEN/Faulkner Award–winning War Trash—Nan Wu is seriously constrained by circumstances as well as his own shortcomings. But, in the course of this involving story, he gradually struggles free, finding himself and his true muse in his adopted land.
It is tempting to think of A Free Life, the immigrant saga that Jin has long been promising, as vaguely autobiographical. Certainly Nan’s attempts to master English idioms and his use of increasingly advanced dictionaries resonate. His doubts about his vocation may reflect Jin’s own worry about writing in a foreign tongue. The novel’s account of the poetry profession—where the little at stake is at once elusive and powerfully contested—also rings true; Jin, in addition to several books of novels and short stories, has published three English-language poetry collections.
But in other respects Nan Wu is something of an immigrant Everyman, and the themes of A Free Life are familiar: How does one reconcile the claims of the Old World with those of the New? How wholeheartedly should one buy into the standard-issue American dream, with its emphasis on materialistic success? How passionately can one pursue an artistic calling without betraying family and friends?
Passion runs like a silent stream beneath the homely surface of A Free Life. As Jin’s third-person narrative begins, Nan and Pingping are awaiting the arrival of their six-year-old son, Taotao, from China in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989. Jin, with apparent artlessness, plunges us skillfully into the anxiety of parents sundered from their child and still themselves strangers in a strange land. With Taotao in America, the nuclear family is once again intact—but Nan remains a damaged, incomplete man, still longing bitterly, hopelessly, for Beina, the woman who rejected him in China. “The truth was that he just didn’t love his wife that much, and she knew it,” Jin tells us.
Nan doesn’t love his political science studies either and so he leaves graduate school, taking a series of low-paying jobs in Boston and New York. He is finally able to finance the purchase of a small restaurant, Gold Wok, in the Atlanta suburbs, a territory that Jin, who has taught at Emory University, clearly knows well. There Nan and Pingping become true partners, working tirelessly to save money and buy a house on a lake near their restaurant. After all, Nan is aware, “in this place if you didn’t make money, you were a loser, a nobody.” At the same time, he knows he is paying a price for suppressing his own creative urges.
Most of the story is told from Nan’s point of view, though the long-suffering Pingping and even the rebellious Taotao occasionally take center stage. Along the way, in careful, lucid prose that at times seems deliberately formal, Jin introduces us to a well-drawn cast of American, Chinese, and Chinese American characters, including an anxious poetry professor who mentors Nan, an infertile couple who adopt a Chinese baby, and a set of grasping relatives who demand their share of Nan’s American bonanza.
As Nan and Pingping achieve financial and marital stability, A Free Life stalls and begins to seem long and a bit labored. Inevitably, Nan returns to China, a country simultaneously transformed and mired in the past; inevitably, too, a tide of middle-aged regret carries him to his long-lost love, with predictable results. The novel’s force derives from Nan’s larger challenge—his quest, like that of every immigrant and perhaps the rest of us as well, to make his way in “this lonesome, unfathomable, overwhelming land.”
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.
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