'The Boat Rocker': Nat'l Book Award-winner Ha Jin packs a quiet punch

This outwardly nondescript story about a journalist facing up to the Chinese government has a powerful moral core.

The Boat Rocker By Ha Jin Pantheon 240 pp.

The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming! That’s the alarm sounding throughout the latest novel by Ha Jin, author of such acclaimed works of fiction as “Waiting” and “War Trash,” as well as creative writing professor at Boston University. Yet The Boat Rocker isn’t some frenzied, Trump-style stab at literary fearmongering. And with a transplanted Chinese as its protagonist, one for whom – like Jin himself – China remains chief politico-cultural frame of reference, this novel will hardly appeal to the chest-thumping nativist crowd. Nevertheless, there’s no way around it: the Chinese are coming. Feng Danlin, the unassuming yet mulishly principled figure at the heart of an outwardly nondescript story with a powerful moral core, will tell you.

It’s 2005, and Danlin, who’s in his mid-30s, lives in New York City, where he writes for the small but ambitious Global News Agency. GNA is a Chinese-language outfit with a wide Internet readership among Chinese in the diaspora, and Danlin’s column boasts a reputation for, in his words, “shining a light onto the towering corruption of Chinese politics and media.” So when his ex-wife Haili, whose fiction he knows to be unremarkable and generally “the size of a block of tofu,” is touted by the Chinese state press as a new literary star, he smells a rat. Haili’s publisher grandly claims that her upcoming debut novel “embodie[s] the cooperative spirit between the United States and China in the global war on terrorism.” Supposedly, it has earned a blurb from President George W. Bush and is undergoing translation into dozens of languages, with a major Hollywood film studio having snapped up the movie rights!

Danlin begins investigating. He arranges a meeting with Haili when she’s in town, and is granted access to a portion of her manuscript. His suspicions are confirmed; the novel, “Love and Death in September,” is painfully trite and exploits the suffering of 9/11 survivors. Meanwhile, a little digging reveals that the hype about its pre-publication impact in the US has no basis in fact.

But that isn’t the half of it. In a slow-burning twist that Jin brings into play with consummate skill, Danlin grows aware that China now enjoys such reach that it can engineer the outcome it desires for Haili’s state-sponsored book – even abroad. Sure, the country’s ruling elite might fail to obtain that blurb from Bush, but with vast political and financial resources at their disposal, they can guarantee major literary and celluloid exposure for “Love and Death in September,” while effectively neutralizing the likes of GNA.

As Jin is keen to impress upon readers, such projects on China’s part are made easier with US help. At one point, an official from the Department of Homeland Security drops by the offices of GNA for a (too-)friendly chat. “[Y]ou guys ought to help us improve and strengthen our relationship with your country,” he gently admonishes his hosts. GNA, Danlin notes, is “the only independent Chinese-language news agency left in the West.” But with a China-US pincer movement taking shape, how long will that last?

Throughout “The Boat Rocker,” Jin’s prose will strike the reader as uninspired and rather workmanlike. The odd humorous flourish – “Portly pigeons strutted around like little pedestrians, swaying their diarrhea-soiled asses” –  proves delightful, and prompts one to entertain notions of a largely dormant literary sensibility on the author’s part. While Jin’s matte writing style admittedly does little to vivify the proceedings, the author registers only one false note. Despite Danlin’s conviction that the US should adopt a firm stance vis-à-vis China, which he memorably terms “the wayward dragon … an unprecedented combination of one-party oligarchy and rapacious capitalism,” he slams the American invasion of Iraq, which removed from power a regime that bore China’s aforementioned negative attributes plus one more: It was genocidal. In fact, Jin seems to have set the story in 2005 partly just to shoehorn the Iraq War into it.

Otherwise, however, “The Boat Rocker” emerges as convincing as well as timely. China, after all, has begun throwing its weight around – and not just in East Asia. Together with the fact that Washington, D.C. seems far more amenable to a rapprochement with Beijing than it ever did with Moscow during the Soviet Union’s days, this bodes ill for Chinese dissidents, even those ensconced in the relative safety of exile. Danlin is learning as much. As China’s vice consul in New York City smugly points out to him: “You’re like a little turtle attempting to rock a boat shared by two huge countries.”

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