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NANJING REQUIEM by Ha Jin Kirkus Star


by Ha Jin

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-37976-4
Publisher: Pantheon

A historical novel with a timeless theme—the inhumanly human brutality of war and the attempt to sustain a life of compassion and grace in response to it.

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.