Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Crazed.

"So you're not a scholar?" Jian asks at one point in one of their more lucid dialogues.

"I told you," the professor responds, "I'm just a clerk, a screw in the machine of the revolution…. Now this screw is worn out and has to be replaced, so write me off as a loss." - Ha Jin, The Crazed

The setting is in provincial China, some years after the Cultural Revolution and months away from the Tiananmen Square uprisings. Professor Yang, a noted scholar of Chinese and Western literature, has suffered a brain hemorrhage and is taken to a nearby hospital near the University where he lectures.

During that time, he dissembles, and spews out a seemingly unstoppable damn of old Cultural Revolution songs, long-hidden thoughts about his work as a scholar and his being a government puppet, his broken personal life, and outspoken zeal against communism in China, among others.

Jian, the graduate student who is assigned to watch over him (he is also the prospective son-in-law, being engaged to Professor Yang's daughter), is confused and worried about the ramblings. What if Professor Yang is reported about his unloyal remarks? Why is he urging him to forego his studies in literature and be something else? Why, after all this time, has he changed sides? Why has he suddenly gone 'crazy'?

The lure of a free life, unhampered by government interference and political vested interests, is what Professor Yang longed for. He may have painted the West (somewhat overly) as a haven of academic freedom, but the fundamentals were there. True scholarship could exist (and has existed) over there rather than in China, where personal favors and political strings are pulled in favor of the well-connected.

There underlies an important question. If you could choose between a life of comparative luxury and painless dealings with the government as against a poorly-paid, underappreciated academic, what is your final choice? And as a corollary to that, why can you only choose between two?

Ultimately, Jian decides on his own what to set out for, surrounded by events that spiral into the Tiananmen Square rebellions. But his choice may have pre-set consequences that even he may not be ready for.

For those who have an appreciation of personal and political freedom, I recommend this book for reading.