It appears that John Updike has been officially nominated to tackle Chinese literature for The New Yorker. First there was a dual review of Su Tong's My Life as Emperor and Mo Yan's Big Breasts and Wide Hips in 2005, now an examination of Ha Jin's latest novel, A Free Life. We couldn't ask for a better reviewer (though I suppose we could ask for someone more familiar with Chinese literature).
Apart from Updike's general judgment of the book (neither as focused nor compelling as his other works) a good portion of the review is dedicated to language. Ha Jin is compared to Nabokov and Conrad as a writer who came late to English and achieved, if not mastery of it, at least fluency, and although a charitable reader might prefer to overlook language in favor of the story, Updike doesn't. There's a good reason for that – the book is about immigrants, and in particular the immigrant's struggle to learn the language, but judging from Updike's examples, Ha Jin's own English is slipping as well. Nan Wu, the protagonist, is tripped up by verb modifiers and prepositions (how many Chinese students of English have I heard bitterly cursing prepositions!), while Ha Jin himself is tripped up by awkward usages, inflated metaphors, and turns of phrase that sound to Updike as though they were translations from the Mandarin. I was curious about this last – the example given is "If his wife had been of two hearts with him, this family would have fallen apart long ago", but I can't tell whether this might really have been born as a Chinese phrase in Ha Jin's head.
In another review, Ha Jin says he is still more comfortable in Chinese than English, and "might achieve more" if he were able to write in his native language. Yet he has no desire to write in Chinese, much less return to China. So here is the crux of what we could call Ha Jin's Dilemma (or maybe just the Émigré Writer's Dilemma; I wish I knew enough about the Russian writers to draw a comparison). He is essentially writing for China, and Chinese readers (A Free Life is the first of his novels to deal mainly with America), and yet few Chinese readers will ever read him. Abroad, he is unread by his target audience. At home, he would be unpublishable. As Updike notes, A Free Life also features the very group of émigré artists to whom he belongs: Meng Danning who returns home and becomes a government mouthpiece, the painter Bao Yuan who sells out to the capitalist West.
It's a little ironic, since Ha Jin has survived better than almost any of the authors who had hoped to write in the service of the nation, and who were forced to make some decisions following the Tian'anmen business in 1989. Ha Jin was abroad at the time, and chose not to return. Many writers inside the country were put in prison, or chose to stop writing, or were simply unable to sustain their creativity in the newly-repressive political atmosphere. Many novelists and poets who left, on the other hand, seemed to wither once severed from the root. The general consensus is that Bei Dao's poetry went steadily downhill after he left the country, and even Gao Xingjian, Nobel laureate, seems to be just complaining about his country rather than addressing it.
I recently heard Mo Yan say that Ha Jin was the only overseas Chinese writer worth reading. He wished Ha Jin were accessible to Chinese readers, because his works contain all the political and social issues that the Chinese need to be facing, but aren't. Somehow, Ha Jin manages to be disconnected and relevant at the same time. We can forgive him a few slips of his (English) tongue.