Maybe it’s from growing up during the Cold War, but I always imagined life in an authoritarian state to be like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, laying bricks in the Siberian cold, your stomach empty, your fingertips frozen. Or perhaps like Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Big Brother’s thought police around every corner and rats thrust in your face. Or the solitary confinement of Darkness at Noon, facing daily interrogations until you finally confess, only to be marched out into the prison yard and shot.
Those are indeed possibilities, especially for dissidents. But what is life like for the multitude of ordinary citizens who must adapt to a system where the paternalistic authority of the state determines the most intimate decisions? How do individuals respond? How do they survive?
Two novels written close together in time but about two very different regimes and cultures give some insight into these questions.
In Ha Jin’s Waiting, a novel about life in China from the 1960s to the 1980s, we have one answer. Ha Jin came to the U.S. in 1985 to study English literature at Brandeis University. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, he decided to stay here. Like those extraordinary exiles before him, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Jin chose to write in English. Waiting, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1999.
Waiting is a quiet tale that slyly criticizes China’s post-revolutionary society. It’s the story of a repressed love affair between an army doctor and a nurse in a provincial hospital. The doctor, Lin Kong, is a conscientious, ambitious and educated man who loves books, even prohibited ones from Russia and America. He is also married, an arranged marriage made at his parents’ request, to an uneducated peasant woman. His wife still lives in his native village, tending their small farm and raising their daughter. But when the doctor meets Manna Wu, a single nurse who borrows a book and responds in kind to his polite, never forward, always self-conscious friendship, a flame is kindled.
At the time their relationship begins, in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, an affair would be considered illegal as well as immoral, a non-conforming action that risked punishment, possibly transfer to a harsher assignment and certainly career suicide. Yet, per the hospital commissar’s arbitrary rules, divorce is only permissible after eighteen years of separation. Simply walking outside the hospital grounds with a fellow worker of the opposite sex is not allowed. Discreetly, the couple take this risk to nurture, through several cycles of intensity and misunderstanding, what becomes an eighteen-year platonic relationship.
Even then, their wait isn’t over. Each year the doctor goes home to ask his wife for a divorce. Each time she agrees, but then at court she balks, stumbling under the provincial magistrate’s interrogation and her own mixed emotions or bending to the social pressure exerted by her brother who seeks monetary damages from the doctor.
Waiting is based on a true story Jin heard while serving in the army. He writes in a plain style that owes much to Hemingway, but the story is pure Turgenev or Chekhov. Jin subtly evokes the stranglehold of a political system that values social strictures and the dictates of revolutionary idealism over individual freedom and happiness.
At times you want to shake the characters for not taking action, for not asserting themselves, for living so long with their repressed feelings, for wasting years and years of potential happiness. And then you realize, yes, this is what it must be like to live in a society that does not see beyond the collective. The ending of Waiting is as ambivalent and as frustrating as you might expect.
Dirty Havana Trilogy (1998) by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez voices a different kind of frustration. Gutiérrez still lives in Cuba and writes in Spanish, although censorship prevents his books from being published there. (This novel is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer into a slangy English that is pitch perfect.) Gutiérrez depicts life in Cuba during the “crisis” of the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union has collapsed, ending its subsidies to the Castro regime, and the Cuban economy is in utter shambles.
The trilogy is really a three-part collection of short stories told from the largely autobiographical point of view of one Pedro Juan, a radio journalist who quit his job because he was not allowed to report the truth. Pedro Juan lives in a shack on the rooftop of a crumbling apartment building amid the decay, corruption and filth of Havana. With bawdy defiance, he chronicles his efforts to survive, whether that’s working as a garbage man or a janitor, stealing lobsters at night from state-owned traps, or serving as a pimp, a gigolo, a reseller of junk, or a dope peddler.
No matter what job he cobbles together, the overarching focus of his life is sexual gratification, and because of that Gutiérrez has been compared to Henry Miller. But in Gutiérrez’s case, the profligate sex is clearly a metaphor for life under the regime: if you aren’t screwing someone, you’re getting screwed.
With Gutiérrez the political criticism is always near the surface. The city he paints, the lives he describes, are transformed by his defiant sarcasm, visceral earthiness and sexual bravado, but what he reveals is devastating: the willingness of desperate people to prostitute themselves in every way imaginable in order to survive as the state fails to provide for even the most basic needs. This portrait—not the tourist photos of vintage cars and quaint art-deco mansions along the Malecón—is the disastrous endgame of the revolution. A world where the only escapes from poverty, starvation, violence and death are sex, superstition, rum and the carnal rhythms of salsa.