Nanjing's Western heroes: Ha Jin's historical novel of humanity amid depravity
Share with others:
The Nanking Massacre, one of the most barbaric episodes in modern warfare, was not widely known beyond East Asia until relatively recently. That changed in the late 1990s, primarily as a result of the publication of Iris Chang's revelatory " The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II ," and her unearthing of several diaries kept by eyewitnesses. A spate of films, some incorporating contemporaneous footage, also brought this tragedy to an international audience.
In December 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Nanjing (its modern name), then-capital of the Republic of China, was invaded and occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army. For six weeks the Japanese troops unleashed a campaign of murder, rape, torture, arson and other atrocities on the civilian population and on former Chinese soldiers.
While estimates of casualties vary and are still contested by the Japanese government, it is generally accepted that more than 260,000 Chinese were massacred, and at least 30,000 women and girls were raped, many murdered afterward by their attackers, or forced into sexual slavery as "comfort women" for Japanese troops.
"Nanjing Requiem," by the Chinese-American writer Ha Jin, is a fictionalized recounting of this siege and the years immediately following. The novel focuses on a small group of foreigners who remained in Nanjing to try to protect Chinese citizens, especially the American missionary, Minnie Vautrin, dean of Jinling Women's College.
This is a tale worth retelling. The horror of the situation, and the remarkable actions of these 19 brave souls -- missionaries, businessmen, educators and a sole doctor -- serve as testimony to both the worst and the best in human nature. The group established the Nanking Safety Zone and a network of refugee camps to safeguard civilians, and formed an International Committee that for several months served as the de facto government of the city.
Mr. Jin wants to bear additional witness to the brutality of the military occupation, counter historical amnesia and revisionism, and pay homage to the courage of Minnie Vautrin and the members of the International Committee. I just wish that he had done a better job of telling this compelling story.
No one would expect a book about such a grisly chapter in history to be a pleasurable read, and indeed, the recitation of violence and violation is relentless. However, the bigger obstacle is that the book's narrator, Anling Gao, a fictional assistant to Vautrin, is not a good storyteller.
Anling's language lacks color or emotion, and is more reportage than narration. While this provides a buffer for the gruesome scenes described, the technique creates too much distance between the narrator and the reader. Additionally, the early parts of the story are burdened by Mr. Jin's research, with historical background crammed into clumsy exposition.
Anling reveals no inner life, even when recounting her own personal family grief, and provides no insights into Vautrin or other characters. Perhaps Mr. Jin means for her perspective to be limited by her position and by a cultural reticence; unfortunately this results in silhouettes, rather than portraits of the characters.
And that's a shame, since we want to know more about these characters. Vautrin, then 51, is credited with saving 10,000 women and girls from death or rape by providing refuge in the college grounds, demonstrating extraordinary courage in the face of constant danger.
Known in Nanjing as the "Goddess of Mercy," in the novel Vautrin clashes bitterly with a member of the college's New York-based board, but we get few clues to the source of their animosity, beyond the board member's angry reference to a "personality cult" growing around Vautrin. We do learn that the psychological wounds from her experience led, several years later, to Vautrin becoming yet another casualty (she killed herself in 1941).
Another character only lightly sketched is the Oskar Schindler-like John Rabe, a German businessman who earned the designation "Living Buddha" for his heroic efforts to save the inhabitants of the city. Elected leader of the International Committee, partly in the hope that his Nazi Party membership would provide additional protection, Rabe wears a Nazi armband as he negotiates with Japanese military officials, and waves a small flag with a swastika at soldiers he confronts in the streets.
A member of a prominent Pittsburgh family, John Magee, an Episcopal priest, was also on the committee. Magee's photographs and film footage provided some of the most graphic evidence of the carnage.
"Nanjing Requiem" is disappointing, especially when compared with Ha Jin's prior books, most notably the affecting "Waiting" and "War Trash." This may be a book that should be read to preserve the memory of this dark period in history and commemorate the role of these remarkable heroes. But I can't promise that you will enjoy the experience.
First Published December 4, 2011 12:00 am