Book review: “Nanjing Requiem,” by Ha Jin

It’s a lesson for any wordsmith: How do you fashion art from atrocity? How do you take facts that defy credulity — the slaughter of innocents, the orgies of rape, the lingering stink of a landscape of corpses — and offer them up as an act of the imagination? Is it possible to capture an irrational frenzy in a rationally constructed story with a beginning, middle and end?

That is the task Ha Jin has set for himself in “Nanjing Requiem,” a novel that focuses on six terrifying weeks in Nanjing in 1937, when soldiers of Japan’s Imperial Army overran the Chinese capital and loosed a terrible blood lust on a defenseless population. Consider the facts: President Chiang Kai-shek, in his frantic escape from the advancing Japanese, deliberately caused a flood that killed 800,000 of his own countrymen. The mayor of Nanjing hightailed it to higher ground, leaving his wards to their own salvation. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered; at least 50,000 were raped. Uncountable girls and women were rounded up in harrowing raids and transported to Japanese army brothels. Infants were violated. Ancients were bayoneted. So much blood ran in the rivers that rice — if anyone was still cooking — was pink, with the pronounced ferric flavor of life itself.

Ha Jin is no stranger to history. He documented the Cultural Revolution in his award-winning “Waiting,” a novel about a man who whiles away 18 years until he can marry the woman for whom he has forsaken his wife. He recorded the phenomenon of Asian immigration in “A Good Fall,” his most American of short story collections. He memorialized the Korean War in “War Trash,” a brilliant chronicle of prison behavior that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has told the Asian American story in a multitude of incarnations. It is as if his whole purpose in writing is to record the business of jarring cultural change.

This time, his hero is an American. Few of us know it, but one of the leading actors in this sorry episode of history was a woman from small-town Illinois. She was a no-nonsense missionary by the name of Minnie Vautrin, who, by chance, happened to be acting dean of a women’s college in Nanjing precisely when it was mortally dangerous to be female in China. “Nanjing Requiem” not only recounts Minnie’s story, it tells about a tiny expatriate community, which, fighting against time, built a Safety Zone, rescued thousands and documented the grisly evidence eventually brought to light in Tokyo’s war crime tribunals.

A rich store of documents informs this fictionalized account, not least the journals of Vautrin herself — hard to beat in their vivid immediacy. Consider this chilling passage from her diary: “There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from Language School last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night — one of the girls was but 12 years old. Food, bedding and money have been taken from people. . . . I suspect every house in the city has been opened, again and yet again, and robbed. Tonight a truck passed, in which there were 8 or 10 girls, and as it passed they called out ‘Jiu ming’ ‘Jiu ming’ — save our lives. . . . We are responsible for about 4,000 women and children tonight. We wonder how much longer we can stand this strain.”

That is record, not fiction, and the scene needs little elaboration. Through Vautrin’s efforts, 10,000 girls and women were admitted to the relative safety of Jinling College.

It is to Ha Jin’s credit that all the historical players are here: the German businessman John Rabe, who negotiated and mobilized that refuge in the heart of the city; the American missionary John Magee, who recorded the rape victims in hair-raising film; the professor Lewis Smythe, who risked his own family to save lives. But Ha Jin’s fictionalized version doesn’t come close to the shock and awe of Vautrin’s blunt documentation. In the novelist’s hands, events become surprisingly sterile, drained of the blood that once stained every aspect of wartime reality. “Damn the Japs,” Rabe manages weakly, “they’ve lost their minds and simply can’t stop the killing.”

Well. It’s hard to believe that words can fail so spectacularly. Doesn’t brutality deserve outrage? The fury was certainly there in real life.

Let’s start with Rabe, an executive with Siemans — a stalwart member of the Nazi Party — who herded potential victims into his safe zone and, through extraordinary efforts, saved 200,000 Chinese lives. Eventually, Rabe was shuttled off to silence because Germany didn’t want to offend Japan; he was prevented from telling his story. A savior in China, he became a pauper in his own country. Alas, Ha Jin doesn’t really tell his tale.

There were others who mustered astonishing valor in the face of the onslaught: the Episcopal minister Magee, for instance, whose visual records of obscenely defiled corpses became pivotal in international courts. As fate would have it, Magee eventually became the rector of St. John’s, the pretty yellow church across the street from the White House. Myriad stories such as these populate this terrible moment in history, when humans suffered so much at their own hands and human governments were utterly powerless to save them. In the end, even the legally declared Safety Zone was not inviolable. Japanese soldiers swept into the very heart of Jinling College, made away with young girls and despoiled them as savagely as they did the others. It’s a tragic and tragically controversial story.

In all fairness, Ha Jin can sometimes rise to the occasion, and he manages to deliver glimpses of the massacre in all its reeling madness: the young woman who is driven insane by her manifold violations; the ways violence can smite the spirit, even when the body is spared; the sight of “shells bursting in the air like black blossoms.” “Nanjing Requiem” makes the most of Vautrin’s sad fate: the grotesquely unjust accusation by her supervisor that she didn’t do enough, that she was ultimately “a traitor to the Chinese people.” Ha Jin gives us a poign­ant twist in the fate of our narrator Anling, whose grown son just happens to be in Tokyo taking a Japanese wife when all hell is being unleashed in his homeland.

Despite its inherent power, the narrative doesn’t pack the voltage it deserves. Vautrin is as wooden and lifeless as a marionette, until she is up and flailing. Anling is infinitely more human but never quite emerges as a fully realized character. The action can read like a textbook, with intermittent spatters of gore. Then there is the prose, which can suddenly draw us up short: “Tummy” is surely the wrong word for a corpse’s mutilated gut; people wave goodbye in improbably “powdery rain.” I’m reminded of a scene in Ha Jin’s magnificent short story “The English Professor,” in which a visiting scholar sabotages himself by signing his tenure request with the nonexistent word “Respectly.”

Fiction can tell great truths. Calm can deliver a harrowing tale. But, in the end, one can’t help but wonder whether Ha Jin’s unnervingly flat chronicle is the right vehicle for searing history. Take the fire from an inferno and what have you got? Ashes.

Arana is a writer at large for The Post.

NANJING REQUIEM

By Ha Jin

Pantheon.

303 pp. $26.95

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