As a writer, Ha Jin makes a nice living translating for English readers the sometimes opaque world of China before it opened to the world in the 1990s.
He certainly does this to great effect in the collection of short stories Ocean of Words: Army Stories, which take place, by and large, during the Sino-Russian border conflict in 1969. The stories are simply told, in unadorned language, and give the impression that the author has a detailed and intimate knowledge of the time, the place, the people.
In other ventures, it seems like Ha Jin uses his Chinese settings to carry the tales, much to the detriment of the stories itself. The exotic names and settings are used to cover the fact that his stories aren’t saying anything particularly new about the human situation; that his prose is really not very interesting or exciting to read.
But Ocean of Words manages to avoid this pitfall. This strong collection of stories shows Ha Jin at this best. Story and setting are balanced.