Một tác phẩm châm biếm về thân phận con người trong xã hội Trung Quốc, dù là "tép riu" hay "cá lớn", đều không thoát khỏi "ao tù". In the Pond is a slim little book about some very big issues: power, vanity, art, injustice, and politics. Where Tom Wolfe would find the makings for a doorstop, however, debut novelist Ha Jin has created a rough-cut comic gem. Set in Communist China, the book takes as its hero a small, unprepossessing man named Shao Bin, a maintenance employee at the Harvest Fertilizer Plant and also a self-taught artist. Together with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, Bin inhabits a tiny 12-by-20-foot room. Bin is desperate to move into the newly built workers' compound, and he places his name on the waiting list with high hopes. But when the plant managers pass him over, despite the fact that he's been working there for years, Bin finally cracks. "In brief, the true scholar's brush must encourage good and warn against evil," he reads in The Essence of Ancient Chinese Thought, and inspired, he publishes a satirical cartoon protesting official corruption. The consequences of this simple act snowball, and in self-defense, Bin finds himself aiming his attacks ever higher up the bureaucratic ladder. This is a book that works on multiple levels: as character study, as political allegory, as sly bureaucratic satire, even, at times, as the broadest kind of slapstick. (One memorable scene involves Bin biting his superior on the butt.) Bin himself is half persecuted artist, half self-righteous boor; readers both sympathize with him and wonder along with one of his coworkers, "Why do you enjoy fighting so much?" Even his putative victory is left in doubt. As the book ends, Shao Bin has become perhaps a bigger fish, but there's no doubt about it; he's in the very same small pond where he started.