Nanjing Requiem: A Novel
- Ha Jin
- Pantheon Books
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Y.S. Fing
- October 24, 2011
The PEN/Faulkner Award winner's newest novel fictionalizes the story of Minnie Vautrin, of the Jinling College for Girls in Nanjing, 1937.
Reviewed by Y.S. Fing
In “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg draws us into the dreadful complexities and suffering of war. However that suffering is seen at a remove. Spielberg cushions the audience from the merciless German blitz by showing Oskar Schindler saving the innocent and powerless. We see the horror, but we also see a gesture of stunning humanity, if not exactly love. Schindler represents a sensible human in a nonsensical world, a person doing what is right despite circumstance, a man with a moral compass.
Ha Jin’s Minnie Vautrin serves as a similar microcosmic example. They are similar in that they are real people. However, unlike Oskar, Minnie was neither a citizen of the aggressor nation nor of the conquered. She was a dedicated American expatriate. With many hundreds of other foreigners, she helped organize a neutral safety zone in Nanjing in late 1937. Prior to this, Nanjing had been a cultured and historical city, which Chiang Kai Shek and his wife used as their capital. The Japanese siege had begun in the fall, and the Chiangs departed for Taiwan by December, an ominous development.
Minnie was a missionary, educator and the head administrator of the Jinling College for Girls, which, among various other schools and hospitals, had been designated, in the days leading up to the Japanese invasion, to house refugees. Jinling was reserved for women and girls only, and with the help of the International Red Cross the college prepared for 800 people.
That number was exceeded in a matter of days. Through the eyes of Minnie’s fictional administrative colleague Anling Gao, a Chinese Christian, the reader witnesses the devastation the Japanese visited upon the city. Anling Gao accompanies the protected but powerless Minnie on her nightmarish rounds. But there are limitations to what Anling can account for in Minnie’s story.
Ten thousand women spent the winter on the Jinling grounds, starving, homeless and vulnerable to many drunken and/or violent attacks from Japanese soldiers. Outside Jinling, Nanjing (which, by conquest, the Japanese added to their East Asian Co-Prosperity sphere) was raped, butchered, and burned in a shockingly short-sighted display of anti-co-prosperity. A powerful moment occurs late in the book when Minnie wonders what kind of retribution God has in store for the Japanese.
As would be expected in the chaos of war, vast swaths of characters pass through the book. This is historical fiction, so Minnie’s peers on the Safety Zone Committee are based on real people, but there are also composite characters. Two who put the most pressure on Minnie, whom the Chinese call The Goddess of Mercy, are Yulan and Mrs. Dennison. Yulan is one of scores (hundreds? thousands?) of young women who came to receive Minnie’s protection but were subsequently stolen out by Japanese soldiers and brutally violated. Yulan loses her mind and Minnie is tormented that she couldn’t save her. Mrs. Dennison is the only person who can pretend to be Minnie’s boss, but she was conveniently away during the worst months. When she returns to Jinling attempting to reassert authority she doesn’t really have, Minnie’s world is irretrievably unraveled.
Much of the story takes place after the Japanese have ceased their barbaric atrocities, but are still a cruel, occupying force attempting to install a puppet government. Minnie’s deteriorating condition is apparent in a subdued but steady flow of adverse scenes. This is another way Minnie is unlike Schindler, who lived nearly 30 years after World War II. The stresses she bore, the evil that she witnessed, the conditions she ameliorated, the people she saved, couldn’t save her mental health. Post-traumatic stress disorder arrived with alacrity and force.
Jin has done a wonderful job of weaving an ordered tapestry from the phantasmagoric fog of that episode. One might wish that he had unrestrained himself a bit more, but if one wants a hallucinatory rendering of the rape of Nanking, see Iris Chang’s 1997 book of the same name. Jin’s focus is both wider (incorporating Anling’s family story as well) and more narrow (in that Minnie is clearly the main character). His control over his characters is masterful; Japanese officers can be kindly, victims can be stridently impatient for vengeance. All are human.
Only the novel’s ending falters. Unquestionably the narrative difficulties of detailing Minnie’s life after Nanjing would double the size of the book. If Anling doesn’t go with Minnie (she doesn’t), then the story must change significantly and cover more territory in less time. The epilogue indicates how much we missed by creating Anling Gao as the lens through which we see (or don’t see) Minnie. Jin doesn’t want to glorify Minnie, who felt she was only doing what she was taught, but with Anling’s perspective we can neither get inside Minnie’s head to feel the intensity of her struggles, nor beyond the city of Nanjing. The two chapters of the epilogue do tie together the loose ends, but one senses more a chopping off than a completion.
Look for this book to become a movie in short course, with Meryl Streep or Julianne Moore as Minnie. But let’s hope Steven Spielberg doesn’t direct it, because Jin has spared us what Spielberg can’t seem to: a moralizing ending.
Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a university in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College-Level Composition and Event Horizons: Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing (http://www.dselbyfing.com).