I’ll apologize straight away for starting this year’s CBR with a super depressing read: Nanjing Requiem is a book about one of the most well-known mass rapes in history. I could bury that instead of using it in the lead, but there’s really no getting around it. For those who don’t know, the Rape of Nanjing (also known as the Rape of Nanking, or the Nanking massacre) is the commonly used term for the mass genocide and war rape that followed the Japanese capture of Nanjing during the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937. Most of the action in the book takes place within the Safety Zone, a demilitarized area created by an International Committee to protect civilians, but the narrative focuses specifically on Jinling Girl’s College, which under its principal Minnie Vautrin served as a refugee camp for up to 10,000 women during the Rape of Nanjing.
The language of the narrative is incredibly spare, neither graphic nor poetic; it is, in fact, almost journalistic in its austerity. This is the fourth book of Ha Jin’s that I’ve read, and the difference in language between this one and his others is pretty striking. The intention is impressive: this is, to the best of my knowledge, the first novel he’s written that is directly historical. Most of the characters in the narrative were real members of the International Committee, including Minnie Vautrin, though he makes the wise choice to use not Minnie but the character of Anling (a fictional assistant at the college) to narrate.
The atrocities of the time are all seen through Anling’s eyes, which lends them the detached grief of someone who can’t quite believe what is happening to her country. Most of the rapes are discussed secondhand, in euphemisms or as worrying statistics cited among the foreign members of the International Safety Zone Committee, all of whom remain unthreatened and largely above the fray. The scenes of actual rapes are as sudden and terrifying as they would have been to those who stumbled upon them, and are reported as they happened, undramatically and without lingering detail. Somehow, this made the narrative both more disturbing and effective. The book gives an authentic view of what it must be like to live under the threat of rape as a war crime, and yet each one that we witness as readers is uniquely horrifying. It hardly matters they we witness it for only seconds – the images are there, and they stay with us long after reading.
In case you haven’t yet guessed, this is a very difficult book to read, and not just because the subject matter is not one for the squeamish. Though it is a book about the Rape of Nanjing, it is not a book primarily about rape. It is about every unique horror of war, both the obvious atrocities and the subtler effects: its slow disintegration of families, the gradual loss of dignity and fight that accompanies a long occupation, the bleak hopelessness of relief work in a war zone, and the startling doggedness of bureaucracy and its red tape even in the face of unspeakable violence. None of the survivors are left unchanged – in fact, one of my favorite things about the book was how accurately it portrayed the differences in reactions among survivors of rape. Some cry, some keep quiet and internalize the trauma (many do, in fact, and one is slowly tortured to death by it), some externalize it as blatant aggression against the perpetrators and anyone allied with them. One notable example quite simply goes mad from the continuous abuse and threat of abuse. This, truly, is the part that bears repeating: in choosing to focus on all the environment and inhabitants of Nanjing as a whole instead of reporting various atrocities in obsessive detail, Ha Jin makes it clear that it is not just the individual crimes, but the constant threat of them, that makes rape such a terrifyingly affective tool of war. Never have I seen this principle portrayed so accurately as Ha Jin does, not just in how it affects the survivors, but those who are witness to their trauma. In this way, he was perhaps wise to focus his narration on those fumbling around in search of a solution as opposed to those actually victimized. Anling makes the perfect stand-in for the city itself: reporting these things without fanfare or even much emotion, not trying to make sense of them, simply telling us exactly what happened, as it happened. And what happens is this: many people die, all are damaged, and nothing is fixed in the end. Each member of the relief effort is changed forever in their own way, one of them irreparably, and it is their ceaseless and hopeless effort more than anything that drives the point home: looking the human brutality of war in the face is impossible to do without irreparable damage. In this way, Nanjing Requiem is aptly titled; it functions not as an explanation or analysis, but simply as a monument to 20,000-80,000 men, women and children who were raped and the hundreds of thousands who were murdered in the massacre. Like many such monuments, it won’t be easy to forget.