'To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric," the German philosopher Theodor Adorno declared in 1955. Critics have spent decades parsing that statement, but the questions the statement implies are clear. How do you make art out of atrocity? If a work about tragedy is too "artful," does it disrespect the tragedy itself?
Those questions hover around "Nanjing Requiem," Ha Jin's sober, careful, frustrating novel about the Rape of Nanking, an assault on the Chinese city by Japanese soldiers in 1937 that left an estimated 300,000 civilians dead. Many of its victims were cruelly tortured, and the novel's opening pages offer a glimpse of the hellishness. "Oh, human lives suddenly became worthless," a witness recalls. "Dead bodies everywhere, some with their bellies cut open, intestines spilled out, and some half burned with gasoline."
The simplicity of that sentence is a hallmark of Jin's work. He means to say no more than necessary -- no poetic gestures, no artifice. And he's structured the story to avoid dwelling strictly on death. The novel's narrator is Anling, an assistant at a Nanking women's college that harbored thousands of refugees. During the attack and for years after, she helps the school's dean, Minnie Vautrin, fight a wearying battle to keep the camp functioning and sane. Anling knows that control is limited, however. "Most things can't stop changing once they are changed," as she puts it.
"Nanjing Requiem" is shot through with that kind of fatalistic tone, understandable given the horrors Anling witnessed and the tragic details of Vautrin's life. For Jin's novelistic purposes, Vautrin is a hero -- her efforts saved countless lives -- and also a symbol for the enduring psychological scars of the event.
Yet the novel is oddly detached from matters of heroism and scarring. Much of the novel focuses on small details of the assault's aftermath, such as negotiating with the college's board for support and attempting to free prisoners. Such details may be factually accurate -- Jin lists more than a dozen books and films he consulted. But they strip the novel's narrative drive and give the story a third-hand feel: The atrocity is filtered through Vautrin's experience, and doubly filtered through Anling's narration.
Jin's novel would not necessarily be better were it more deeply immersed in the horror of the attacks. To say that more melodramatic visions of carnage would improve the novel is to spite the legitimate concerns that Jin (and Adorno) raise. But Jin has pushed his precision and simplicity far in the opposite direction, toward a grim, plodding accountancy. Tragedies of such mass scale leave deep, decades-long impressions, Jin knows. But its victims, in his rendering, are distant, cool, blanks.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, DC. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.