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There's a real person and a real atrocity at the heart of the latest fiction by the award-winning Ha Jin(A Free Life, 2007, etc.). The atrocity is the late 1930s occupation of China by Japan, a period during which, says the novel's narrator, "[t]hey meant to destroy China's potential for resistance and to terrify us into obedience." Such terror took the form of rampant rape (in what has become notorious as "the rape of Nanking") and indiscriminate murder.The novel's real-life protagonist, whose diaries and correspondence served as source material, is Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who turned the women's college where she was dean into a refuge for some 10,000 Chinese women and children. Her story is told through the eyes and voice of Anling Gao, Vautrin's assistant who serves as her "unofficial proxy" as a Chinese-speaking citizen. In the novel's early stages, the narrative strategy seems limiting, for Anling is neither particularly eloquent nor psychologically astute.She tells what she sees, and she has a good eye for detail, but shows no deep insight into the qualities that elevate Vautrin into sainthood among so many of those she saved, or to Vautrin's resistance to such lofty regard. "I hate to see them confuse humanity with divinity," the narrator quotes the protagonist. "It's not right to be called a goddess while I'm doing mission work." Yet the novelist's subtle mastery enriches the work, as Angling shifts from the role of witness to an integral position in the plot, and the complexities of relations among Americans, Chinese, Japanese (and eventually Germans, Russians and others) continue to multiply. Ultimately, Vautrin's resistance to her deification proves well warranted, though the novel presents her as an indelible figure worthy of its celebration.
A matter-of-fact, plainspoken narrative that has a profound impact.
“Subtle and powerful.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Crushingly beautiful, achingly sad. . . . What you most remember, once you put down the book, is not agony and hopelessness, not darkness and blood, but rather the reach of human goodness.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Remarkable. . . . Profoundly moving.” —The Plain Dealer
“Wonderful. . . . [Ha Jin’s] control over his characters is masterful; Japanese characters can be kindly, victims can be stridently impatient for vengeance. All are human.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“Nanjing Requiem is both plainspoken and revelatory, the saddest of Ha Jin’s novels. After this past decade of armed conflict, which has put millions of civilians at risk, his reminder of the human costs of war is also, unfortunately, timely.” —The Boston Globe
“An affecting, insightful portrait.” —The Oregonian
“[Minnie’s] humanizing voice and struggling perspective personalize the story and provide an element of reasonableness and decency amid so much savagery. . . . Harrowing.” —Wall Street Journal
“[Ha Jin’s] spare prose can achieve a masterful precision. . . . Demonstrate[s] how humans cope when forced together in wartime. . . . Testament to the bravery of women in the most horrifying of circumstances.” —The Independent (UK)
“Exquisitely painful. . . . Creates an unforgettable impression.” —St. Louis Dispatch
“Haunting. . . . He has honed a distinctively dry, laconic prose style.” —Financial Times
“Should be required reading for anyone who isn't familiar with what happened at Nanjing. . . . Courageously and unflinchingly, Ha Jin has taken an important step in remembering both the victims and the heroes of that senseless slaughter.” —Associated Press
“Delivers glimpses of the massacre in all its reeling madness: the young woman who is driven insane by her manifold violations; the ways violence can smite the spirit, even when the body is spared; the sight of ‘shells bursting in the air like black blossoms.’” —The Washington Post
In December 1937, the Japanese invaded the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing (sometimes written as "Nanking" in the Wade- Giles Romanization of Mandarin), unleashing a reign of terror that led to around 200,000 deaths and 20,000 rapes. It was one of the most brutal episodes of that dishonorable decade of war.
Commentators have since wondered what motivated Japanese soldiers to act so mercilessly against the civilian and military residents of the fallen capital, and where exactly responsibility should be assigned. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal investigated this question, and despite a famous dissenting opinion by Indian judge Radhabinod Pal, the fact that a vast atrocity took place is not in dispute. Sparked in part by Iris Chang's (somewhat sensationalized) bestseller The Rape of Nanking (1998), there has recently been a spate of books about the subject, including the publication of the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, who is the subject of Ha Jin's novel — arguably the most daring and difficult book he's undertaken in his illustrious career.
Vautrin, a missionary from Illinois, was acting president of Jinling Women's College of Arts and Sciences, where she had been working for twenty years, having introduced such innovations as industrial training for poor women and developed a benevolent relationship with the larger community. Just before the Japanese onslaught on Nanjing, Westerners, including Vautrin, set up a neutral Nanking Safety Zone (NSZ) under the auspices of the International Committee, to provide shelter for refugees. At its peak, Jinling College took in 10,000 refugees, particularly women in fear of being raped. The Chinese government later secretly awarded Vautrin the Star of the Jade, and she was idolized as the Goddess of Mercy among Nanjing's inhabitants.
How can a novelist enter this well-covered territory to say something fresh? How can he shed new light on a character that has been the subject of both hagiographic and objective biographical interest? The temptation would be to enumerate the atrocities and let them carry the heavy work of the narrative, while encouraging implicit and familiar judgments on the protagonists. The task is all the more difficult because Jin hews closely to historical events and personages, except for some notable divergences.
But it is precisely in these divergent details that his narrative skill is most manifest. Vautrin's diaries — also available online at the Yale Divinity School website — reveal a generally bottled-up, orderly, conscientious, moralistic persona, able to subdue her grief during the peak of the atrocity. Yet we know that shortly afterward she suffered a mental breakdown and committed suicide upon her return to the U.S. Jin sharpens the inner moral conflict revealed in the diaries, in part by inventing (or elaborating on) a few central episodes: Vautrin's surrender of a number of alleged "prostitutes" to Japanese soldiers (an event that later comes back to haunt her); her obsession with a mentally ill girl named Yulan; her interactions with the fictionalized new president of Jinling College, the bureaucratic Miss Dennison (in real life, it was a Matilda Thurston); and above all her sustained interactions with her fictive sidekick, Anling Gao, who adores and supports Vautrin yet is constrained by her difficult position and Japanese connections.
In the sections relating Anling's domestic dilemmas — her only son, Haowen, is a lowly physician in the Japanese army and is married to a Japanese girl — we enter territory more familiar from Jin's earlier fiction about China. Anling's own troubles become more prominent later in the book, as the tenor changes from pure darkness to relative light — if such a thing is possible in a book dealing with brutalities of the magnitude Jin relates.
Herein lies Jin's accomplishment in the novel: the deeper the reader delves into the book, the greater the sense of illumination. The early part of Nanjing Requiem is an almost relentless telling of the daily atrocities Vautrin had to endure, as is always true of the thick of war, but the later part allows for the reflection and second-guessing of aftermath — on the part of Vautrin and Anling, as well as on the part of the reader. Dualisms such as resistance versus collaboration, peace versus war, benevolence versus imperialism, virtue versus selfishness — in short, good versus evil — are all brought into question.
The novel's contest of philosophical ideas keeps escalating. What role is there for Christian charity in a divided nation with disputed leadership? While Miss Dennison argues, "I guess this city was destroyed time and again in history, so people here must be accustomed to all sorts of devastations," this is something the compassionate Vautrin could never accept at face value. Anling, as the middle-aged first-person narrator of the book, is the ideal protagonist to keep hacking at the question: Is the worst life better than the best death?
In taking on these daring themes without descending into mawkishness or violence for their own sake, especially in the immediate wake of the relative hopefulness of A Free Life (2007) and A Good Fall (2009) — his best novel and story collection to date, in my opinion — Jin again shows himself to be one of our most humane writers, maintaining an honesty that just can't be faked.
Anis Shivani is the author of Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2011). His just- finished novel is called The Slums of Karachi. His criticism and book reviews appear in many newspapers, magazines, and literary journals.
Reviewer: Anis Shivani
Finally Ban began to talk. For a whole evening we sat in the dining room listening to the boy. He said, “That afternoon when Principal Vautrin told me to go tell Mr. Rabe about the random arrests in our camp, I ran to the Safety Zone Committee’s headquarters. As I was reaching that house, two Japanese soldiers stopped me, one pointing his bayonet at my tummy and the other sticking his gun against my back. They ripped off my Red Cross armband and hit me in the face with their fists. Then they took me away to White Cloud Shrine. There’s a pond inside the temple, and a lot of carp and bass lived in the water. The monks were all gone except for two old ones who’d been shot dead and dumped into a latrine. The Japanese wanted to catch the fish but didn’t have a net. An officer emptied his pistol into the pond but didn’t hit any fish. Then another one began throwing grenades into the water. In a flash big bass and carp surfaced, all knocked out and bellyup. The Japs poked us four Chinese with bayonets, and ordered us to undress and get into the water to bring out the fish. I couldn’t swim and was scared, but I had to jump into the pond. The water was freezing cold. Luckily, it was just waist-deep. We brought all the half-dead fish to the bank, and the Japanese smashed their heads with rifle butts, strung them through the gills with hemp ropes, and tied them to shoulder poles. Together we carried the fish to their billets. They were large fish, each weighing at least fifteen pounds.
“The soldiers had fried fish for dinner but didn’t give us anything to eat. Instead, they made us pick up horse droppings left by their cavalry with our bare hands. At dusk they took us to an ammo dump to load a truck. More Chinese were there working for them, eleven in total. We carried boxes of bullets onto the truck. When the loading was done, three fellows and I were ordered to go with the truck to Hsia Gwan. I was shocked to see so many houses burned down in that area. Lots of buildings were still burning, and the flames snapped and howled like a rushing wind. The electric poles along the way were blazing like huge torches. Only the Yangtze Hotel and a church stood undamaged. We stopped at a little slope and unloaded the truck. Near the riverbank a large crowd had gathered, more than a thousand people. Some of them were Chinese soldiers and some were civilians, including women and kids. A couple of men in the crowd raised white flags, and a white sheet was dangling from a tree. Beyond the people, three tanks with their turrets like large upside-down basins were standing on the embankment, their guns pointing at the crowd. Near us some Japanese soldiers were sitting around a battle flag planted in the ground, drinking rice wine from a large keg wrapped in straw matting. An officer came over and barked out some orders, but the soldiers at the heavy machine guns did nothing and just looked at one another. The officer got furious. He drew his sword and hit a soldier with the back of it. Thwack, thwack, thwack. Then his eyes fell on us Chinese coolies squatting close by. Raising his sword, he gave a loud cry, charged at the tallest one among us, and slashed off his head. Two squirts of blood shot into the air more than three feet high and the man fell over without a whimper. We all dropped to our knees and banged our heads on the ground, begging for mercy. I peed my pants.
“The soldiers at the machine guns were flabbergasted. Then one of the guns began firing, and the other two followed. In a flash the machine guns posted at other spots started shooting too. So did the tanks. The crowd was swirling around, crying and falling, but the people were trapped. Every bullet cut down several of them. In less than ten minutes they were all mowed down. Then groups of soldiers carrying fixed bayonets went over to finish off those who were still breathing. I was so horrified that I couldn’t stop trembling and crying. One fellow worker grabbed hold of my hair and shook me, saying, ‘Don’t make so much noise—it will draw attention.’ That stopped me.
“We returned with the truck to carry loot for the soldiers, mainly furniture. They didn’t keep all the stuff and threw lots of things into the big bonfire in front of their regimental headquarters. Over the fire were pigs and sheep and quarters of a buffalo skewed with long steel bars, and a couple of boiling cauldrons. The air was full of the smell of roasted meat. That night they locked us in a room and gave us each a ball of rice and a cup of water. The next two days they took us to the area east of the Central University to carry loot for them again. They stripped every house of its valuables and then torched it. One soldier carried a safe cracker, but most times they didn’t use the tool and just blew the safes open with hand grenades fixed to their bottoms, where the iron was thinner. They were very fond of wristwatches and jewelry—those were what they were after. One of them, a young fellow, even took a baby carriage. I couldn’t stop wondering what he’d do with that. He was too young to have kids.
“Afterward, they whisked six of us out farther east to Jurong Town, and we worked there for a whole day, moving artillery rounds and shell casings. In the evening they released us and said we could go home. Dog-tired, we slowly started trekking home in the dark. The first night we covered only ten miles. Along the way every pond and creek had dead bodies in it, humans and animals, and the water had changed color. When we were thirsty, we had no choice but to drink the foul water. Oh, I still can smell the stink of the decaying corpses. Some of them had eyeballs sticking two or three inches out of their faces, probably due to the gas built up inside them. We once came across a young woman’s body with one foot missing, dark blood still oozing out of the stump; on her other foot was a small purple shoe—she had bound feet. Some women were naked from the waist down, stabbed to death after the Japs had raped them. My legs would keep on shaking whenever we passed a pile of corpses.
“Again and again we were stopped by Japanese soldiers. Lucky for us, the officer who had released us wrote a note, so the guards along the way didn’t arrest us and allowed us to come back to Nanjing. One of the fellows, dehydrated from diarrhea, couldn’t walk anymore. We could do nothing but leave him behind on the roadside. He must be dead now. Not far from where we left him, we stumbled into a little boy, two or three years old, sitting at a deserted bus stop and crying from hunger pangs. I gave him a piece of pancake, but before he could eat it, four Japs came and prodded him with their boots. One of them pulled out his dick and started peeing into the boy’s mouth. The boy was crying louder and louder while the Japs cracked up. We dared not watch for long, so we moved on. I’m sure the other three Japs did the same to the boy. He’d be lucky if they didn’t kill him.
“Oh, human lives suddenly became worthless, dead bodies everywhere, some with their bellies cut open, intestines spilled out, and some half burned with gasoline. The Japs killed so many people that they polluted streams, ponds, and wells everywhere, and they themselves couldn’t find clean water to drink anymore. Even the rice they ate was reddish because they had to use bloody water to cook it. Once a Japanese messman gave us some bowls of rice, and after I ate it, I had the taste of blood in my mouth for hours. To tell the truth, I never thought I would make it back and see you folks again. Now my pulse still gallops in the middle of the night.”
While Ban was speaking, I jotted down what he said.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Why does Ha Jin tell the story of Nanjing and Minnie Vautrin in Anling’s eyes and voice? What does her voice bring to the novel and to Minnie’s story? What are Anling’s strengths and weaknesses as a character and a narrator? Is her version of the events believable? Does her voice change over the course of the novel?
2. In what ways is this novel about power relationships—between the Japanese and Chinese, between soldiers and civilians; between Dr. Dennison and Minnie; between the foreigners living in Nanjing and the Chinese citizens; between teachers and students; between those living in the dormitories and those not; between men and women? Does any one person or group emerge victorious over another?
3. What does the word “requiem” in the title refer to? What does it imply? Why do you think Ha Jin chose this as the title for this novel?
4. Why has Ha Jin chosen American Minnie Vautrin’s story to tell within the larger framework of the Rape of Nanjing? Why not choose a Chinese woman’s story? Or a Chinese man’s?
5. Discuss the role of religion in the novel, especially Christianity. How are Minnie’s views of God and Christianity different from that of the local Chinese Christians? Explain the difference between the American and the Chinese views on divinity and humanity. Why is Minnie so embarrassed that the local Chinese view her as a living goddess?
6. Gardens and the natural landscape play a part in this novel, despite its taking place in a large Chinese city. Describe some of the trees and flowers in the novel. Why do Minnie, Anling, and the gardener go to great lengths to keep the college garden flourishing regardless of the chaos and destruction occurring all around them?
7. Reviewers have commented that the language of this novel is different from other Ha Jin novels: “a matter-of-fact, plainspoken narrative” (Kirkus Reviews); “bluntness—jarringly effective—different from his previous works” (Library Journal); “writing with unnerving austerity” (Booklist). Do you agree with his reviewers that the language is more direct, blunter and more plainspoken? Why do you think Ha Jin decided to use this tone?
8. Why do you think Ha Jin begins his novel with a young boy’s graphic, horrific story of what he saw as he ran from the college to the Safety Zone Committee headquarters in the early days of the occupation? How does this set the tone for the rest of the novel?
9. When Anling comments that “most people are good at forgetting. That’s a way of survival,” Minnie responds, “History should be recorded as it happened so it can be remembered with little room for doubt and controversy” (p. 97). Describe their conflicting views of the way to deal with history, memory, and national atrocities.
10. “What this country needed was Christianity, [Minnie] often told me, and I shared her belief.” (p. 97), says Anling. Why do you think Minnie and Anling believe this?
11. Describe the “madwoman” in Nanjing Requiem. Why does Minnie feel so guilty about her and take her under her wing?
12. Why does Minnie let the Japanese soldiers take a number of women refugees? What do you think you would have done in the same circumstances?
13. “We Chinese were obsessed with food and face, so even in a time of distress like now, we’d still make the best use of the pleasure life could offer, turning a meal into a small feast,” (p. 188) comments Anling. Describe other instances of this obsession in the novel. Is it positive or negative?
14. Describe Anling’s relationship with her son. Why is it complicated? How does Anling feel about her half-Japanese grandchild?
15. Describe Minnie’s relationship with Dr. Dennison. Why is it so fraught with tension and competition? Given that they both love China and the college, why can’t they work together toward shared goals?
16. Describe Minnie and Anling’s friendship. Do they understand each other intimately? How do they look out for and protect each other? Why do they trust each other?
17. How is the school able to survive the Rape of Nanjing and the subsequent occupation by the Japanese soldiers? How is Minnie able to orchestrate the housing and feeding of the refugees and institute various programs?
18. What happens to Minnie in the end? Did you see the ending coming? Why or why not? What ultimately happens to the college, and to the city of Nanjing?
Posted September 30, 2011
In 1937, the Japanese occupation force takes control of Nanjing with a brutal violence to insure the suppressed population could not rebel. American missionary dean of Jinling Women's College Minnie Vautrin is horrified with what she witnesses and what she hears as the Japanese army terrorizes civilians with mass slaughter and rape. She and her assistant Anling Gao open the college as a shelter to the homeless. While the Japanese threaten to destroy her school and her, Minnie continues to act as the "Goddess of Mercy" to over ten thousand battle fatigued women and children.
Anling bears her own demon in secret. Her daughter in law is Japanese so though she desperately wants to welcome her son's wife and worse her grandchild as her kin, she cannot acknowledge them if she does not want to become a pariah in her community and ineffective in assisting Minnie. She takes solace with her work helping the Goddess of Mercy perform miracles by risking their lives. Still both women feel tormented by those they could not save from the horrific murdering and raping of Nanking.
With a nod to Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanjing, Ha Jin provides a powerful cautionary historical thriller with a focus on the real life missionary who the author makes a strong case deserves international legendary status for what she did at a sacrifice to herself. Reading somewhat like a biographical fiction, Anling tells the tale of her boss' efforts and sacrifice to rescue the beleaguered unprotected civilians from a reign of terror.
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Posted March 12, 2012
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Posted October 28, 2011
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