By Ha Jin

Pantheon. 323 pp. $24

You can never tell what a country is "like" from just a trip, but in 1980, the China I was allowed to see seemed euphoric, alive with -- as the cliche{acute} goes -- undreamt-of possibilities. Ten years later, I was part of a delegation that began with high hopes: The Chinese government had invited over some of the biggest names in American publishing, but due to circumstances beyond everyone's control wound up with a small group of extremely powerless women. In every city and town we visited, our hosts were plainly devastated.

At one of many provincial banquets, I sat next to a distinguished novelist in his fifties. As tactfully as he could -- considering the language barrier -- he asked me why America had chosen to send them a lot of female no-hopers instead of Sonny Mehta and Michael Korda. As tactfully as I could, I mentioned Tiananmen Square. "Don't tell me you people are still worrying about that silly business!" he exclaimed. His shirt was clean, his suit pressed to an awful shine; he had only three teeth that I was able to see, and his face, his eyes, his whole body and demeanor, showed nothing but utter torment. But he smiled, and kept on smiling.

Five years before this dinner party, four years before the Tiananmen event, scholar and writer Ha Jin made his way to the United States. He had -- by his own account -- no English then, but, my God, he must have had something, because now he's the author of three books of poetry, three collections of short stories and two novels, including Waiting, which besides winning the National Book Award, absolutely qualifies for the shortlist of the World's Saddest Novels. Now, in The Crazed, Ha Jin does it again, whatever "it" is, taking the lead of ordinary life and turning it into gold. Yes, in some sense, The Crazed is political literature, a diatribe against totalitarianism, but in far more important ways it is not, and that's what makes it so haunting, so wrenching, so great.

In 1989, in the provincial city of Shanning, Jian Wan, a young graduate student of Chinese literature, appears to have everything going for him. He's just about to take his doctoral exams (under the supervision of Professor Yang, still only an associate, although a very great favorite among undergraduates). Jian is engaged to Professor Yang's daughter, Meimei, who's pursuing her medical studies in Beijing. As soon as Jian passes his exams, he can look forward to joining his fiance{acute}e in the capital, where they can start to build a life together.

But even as the novel begins, Jian is melancholy. He's experiencing graduate-student meltdown, trapped in self-defeating intellectual snobbery, anxiety about whether he'll be able to pass his exams, shame about his own rustic parents. He worries about his position in the department. These are all symptoms of another, larger concern: If Jian is to live his adult life as an intellectual, what, exactly, is he supposed to do?

Jian's professor suffers a stroke. His wife is away in Tibet, and his daughter certainly isn't coming home from the capital to take care of her father. Jian draws the short straw. He and another graduate student are assigned to the hospital to take care of their teacher. It's just the kind of fiendish task an unfriendly chairman of the department would dream up to keep someone from passing his exams, but there's nothing Jian can do about it. Besides, he loves and admires old Yang. At least Jian has always taken that position.

But here in the bed is an aged wretch, a man without defenses. Yang is uncoordinated, incontinent and in that strange stage toward the end of life where past and present merge. He can't keep his mouth shut, even if he wants to. Of course, it's natural that he should excoriate the regime, remembering awful times during the Cultural Revolution when he was sent away to the countryside to be re-educated. But listening, his student Jian takes an almost "yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before" attitude. Atrocity stories about that time are as plentiful as fleas, flies or cicadas. They're nothing but a nuisance now, an ongoing, unheard drone. Even when Yang dissects the differences between Eastern and Western lit, even when the old man pulls himself together one last time to impress a flock of undergraduates, Jian feels nothing but annoyance and embarrassment for his mentor.

Yang is dying; no amount of politics or rhetoric can change that. He's undergoing the tortures of the damned, the tortures of a person who's lived the wrong life, marched to his destiny by cheesy slogans -- literary as well as political -- missed out on both old and new love, lethargically sticking with a wife he never liked. Not only that -- he's poor; he's been sold a bill of goods about the scholarly life, which turns out to have been made up of mostly grading papers, staying inside all day, and fooling the young and impressionable. His life, Yang comes to see, has been a ghastly charade, and Jian sees this with him.

The subtlety and elegance here come from a basic truth: Chinese communism doesn't "cause" this particular process. It only facilitates it. But if you add rampant official corruption and desperate underclass poverty to this mix, China becomes hell. By itself, a chapter on rural suffering, a child in agony crying out as persistently -- and as ignored -- as a tiny cicada lifts this novel from mere political protest to work that deserves to be immortal. Sure, communism is awful, the author suggests. But the human condition may turn out to be worse. *

Carolyn See is the author of "Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers." Her reviews for The Post appear each Friday in Style.