The Crazed by Ha Jin is told from the point of view of the student, Jian, who is under the guidance of Mr. Yang. But the novel starts with Mr Yang having suffered from a stroke and in the hospital in 1989.
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!
Mr. Yang’s crazy outbursts while in hospital give a glimpse into his relationship with his student, Jian, as well as his past: affairs, his ill treatment under the Mao regime, his unconscious desire to have been a well respected official along with being a scholar among other things.
What is so interesting about The Crazed are the several literary references that pepper the novel, particularly Mr Yang’s lectures even in that delirious state about random literary subjects such as why Western poets use a persona to speak in their poems whereas the Chinese poets speak as themselves in the poems or his references to poets such as Goethe, Dante and several Tang poets like Tu Fu or Li Po.
It was astonishing how in that state he goes from “a political parrot” as Jian calls him, spewing Communist jingles to a lecture spewing professor.
While most must have read Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays with Morrie, this is also a beautiful look at the tenuous relationship that the protagonist, Jian, shares with his teacher and other characters such as Meimei who is his fiance and Mr.Yang’s daughter, or Banping, his friend in Shanning Universtity.
Banping and Jian are opposites: Banping is more materialistic and practical about life, wanting a clerical job in the Provincial Administration whereas Jian is more of an introvert who is immersed in his love for poetry and literature.
The Crazed may provide the reader with a good look at a student-teacher relationship, but it is not all idealistic. It brings into question the role that scholars and intellectuals play in a state or a government: are they doomed to be clerks to a dominant government or are they only confined to the academic circles where their work does not contribute to society at all? The novel also shows the dirty politics that is played in the University against both Mr Yang and Jian just because the people are jealous of both their successes.
Jian is also wracked with the practicality of his preparation and pursuing of PHD exams to go to Beijing University after Mr. Yang reveals to Mr. Song (who is his academic rival) during his visit to the hospital that he does not want any material things anymore, that he wants to nourish his soul and not be a clerk anymore.
From that point when this doubt creeps in, Jian thinks he has to take control of his own life and is against pursuing a course that his teacher and mentor did. Since he had taken care of his professor while he was in hospital, his rants revealed to Jian that he was deeply unhappy with his position. How much of that interpretation by Jian is absolutely correct or even valid is something we as readers can question. However, it does influence Jian tremendously and the novel ends on a cliffhanging note where we do not know what is going to happen to Jian.
That is therefore an interesting movement from the beginning of the novel, where things fell apart for his professor, Mr. Yang, but Jian was set in his ways, yet slowly his position as well unravels and throws him off his fixed path where both he and the readers do not know what the future holds for the student protagonist of The Crazed!
So, if you are a fan of intellectual discussions on literature or want to know more about how China works in its universities and political parties, The Crazed, is definitely a promising novel which is a breezy read.