This is the faithful recreation of what happened to the city of Nanking, China, from 1937 until 1940. It appears to be an act of commemoration by this Chinese author in behalf of that city which endured the early and horrendous Rape of Nanking, and whose citizens then had to survive the occupation by a Japanese army that violated its citizens for many more years.
This 2011 work is not a successful work of fiction, however. While the narrator is a Chinese woman, Anling, the hero of the work is Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who is the acting head of a school for girls, Ginling Women’s College. And the credits reveal that she was a real person who kept a diary of those years, and has also been the subject of numerous biographies.
Which is the problem of this novel. That Ha Jin followed his source material too closely in writing this work. With the result that the novel presents event after event without any connection between them. As an historical sequence, the events make sense, but there is no cause and effect, no event that prompts the next event, and no decisions by any characters that prompts succeeding events, such as revenge by or on the Japanese. The many characters do react to the events, but they are reacting to history, rather than to individual actions by others. Because as much as they complain, they are powerless to do anything.
One result is that the various characters, whether staff members at the school or a few of the students, have little depth and are often difficult to remember from previous events. Their lack of depth is particularly noticeable with the narrator. Anling has a family, but they barely appear with her in any scene. She talks about them, and is concerned about them, but it is difficult to feel her concern for characters who are barely present themselves. Which, in turn, lends a certain hollowness to her own character. She exists on these pages primarily as a vehicle to tell this story. Because, one suspects, the author felt more comfortable with using a Chinese character to tell this Chinese story than using the American Millie to tell the story.
As a side note, this Chinese author also does not seem comfortable with American slang. He is writing in English, but the colloquial speech used by both his Chinese and American characters often seemed awkward to me. One can see the casual jargon he is striving for, but it often does not ring true.
The finale of this work of fiction also seems contrived. It brings to an end the story of Millie, which the source material provides. But I do wonder about the actions of Mrs. Dennison, who serves as the villain of the novel. Did they come from the source material, or did they come from the author’s imagination? For while she is the one person in the novel whose actions do have an impact on another character, her decisions do seem arbitrary, as if the author created her to bring his work to its conclusion.
But if the novel brings an end to Millie’s story, it does not bring an end to the story of Nanking, the school, or most of the staff. There is a round-up chapter that extends the staff biographies, yes, but it doesn’t really offer a sense of fulfillment to their lives. There is also one anecdote about narrator Anling and her participation in postwar justice, but it is just another incident. It does not represent a real completion to either her life or to her Nanking experience. We learn nothing about how was she changed by it, or about how the others were changed.
The early chapters detail the horrors of the original surge of Japanese troops into Nanjing, and I remember thinking that I could not take a full novel describing horror after horror. But the real story this novel tells concerns what happened after the Japanese captured this city that was China’s capital until Chiang Kai-shek fled to Chunking. What happened is that the missionaries and other foreigners who remained in the city helped set up a Safety Zone to protect the city’s residents. There is the German Nazi businessman, John Rabe, who reportedly saved 200,000 Chinese refugees. There are the American missionary John Magee and the American professor Lewis Smythe, who also helped set up the Safety Zone.
Part of that zone included Jinling College, and Minnie Vautrin prepared its buildings to house 2,500 refugees created by the war. But, given its horrendous impact, with the original rape, pillage, arson and murder being committed by the Japanese invaders, she soon found the school housing 10,000 refugees, which both strained its capabilities and curtailed its educational purpose.
The one villainous staff member at the school is the elderly Mrs. Dennison. She is merely an advisor, but she holds considerable power because of her financial contacts back in the States. And her every act ignores the current refugee situation, and focuses instead of reviving, once the war ends, the school’s mission of being a women’s college for the Chinese. This frustrates Minnie, who is focused on the daily needs of the Chinese girls that the school is housing. For she sees that the school will not survive to become a woman’s college if it does not survive first the problems of the occupation.
While the fate of Minnie Vautrin is a tragic fate, this work itself is not a tragic novel. For we are kept at a distance from her. First, by having Anling, a Chinese woman, tell Minnie’s story. And, second, by basing the events on the historical record, rather than by projecting on Minnie and her colleagues a fictional version of their own internal decisions. Author Ha Jin’s heart was in the right place. The Nanking horror story needed to be told in a literary form that reaches a broad audience. But he should have put Minnie’s diary and the historic record aside, and then let his imagination run free. (January, 2019)