Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nanjing Requiem

One of the novels I have been looking forward to the most this fall is Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin. Alas…my expectations, very high after Jin’s previous six novels, were not met.
In 1937 Japanese troops took control of the Chinese capital of Nanjing from the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek. The Japanese then literally wreaked havoc on the civilians of Nanjing. In just the starting weeks of the occupation Japanese soldiers killed over 250,000 men, women and children and 20,000 women and girls were raped. As the weeks went on these numbers escalated.  
Jin has mixed a number of real historical and fictional characters from this horror and built his novel about Nanjing around them. His main pull from real life is Minnie Vautrin. Vautrin was an American missionary who tried to protect the thousands of civilians who came to the college she worked at, Ginling Girls College, seeking asylum.
There are a lot of amazing storytelling bones here and Ha Jin has proven many times before that he can write.  However his concise, documentary style doesn’t serve him well here. After an incredible, atmospheric beginning the novels stalls. Jin’s technique doesn’t fulfill the emotional need this horrendous story creates. The distance between Jin’s writing and the events of the novel is too great.
You might wonder why this shameful episode in history isn’t more widely known but then that would leave you  to wonder about how many other episodes just as horrific as this there are that you have never heard of. What happened in Nanking is something everyone should know more about but don’t bother with Nanjing Requiem. Go directly to Iris Chang's excellent The Rape of Nanking instead.

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