Victims and heroes
HA Jin’s latest novel takes place in the former Chinese Nationalist capital just before and after one of the worst wartime atrocities of modern times.
In 1937, the Japanese army invaded the city then called Nanking, raping, torturing and murdering hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Amid the carnage, a small band of Westerners set up a safety zone in the ancient walled city to shelter civilians, saving many thousands of lives despite frequent incursions by marauding soldiers who, in addition to other acts of barbarism, abducted women into sexual slavery.
Ha Jin, who was born in China in 1956 but has lived in the US since the communist Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, says he first learned of the heroic role played by these Westerners when he read Iris Chang’s bestselling 1997 nonfiction work, The Rape Of Nanking.
His fact-based but fictionalised account of the terrible events that began on Dec 13, when the Japanese took control of the city, centres on the American Christian missionary Minnie Vautrin, for sheltering thousands of women and children on the campus of Ginling Women’s College, where sheshe was dean. Vautrin was forced to make a morally dubious bargain with the enemy that haunted her for the rest of her days and this forms the core of the novel.
Ha Jin is known for his spare and matter-of-fact style. At times, though, his prose doesn’t seem full-blooded enough to match the operatic quality of the suffering he describes. We learn little about the characters’ inner lives and motivations.
This work should be required reading for anyone who isn’t familiar with what happened at Nanjing. For a number of complicated reasons, including Japanese ultra-nationalism and China’s desire to maintain relations with its Asian neighbour, this episode of unspeakable savagery hasn’t been publicised nearly as much as other crimes against humanity.
Courageously and unflinchingly, Ha Jin has taken an important step in remembering both the victims and the heroes of that senseless slaughter. – AP