Book Review: Nanjing Requiem

Ha Jin's previous books include Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award, and War Trash, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award. This book is a departure from his usual subject matter, the fully imagined novel, in that much of the story has already been covered by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking. Ha Jin has written a paean of praise for Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who chose to stay behind and try to protect Jinling Women's College when the Japanese invaded Nanjing and killed more than 300,000 Chinese residents. Ha Jin's interest in Minnie is born of the fact that she is an almost forgotten figure in the West.

The story is narrated by Minnie's fictional assistant, Anling, who is all-knowing and completely devoted to Minnie, who was known in Nanjing as the Living Bodhisattva, the Goddess of Mercy, because of her tireless protection of the suffering Chinese. The college grounds could comfortably shelter 2,000 people--but 10,000 were living there. Minnie tried to find ways to ensure food, shelter and sanitation for all of them.

The most poignant part of the story is her continuing belief that the Japanese command would be reasonable. After all, she was sheltering only women and children, not generals. Time and again, the Japanese would promise to send aid in the form of a cadre of soldiers who would protect the women. They turned out to be torturers and rapists, the same as those Minnie went to protest against.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek is not spared in the telling of this shameful story. He decamped early on, leaving troops and civilians without effective leadership. The details of the massacre are utterly horrendous. The Japanese spared no one, using forms of torture hard to fathom. Countless women literally were raped to death or maimed beyond imagining. Minnie tried to minister to them, some of whom had been kidnapped from inside the college walls. Eventually, her immersion in the horror of it all and her feelings of guilt and sorrow at not being able to do more caused her to become unhinged. While she was not in her right mind, she turned on the gas jets in a friend's home and killed herself. When an acquaintance of Ha Jim lamented, "It was her kindness and generosity that undid her," Jin replied: "Yes... at least her story has moved me to write a novel about her. If I succeed, my book might put her soul at peace." One can only hope so. --Valerie Ryan

Shelf Talker: The horrors of the Nanjing massacre, retold by Ha Jin, in the story of the endless kindness and bravery of American missionary Minnie Vautrin.


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