The Boat Rocker - Ha Jin

Staff Pick

With dark humor and a light touch that don’t entirely mask the anguish behind them, National Book Award-winner Ha Jin examines China’s chilling effect on free speech. Jin’s brisk eighth novel is told from the point of view of New York-based journalist Feng Danlin; self-described as The Boat Rocker (Pantheon, $25.95), Danlin works for an independent Chinese-language news agency and aspires to be a public intellectual, but for now his mission is just to tell the truth. JIn dramatizes questions of censorship, intimidation, and outright deception, following Danlin’s latest story, which involves an outrageously hyped novel by a fledgling writer. Setting out to expose “a lie the size of heaven,” Danlin is pressured by Chinese agents to back off. When he persists, his girlfriend is denied a visa to study in China. Then Homeland Security warns him against upsetting Chinese-American relations. Though Danlin is a naturalized U.S. citizen, he can’t escape emotional and political ties to the country he left. Similarly, he can’t ignore his anger at his ex-wife—who happens to be the novelist at the heart of his current investigation. While this may seem like a minor incident, Jin frames it within larger questions. His short, punchy book asks if journalists anywhere can be truly independent, and if émigrés can ever really leave their home countries. Finally, he wonders if it›s even fair to assume that “the powerless are more decent than the powerful.”