Ha Jin's seventh novel, "A Map of Betrayal," is a complex portrait of one man's blind loyalty, but it's also about the manifold trappings of espionage and the reverberating befuddlements such a life can breed. The story oscillates between Lilian Shang, a 53-year-old history professor, and her father, Gary "Weiman" Shang, "the biggest Chinese spy ever caught in North America."
When Lilian receives a six-volume diary from her dead father's mistress, she's left unsatisfied. "The troublesome spots tormented me," she says. So, during her Fulbright lectureship in Beijing, she contacts Gary's old handler, Bingwen, and travels to the countryside of Shandong to meet the family Gary had to abandon in the name of duty — the family that predated her and her Irish-American mother, Nellie.
These first-person sections are mostly devoted to Lilian's burgeoning bonds with her half-niece and -nephew, Juli and Benning, who quell her maternal disappointment of never pursuing adoption. She attends Juli's band's concert and gives her relationship advice. When Lilian returns to the States, she meets Benning, who goes by Ben and runs a dubious computer business out of Boston. Gary's life haunts; she suspects that Ben is "at most a small-time spy."
Gary's third-person sections span from 1949 to 1980. His translating skills at American agencies throughout China eventually get him transferred to Virginia. As he grows restless and isolated, he implores Bingwen to give him updates about the wife he barely knows and the twin children he's never met back in China. Though frustrated, Gary remains dutiful, even willfully naïve. When Chairman Mao hears of Gary's loyalty, he says, "This man is worth four armored divisions." Eventually, Gary falls in love with a waitress, Nellie — she "wasn't a looker but had blond hair and glossy eyes." They marry and have a baby girl. Nellie yields to Gary's need for privacy, his increasing melancholy, the long hours shut up in his study, his affair with a Chinese woman. As Gary tries to winnow out the truth of U.S.-China relations, his loyalties blur. When Kennedy is assassinated, he bawls like a baby. When the Americans land on the moon, Gary is "riveted to the TV."
There's a textbook formality to the historical summaries, which is a sleight of hand that can sometimes pass as frustration. As Gary grows more disconnected from China, so do we. Ha Jin is less concerned with the details of day-to-day spyhood and more with Gary's domestic disquiet. The democratic split is the book's virtue and vice. We don't get too close to Gary or Lilian, which is perhaps the point: Intimacy begets responsibility; responsibility begets the probability for further trust, belonging and the risk of betrayal.
Josh Cook is the editor at large of Minneapolis-based Thirty Two Magazine.