Author, Book review, Fiction, Ha Jin, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Vintage International

‘The Boat Rocker’ by Ha Jin

Fiction – paperback; Vintage International; 222 pages; 2016.

The Boat Rocker by American-based Chinese writer Ha Jin is a novel about truth, propaganda, censorship, politics and corruption.

It is framed around fraught and complicated relations between China and the West. It posits the idea that literary stardom can be purchased in China if you are willing to become a pawn of the Chinese Government. It also posits the idea that only American journalism can save the world from corruption by exposing lies and reporting the truth.

If that all sounds naive, or too simple a premise, there is a caveat: the story is set in 2005 before Twitter was created and Facebook was in its infancy. The only thing that went viral back then were websites and their comment sections.

A principled journalist

The story focuses on a Chinese expatriate, Feng Danlin, who is a reporter at a small Manhattan-based news agency that publishes a Chinese-language website read by people all over the world. Danlin is a fiercely principled journalist who believes his job is to expose lies wherever he may find them regardless of the consequences.

When he discovers that his ex-wife, Yan Haili — who also lives in Manhattan (now with a new husband) — is set to become China’s biggest literary star, he is suspicious. He has read her writing before and has a low opinion of it. He does some investigative work and discovers the film rights haven’t been sold for millions of dollars as claimed. Nor is the book being translated into 30 different languages, because it still hasn’t been translated into English.

When Danlin writes a series of articles about Haili’s deception, suggesting she’s in cahoots with the Chinese Government, he comes across as jealous and vengeful. But his criticism hits the spot, and Haili tries to silence him by “legal bullying”.

A microcosm of bigger issues

As a premise for an entire novel, the issue of whether a writer is all that she claims to be seems rather petty — and a little bit ludicrous. It also comes across as misogynistic and the tone of the novel, certainly the first half, does leave a bitter taste in the mouth, especially when Haili is often referred to as a “bitch”. (As an aside, I’ve often found that Chinese books written by men do have misogynistic and sexist overtones — Ma Jian’s work, which I love, is a case in point.)

But the author is making a bigger point: that “minor” deceptions (or, should I say, fake news?) such as Haili’s so-called literary success are indicative of major deceptions going on between governments and their people all the time, we just aren’t attuned to them — unless they are exposed by the Fourth Estate.

Jin also makes a bigger point about the consequences, for in China, to be seen to be acting against your government is life-changing — and not in a good way. But in places like the USA, being critical of your rulers is all part and parcel of democracy.

Not so modern journalism

I actually wanted to read The Boat Rocker because it was billed as exploring the “moral dimensions of modern journalism”, a subject I’m interested in because of my past career in the media, and because I also thought — mistakenly, as it turns out — that it might be classified as a “newspaper novel”, of which I have a soft spot (see here and here).

But the journalism aspects of the book are fairly thin; it’s really about propaganda and the way governments (both in China and the USA) use it to influence their citizens.

And what it does have to say about journalism feels terribly outdated now, especially when we’re all lost in our own online echo chambers thanks to the social media algorithms that feed us what we want to hear. And dare I even mention US President Donald Trump and the way he manipulated everything and told barefaced lies and had absolutely no shame about anything?

I did like this comment though:

You claimed that without a country an individual would be nothing, but how many people have been reduced to nothing by their countries? Patriotism is a pejorative word in my dictionary: it connotes spiritual paucity, intellectual blindness and laziness, and moral cowardice. Isn’t it terrible to let only a country form the underpinning of one’s being?

The Boat Rocker is an interesting novel, but, on the whole, I felt ambivalent about it.

I certainly liked the latter half better than the first, because when Danlin eases up on his criticism of his ex-wife the narrative opens up to look at bigger issues, including what it is like to be a Chinese expatriate. The conversations he has with various diplomats and intellectuals are particularly insightful into the mindset of Communist China and its citizens…