Lately, we’ve been consumed with how our own government is spying on us, but, of course, there are foreign agents peering at us, too. My friends in the game say corporate espionage — stealing manufacturing and software secrets — is where the action is now, which is enough to make an old spook pine for the Cold War. Those were the days when monomaniacal leaders banged on about their superior ideologies and the fate of the earth hung on just one launch code. Whatever the wisdom of risking humanity, those decades produced some fine le Carré novels, and we’ve still got FX’s superb TV drama “The Americans.”
While that show presents a pair of slick spies from the Soviet Union, Ha Jin’s new novel, “A Map of Betrayal,” looks toward China. The action, as might be expected from this famously modulated writer, is more Walter Mitty than Walter Raleigh. Jin’s anti-hero is Gary Shang, “the biggest Chinese spy ever caught in North America.” If that superlative conjures up an underwear model flying a helicopter through the Lincoln Tunnel and dispatching enemies with toxic lip balm, you need to calm down right now. “A Map of Betrayal” is the perfect thriller for the reader with a heart condition. Gary is a torpid man who works as a translator for the CIA in the Washington area. He’s neither shaken nor stirred.
This tale of betrayals and disappointments is a natural one for Ha Jin to publish. As a teenager, he served in the People’s Liberation Army and survived the Cultural Revolution. But he watched the Tiananmen Square massacre from Brandeis University, where he was finishing a dissertation on American literature. Disillusioned by his country, he never returned. “To preserve the integrity of my work,” he said several years ago, “I had no choice but to write in English.” That has proved a spectacularly successful choice. He’s since won a National Book Award and two PEN/Faulkner awards.
“A Map of Betrayal” explores themes of alienation and “bone-deep loneliness” that Ha Jin has written about in such novels as “Waiting” and “A Free Life,” but with an extra element of intrigue. The story comes to us along two time frames. In the present day, a middle-aged American woman named Lilian describes her efforts to piece together the duplicitous life of her late father, the convicted spy Gary Shang (loosely based on the true story of Larry Wu-Tai Chin). Her sudden interest is inspired by receiving six volumes of his secret diary, in which he recorded his life from 1949 to 1980, when he was finally caught by the FBI.
“There was no denying that my father had been a top spy,” Lilian says, “but the more I worked on his materials, the more I was convinced that money hadn’t been the primary motivation in his espionage for China. . . . I came to believe that he’d been not only a betrayer but also someone who’d been betrayed.”
While Lilian is describing her search for her father’s abandoned family in China, alternating chapters present Gary’s life through the decades of political and military turmoil. “A historian by profession,” Lilian says, “I wanted to tell it in my own fashion while remaining as objective as possible.” Usually, that sort of claim to objectivity is an irony marker as subtle as the Washington Monument, but in this case, that’s exactly what she provides: an efficiently detailed story of a modest man pulled away from his family and into spycraft by twisted strands of patriotism, egotism and naivete.
Starting in the years after the war, when the tension between Taiwan and China seems always ready to explode, “A Map of Betrayal” sweeps by like a time-lapse photo of geopolitical conflict. Embracing his “protracted mission,” Gary does whatever he can to relay information about the American’s uneasiness with Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek, their efforts to deal with Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviets’ ever-expanding nuclear arsenal. “Despite the distance of an ocean and a continent, he could feel China’s pulse,” Ha Jin writes, “which beat irregularly, racing feverishly, as though he could at last grasp intimately his vast homeland in its entirety.” At the same time, in his faux job at the CIA, he makes an effort to shade his translations in hopes of prodding the United States to be more cautious. In other words, he imagines himself, from his tiny office, steering the superpowers toward peace and their mutual interests.
Hewing to the historical facts, Ha Jin makes little effort to dramatize the methods of espionage with nail-biting drop-offs, arcane codes or false mustaches. Year after year, Gary carries out “his simple, casual fashion of conducting espionage.” He takes documents home, photographs or summarizes them, passes the information on to Beijing. Money appears in his bank account, and life in Alexandria rolls along. He’s marooned, a “nameless hero . . . on the invisible front.” The psychological damage wears on him like the effects of a bad diet, and that’s the real subject of this novel. Gary is a man trapped in a peculiar conspiracy of circumstance and character. “His heart was always elsewhere,” Jin writes. “Wherever he went, he’d feel out of place, like a stranded traveler.”
Cut off, for security reasons, from his wife and children in China, he’s encouraged to start a family in America, but that entanglement of affection and deception brings him no joy. In his lifelong pursuit of secret knowledge, he never managed to accept the obvious fact that he was being irreparably used by the motherland. Years later, Gary’s old handler tells Lilian, “A nail must remain in its position . . . and rot with the wood it’s stuck in, so a spy of the nail type is more or less a goner.”
One of the great collateral benefits of Lilian’s investigation of her father is her always astute comments about contemporary China, a land racing toward capitalism while still haunted by the horrors of starvation and massive social disruption. And as she uncovers the details of Gary’s espionage, she discovers troubling truths about others’ capacity for deception, including herself. But her placid voice never betrays any emotion beyond earnest curiosity. Her regard for her father — the man who raised her in what she now realizes was a web of lies — betrays almost no psychological entanglement. There’s a special poignancy in the closing pages, but the novel’s restrained tone makes the whole enterprise feel too severely pruned for such a world-spanning and fraught tale.
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him @RonCharles.
MAP OF BETRAYAL
Pantheon. 280 pp. $26.95