Fiction — print. Vintage, 2000. Originally published 1998. 192 pgs. Library copy.
This short novella centers around Shao Bin, a Chinese man working at fertilizer plant, and his struggle to obtain a decent apartment for his young family. Continually passed over by the plant’s corrupt leaders, Bin decides to fight back against his communist superiors using his talent with calligraphy. Conflict espouses when Bin’s struggle is met with counterattacks and more opposition than he could never have imagined.
As the title suggests, the story involves a series of metaphorical ponds where the main character is either a large fish in a small pond or a small fish in a large pond. The former is a perceived state on the part of Shao Bin as he considers himself to be an intellectual amongst corrupt idiots; the later is an actual state as the commune leaders trodden down on their employee and disparage his character and his calligraphy.
Shao attempts to change his circumstances and move to art school where he will inevitably become a small fish in a large pond, but the company leaders thwart him at every turn without punishment from the communist leaders displaying how large a pond the Chinese bureaucracy actually is and how small the comrades are to their leaders.
Ha creates a satirical examination of communism in China during the 1970s with writing that flows easily. Shao’s frustrations are understandable and easy to empathize with, and the narrative never looses sight of its purpose. The simplicity of both the narrative and the writing, however, means the book never manages to elevate itself above anything but a description as breezy, easy read.