Ha Jin wrote a dull novel about an atrocity, but the unsettling thing about Nanjing Requiem is that it almost seems engineered to be dull. Negative reviews of the book (and there are plenty) have tended to point out that Jin is a nonnative writer in English, and critics have cited plenty of examples of awkward phrasing in the novel. But that’s not really the book’s problem—accepting his style is a pact you make with Jin whenever you read him, and Nanjing Requiem‘s flaws aren’t a matter of an ungainly phrase or two. The flatness of his prose, when it works, acquires force over time. A Free Life, for instance, was richer for being so plainspoken; it echoed its hero’s simple, stubborn effort to establish a home with his family in America.
But A Free Life was a straightforward novel about assimilation in peaceful suburbia. Nanjing Requiem is a novel about the slaughter of thousands of Chinese by Japanese soldiers, which makes a bit of dialogue like this harder to process:
“What happened?” I asked.
“Some Japs broke into the deserted building where we stayed last night, and they cut down my dad and brothers. Then they stripped my mom and me and started torturing us. I screamed, so they punched me again and again until I lost my voice and blacked out. When I came to, I saw my mom’s body in the room. She couldn’t take it anymore and hit her head on the doorjamb and killed herself.”
Nanjing Requiem is full of tell-don’t-show writing like this, in which events that expose humanity at its most pitiless and cruel is presented in a flat register. The teenage girl describing her horrors isn’t suffering from shellshock, or at least the trauma isn’t signaled as such; this is just how Jin’s characters speak. And because these events are conveyed through dialogue, they’re stripped of more precise detail. Cut down—in what way? Started torturing us—well, how?
But that’s the issue. If I demand such details in the fiction I read, that’s my problem, not Jin’s, right? Nanjing Requiem, as the title suggests, is meant to be more of a tribute than a dramatization, a book designed to honor the dead instead of giving adjectival, metaphorical, novelistic shape to them. That approach is understandable, because stories about the Rape of Nanking have a ways of attracting melodrama. Iris Chang‘s 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking, did much to bring word about the massacre to U.S. readers, but her suicide seven years later has made her into something beyond a mere journalist or historian—I hesitate to use the word “martyr,” but it’s not entirely off. There’s a statue in her honor, and I can’t think of another journalist who’s been paid tribute with a soggy ballad:
That soggy ballad exists in part because there’s a dispute about the facts as Chang reported them—the tune reflects an urge to elevate her (and thus her reporting) above criticism. (I claim no expertise on the fine points on the matter, but it’s not hard to find people intemperately arguing over the details.) There’s similar melodrama in the 2009 film John Rabe, about the so-called “good Nazi,” the head of Siemens’ Nanking outpost who helped protect thousands of Chinese in the aftermath of the attacks. It’s formally well-made, but leaves you cold—the string swells, explosions, and cliched secondary roles (loose-cannon doctor, dutiful wife, romantic subplot) make it seem like a story we’ve seen before, Schindler lite:
Nanjing Requiem reads like a retort to such squabbling—to be neither a researched work that attempts to settle the facts once and for all, nor a novel with the usual comforts of fictional narrative. The novel’s arc, to the extent it has one, focuses on Minnie Vautrin, the dean of the Nanking women’s college that took in thousands of refugees. She’s the filter for the tragedy, but the story is doubly filtered through the novel’s narrator, Anling, an assistant at the school.
That’s where the book’s problem lies, I think—fair as it is to avoid a blood-soaked narrative about the attacks, or to put Rabe or Vautrin on pedestals, Anling herself never becomes a compelling character in her own right. Her personal drama involves her son marrying a Japanese woman, but this hardly registers as drama at all—that relationship takes place offstage, and when Anling learns they have a child, her response is prim and nonplussed. “The hostility between the two countries would cast a long shadow on their marriage,” Anling thinks. Jin has claimed a place and a moment for his novel, and established how it shouldn’t be written about—he writes with solemn respect for the dead, as it should be with requiems. But a studious avoidance of melodrama seems to have stripped a sense of life among those he’s imagined to tell the story.