Vic­tims and he­roes

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Nan­jing Re­quiem pages Re­view by ANN LEVIN

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

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