A few weeks ago while walking back from a neighborhood street fair I decided to drop by my local public library and happened noticed in the fiction section a collection of short stories by the Chinese expat writer Ha Jin. While inspecting it, I remembered reading a couple of his short stories in the New Yorker and being very impressed with his writing. So, despite having WAY too many library books in my “to read” pile I grabbed Ha’s book. After finishing it the other morning I’m very happy I did. Ocean of Words is a great collection of short stories.
Set during the early 1970’s along the Chinese-Russian border, the stories depict the lives of various People’s Liberation Army Soldiers as they deal with the challenges of everyday life: illicit love affairs, professional rivalries and small-minded superiors. Against the backdrop of impending military conflict, the stories unfold as the specter of Chairman Mao rules from on high like some remote, inscrutable yet ubiquitous deity.
Ha’s writing, much like Hemingway’s is lean and direct. His characters ranging from a temperamental Korean peasant to a captured Russian soldier to an elderly veteran of Mao’s Long March I found intriguing and complex. Their personalities in addition to the numerous plot twists concocted by Ha held my interest and made for enjoyable reading.
Someone once said the most beautiful music inhabits the space between the notes. In Ha’s world, if the geopolitical struggle between China and Russia is a symphony, then the real beauty can be found in the lives of everyday people caught between those notes.