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'Nanjing Requiem' finds solace in good works among evil

The Rape of Nanjing is foreground and backdrop of Ha Jin's novel Nanjing Requiem. A fictionalized yet faithful portrayal of events during that nightmare time, the book is two tragedies in one, a vast tragedy for the human race and a terrible misfortune for a good person, repaid for selflessness with disregard and mental breakdown.

Despite the screams of pain and clatter of machine guns, despite the clash and conflict, Nanjing Requiem remains muted in memory. What you most remember, once you put down the book, is not agony and hopelessness, not darkness and blood, but rather the reach of human goodness.

The invasion of Nanjing, China, by Japanese troops in late December 1937, and what those troops did afterward, belong among the worst six weeks in the bloody history of our species. Never mind the numbers of dead, hotly contested on political and historical grounds (but 200,000 seems a judicious guess). For six weeks, Japanese troops went on a spree of rape, theft, murder and destruction. Emperor Hirohito had lifted international legal restrictions on the conduct of soldiers. Local commanders formally ordered troops to kill masses of Chinese, while informally allowing them the most perverted extremes of sexual terrorism to degrade and terrify, including unspeakable violence against women and children.

Documentaries and novels have pawed at the horror, but to my thinking, the definitive evocation hasn't been achieved and might never be. Ha Jin, rightly, has decided not to try for the all-embracing epic; he chooses a subset of suffering and allows it to stand for the whole.

The tragic heroine of Nanjing Requiem is Minnie Vautrin, master of studies at Jinling Girls' College. Jinling was a Christian college founded by five American missionary groups and a core of visionary women in 1913 to educate Chinese women. It lay within the so-called Safety Zone of the city, supposedly off-limits to Japanese troops. Ha Jin interlards true and fictional events and characters (historical Vautrin, her fictional assistant Anling Gao) to sharpen the issues.

When the invasion hit, 10,000 women and children refugees filled Jinling, a college meant for 300. Vautrin and her small staff worked to protect those in their care, organizing accommodation and sanitation, scraping together money and supplies, petitioning Japanese commanders, shaming soldiers, throwing themselves between women and marauders.

Our narrator is Anling Gao, Minnie's sometimes critical, sometimes unenthusiastic sidekick, who nevertheless joins in her labors, sometimes under the burden of intolerable anguish. Her critical distance prevents Minnie from being idealized; we see her as a good human being with plenty of rough edges. The college president, Wu Yi-Fang, is in exile in Shanghai and largely impotent. Senseless murder and rape continue all around these godly workers, some of it within the college gates.

Soldiers steal food, sweep away young girls, terrorize refugees. The missionaries manage to set up a soup line for porridge, but someone is watering down the food and selling the grain. A semi-official group of soldiers demands that Minnie "turn over" a certain number of women whom the soldiers claim are "prostitutes." She resists, but at length, some women are taken away, an action with black consequences later.

Anling Gao and Minnie go to such lengths that normal descriptives simply aren't worth employing. Both show the stress. For her efforts, Minnie becomes known as the Goddess of Mercy. Anling Gao faces her own sacrifices.

Ha Jin writes in a style often called spare and quiet — as in his novel Waiting. Without descending to stereotype, I think he has created Anling Gao expressly to capture the story through the eyes of a woman who is both a Christian and Chinese. The clean directness of her thoughts allows events to happen before us unadorned. She tells of emotions in few words, rendering them the more poignant. She beholds hundreds of doomed men in a train station:

"As we stepped away, I wondered how we could console these men without lying to them. Most of them, infested with lice and fleas and depleted of strength, would soon join the yellow soil of China. An upsurge of sadness constricted my chest."

I found it brutalizing to read the book — especially because of the spare description. The first chapter, told very simply by a boy named Ban, doing forced labor for Japanese troops, is sad and nauseating. Yet, through its restraint, it avoids being lurid.

Larger questions issue. When a Chinese staff member says he hates the Japanese, Minnie reminds him of the Christian message of forgiveness. He tells her he can't follow it: "Good and evil must be rewarded differently."

Anling Gao: "Minnie didn't respond and seemed amazed by his argument. I mulled over his notion and felt he might have a point."

Ha Jin doesn't leap to the facile conclusion that some might make, that evil on such a scale must obviate belief in God. The women discuss this notion, but their faith holds, and the novel never treats it as anything but a source of strength. Minnie is pretty straitlaced — but that lets her stay in control of herself and the means at her disposal.

When the Japanese establish a caretaker government, and the refugees go back home, a Dr. Dennison comes to take over as college president. Ignorant and little capable, she doesn't value Minnie's challenges and achievements, and she sees her as an obstacle to be edged out. Bitter unfairness focuses from the global to the personal.

How, then, to account for how this novel feels — not a rage-choked bloodbath, but an almost domestic, eerily matter-of-fact look at how people persist in the worst circumstances? When we leave this crushingly beautiful, crushingly sad book, Ha Jin leaves us with the memory of good work, people saving lives, the worth of reaching out, even when death and despair prevail.

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