Ha Jin’s latest novel, Nanjing Requiem, released last fall, takes on the huge challenge of setting a novel during the Japanese invasion and occupation of China’s Nanjing City. It is not an easy task to write a
book with a foundation based in the torture and slaughter of thousands of civilians, but that is the challenge Jin has set up for himself with this new book.
Jin tells the story of the fall of Nanjing, opening with the heartbreaking tale of Ban, a young boy who serves as an errand-runner for the Western –funded and run Jingli College, who was whisked away by Japanese soldiers and forced to do their bidding, fearing for his life if he didn’t cooperate. After this initial chapter, the rest of the book (with one other short exception at the end) is narrated by Anling, a Chinese woman who works for the college. While she is the primary story-teller, the roles of the foreign citizens are the focus of much of the novel.
Nanjing’s citizens were cruelly treated when the Japanese army overthrew the Chinese government there, as the invading army’s officers allowed their soldiers to run wild, abandoning any sense of
decency and humanity. Countless women, of all ages, were raped and killed. Men were forced to watch their relatives’ endure these heinous acts and then they themselves were slaughtered. Jin doesn’t shy away from the realities of what occurred in city in the late 1930’s. Because of this brutally honest look at those atrocities, Nanjing Requiem can be difficult to read. His writing relays the stark realities of the horrors committed, making the book, at times, painful to endure. It is not a leisurely book, written for the feint-of-heart.
With the focus on the deeds of the foreigners living in Nanjing, I was disappointed that Ha Jin didn’t focus more on the positive aspects of Chinese culture and traditions. Oftentimes, the Chinese women (other than the main narrator herself) are made out to be petty and squabbling and wholly selfish. I would love to have seen him incorporate more Chinese women who sacrificed for the cause of helping others. The characters, both Chinese and foreign, were pretty flatly drawn, making it hard to connect with them while reading the novel.
Nanjing Requiem, while dealing with a terrible period in Chinese history, really focuses on the roles that foreigners played in saving thousands of people from certain death. These characters, mostly American missionaries, put their lives on the line for the people of the country in which they live. They show a basic humanity and dignity which is a direct foil to that characterization of the Japanese forces. With this said, the writing lacks the emotion one would expect from such a horrific event. The writing is sufficient. It describes scenes, it fleshes out characters, it has a clear beginning, middle and end. What it doesn’t do is move the reader to tears or even a conjure of a great amount of anger. If I had not read several other books about the occurrences in Nanjing (I would specifically recommend The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang), I don’t think the absolute travesty of the situation would have been clear. In several places, Jin provides clear descriptions of varies horrors, and yet they come across as nothing more than flatly written fiction.
Overall, this book fell short of what it could have been. I am disappointed that a book with the potential of this one didn’t create more of an emotional reaction. When I initially started this novel, I
thought I was going to love it, but around the halfway mark I realized that it was going to fall squarely in the “okay” category. Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem earns: