Toronto Star

Caught between two countries

The half-Chinese, half-American daughter of a former CIA spy investigat­es her father’s past


In a 2009 interview with the Paris Review, Ha Jin was asked why his books are banned in China. He answered, “I’ve never intended my writing to be political, but my characters exist in the fabric of politics.”

It’s easy to see why Jin’s writing is steeped in politics.

Born in China in 1956, he joined the People’s Liberation Army in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. In 1986 he emigrated to the U.S. to do graduate work, deciding to stay after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Since then, his lauded short story collection­s and novels have examined China’s schizophre­nic recent history as well as the lives of people who exist between cultures.

AMap of Betrayal, Jin’s seventh novel, allows Jin to plumb the depths of his conscience for a tale that encapsulat­es U.S.–China relations during the Cold War and the life of an immigrant caught between love of home, both old and new.

A Map of Betrayal explores the question of whether a person can ever love two things at once through the story of a Chinese man who immigrated to Washington, D.C.

The novel is partly narrated in the present day by 53-year-old Lilian Shang, the half-Chinese, half-American daughter of Gary Shang, who for more than 30 years was a Chinese spy employed by the CIA before being caught in 1980. Lilian decides to conduct her own inquest into her father’s past after receiving his six-volume set of diaries from his former mistress.

Lilian, a college professor, uses the occasion of a semester in Beijing to shed light on her father’s mysterious circumstan­ces in China prior to his leaving the country in 1949 as a low-level spy planted as a translator within an American cultural agency.

As Lilian retraces her father’s past life in China, she gets in touch with members of his hidden family — a wife and children left behind to be taken care of by the state while Gary rose in rank within both the CIA and, covertly, within the Chinese government.

Meeting her half-sister and her family forces Lilian to come to terms with the untenable state of her father’s existence: a half-forgotten life in China coexisting with an adopted one in suburban Washington, D.C., with an American wife and daughter.

Lilian’s narration alternates with a third-person chronologi­cal account of Gary’s dual existence, a kind of historical record that mirrors Lilian’s personal discoverie­s as she traverses the Chinese countrysid­e and visits its booming coastal cities, tracing the vestiges of her father’s mysterious past.

The two interspers­ing narratives draw an interestin­g parallel between the double life of a spy and that of an immigrant. Gary feels an almost inexplicab­le loyalty to China in spite of the political upheavals that marked its post-Communist evolution, although his is more of a familial than an ideologica­l loyalty — a sense of “home.” The same can be said of his hesitant affection for his adopted country, despite his false pretenses for being there at all.

At the novel’s heart is the question of whether a person can love two things at once.

This dilemma is implied throughout, but Jin repeatedly inserts reminders of it everywhere, which is a bit heavy-handed.

Most unsubtly, during his American existence, Gary is torn between his American wife and his Chinese mistress.

A Map of Betrayal is much more effective when it takes a softer tack in examining the concept of patriotism as a religion, which is especially interestin­g given the vastly different ideas of citizenshi­p in the U.S. and China.

Moreover, the novel introduces the idea of a sort of filial patriotism, which is familiar to Chinese citizens who identify with the “motherland,” but lacks resonance in the West.

Throughout his stories and novels, Jin’s strength has been in giving readers unfettered access to the vacuous space between here and there — the domain of the exile.

With its tale of espionage, A Map of Betrayal offers, at times, a provocativ­e tale of a spy turned immigrant who loses his homeland somewhere along the way, forever “out of place, like a stranded traveller.” Jason Beerman lives and writes in Hong Kong.

 ??  ?? A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin, Pantheon 304 pages, $32.
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin, Pantheon 304 pages, $32.
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