This book says "Ha Jin" on the cover, but that's got to be a misprint. It could theoretically be by the National Book Award-winning Jin, who was born in China and immigrated to the United States for college, with its epic subject of Japan's invasion and capture of Nanjing, the Republic of China's former capital, in 1937: an event known to the world as "the Rape of Nanjing," an episode of wrenching depravity that scarred a generation of Chinese and added another tortured chapter to the countries' deeply tangled relations that spurs pain to this day.
It's careful, detailed, researched to within an inch of its life. But: Something's wrong.
The prepublication copy I read began with a "Dear Bookseller" letter, including the following: "When I was a child, I often heard of the Rape of Nanjing, but my knowledge of the event was skewed. Few people in China knew about the heroic role that some Westerners played in it, especially some Americans. It was they who saved 200,000 civilians and kept the documents and other material evidence later used at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials [sic].
"Minnie Vautrin was one of those Americans. She used the campus of Jinling Women's College, an American school where she was dean, to shelter more than 10,000 women and children. She also personally confronted the Japanese soldiers and at times fought with them to protect the people in her charge. And yet Minnie Vautrin remains an obscure figure in the West; it has been forgotten that she was known in Nanjing as the Living Bodhisattva, the Goddess of Mercy. Two years ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about Minnie Vautrin. Just the thought of this American woman saddened him. 'What was the point of her sacrificing herself for others?' he lamented. 'It was her kindness and generosity that undid her.' 'Yes,' I replied, 'she suffered and ruined herself by helping others, but she became a legend. At least, her story has moved me to write a novel about her. If I succeed, my book might put her soul at peace.' The letter ends, 'With all good wishes, Ha Jin.' "
Vautrin's name should be shouted from rooftops. She was a heroic human who performed feats of extraordinary creativity, tenacity, endurance and courage during and after the Japanese army's sadistic six-week orgy of torture, rape and murder against Nanjing. Estimates of killings of civilians and disarmed soldiers range up to 300,000, with estimates of up to 80,000 rapes.
Vautrin turned her campus into a refugee center to house 2,500 women and children, but the total reached more than 10,000. She fought, sweated, agonized, organized, improvised, sacrificed, wore herself to the bone, negotiated, bartered, pleaded, made heartbreaking decisions, and saved thousands who would otherwise have suffered fates better left unguessed.
Then, on May 14, 1941, in Indianapolis, where she had been brought for medical treatment after a rapid post-"Rape" period of decline, she killed herself.
While Vautrin is profoundly complex and fascinating and historically important, that introductory letter's language could have come from a marketing intern. I hope Ha Jin zombie-wrote under a Voldemort curse when he agreed to let that letter appear over his signature. Maybe the world will get a juicy news story about a famous author escaping a Manhattan office tower basement where he'd been drugged and imprisoned by his dark lord publisher.
I sure hope so. Because however noble its purpose and whatever its pedigree, this, I am sad to say, is not a good book.
Ha Jin's approach here is testimony and witness, relating events via the frame of a journal or diary by Vautrin's middle-aged Chinese assistant An Ling. The book is all exposition: in essence "this happened, then this happened, and this happened."
And even if what's described is heinous and inhumanly cruel, if we're only told about it and not made to truly see and feel it, then the reader's reaction is purely intellectual: "Oh, that happened? What a shame and outrage. Hmmm. My latte's a little cool."
What is needed here is not a reserved, neutral, opaque observer, which is what An Ling is. She reports. And that could have been OK, if there were enough other voices woven in, or if An Ling were constructed differently. But what we have is a closed, two-dimensional point of view. There is no interior life rendered; the text is all external description. When An Ling learns her son has been murdered, for example, she tells us: "I lay on my bed and cried."
She says more, sure, but more of the same, all external reportage -- "I was very sad." While powerful material often benefits from under-, rather than overplaying, Jin seems to have swung way too far in the under direction. The reader sees Vautrin, and every character in the book, as if from a court reporter's notes.
The notes do describe incidents in which bad things happen and people act and exhibit symptoms of strong emotion, but the artist's job of showing instead of telling is not attempted here.
And what's in some ways worse: There are basic failures of craft that start early. On page 15, Big Liu, a Chinese man who wants to move his family onto the college grounds for safety's sake, is offered a job at the college by Vautrin. He replies, "For real?"
Huh? Why is a Chinese peasant in 1937 using an American slang expression that did not enter world culture for decades? Somebody, at least the editors, deserves a dope-slap.
There are too many such questions, about wooden or expository dialogue and other craft issues yanking the reader from the story. These characteristics are OK in shiny, disposable books created as product to momentarily distract, but in work purporting allegiance to a higher purpose, this is tough to take. With all due respect to a seriously important author, Vautrin and Nanjing, deserve better.
Ed Taylor is a freelance writer and critic.
By Ha JinPantheon
320 pages, $25.95