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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #39 (September 26, 2006), page 13 & 16.
An Englishwoman explores the Japanese atrocities at Nanking
The Devil of Nanking
By Mo Hayder
Grove Press, 2005
Hardcover, 363 pages, $23.00
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
The horrific acts committed by the Japanese army during its World War II invasion of mainland China remain a continuing subject of controversy in both countries. Culminating in the Rape of Nanking, these acts included widespread beheadings, rape, murder, and other unspeakable acts visited upon hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians. Accounts in Japanese school textbooks have been repeatedly censored, when they mention the atrocities at all, and the Japanese government did not issue a formal apology for the events until 1995. Englishwoman Mo Hayder brings her considerable writing talents to bear upon this controversial topic in The Devil of Nanking, a dizzying combination of historical fiction and suspense set in contemporary Japan.
After reading about a horrific incident from the Rape of Nanking in a book she can no longer find, Grey Hutchins impulsively travels from England to Tokyo to find a professor rumored to have a film of the incident. Armed only with her notes on Nanking and a scant amount of cash, Hutchins presents herself to Professor Shi Chongming, who denies the film’s existence and refuses to discuss what he witnessed at Nanking.
Suddenly both stymied and broke, Hutchins secures a job as a hostess at a prominent Japanese nightclub, determined to convince Professor Chongming. In the meantime, Chongming begins to read his own journal about Nanking, and Hayder artfully braids the contents of the journal into Grey’s story, doubling the suspense as both present and past move toward the still-unnamed event Hutchins seeks.
Soon, Professor Chongming strikes a bargain with Hutchins: the film footage in exchange for information about a powerful yakuza who frequents her nightclub, introducing a third plot line, which relates to the other two in a way not immediately apparent. As the three storylines converge, Hutchins must confront the dark secrets of her own past which drew her to the Nanking atrocities, until the triple convergence explodes upon the page, a climax assuredly not for the faint of heart.
Combining such an unlikely heroine — Grey Hutchins is antisocial, sullen, and extremely private, an odd personality for either a protagonist or a hostess — with such unspeakable acts in a tri-fold narrative is a difficult task, but Hayder handles these elements masterfully. Hutchins becomes slowly accessible to both the reader and other characters, and Chongming’s initially unsympathetic reticence softens as his journal reveals what he had to endure, and what he has to hide.
A less talented writer might lose her readers in the dizzying swirl of characters, plots, and subplots, but Hayder creates a page-turner that never requires flipping backwards to recall who fits in where, or why someone is important. All is never what it seems, and as Hayder slowly peels away the layers of revelation, The Devil of Nanking becomes almost impossible to put down until its startling conclusion.
If the book has a flaw, it is this same conclusion, which must bear the weight of three-hundred-plus pages of expectations, as the details of the film are never revealed until we see it along with Hutchins. In a way, there isn’t a climax possible that could properly bear up under this load, nor after the grim atrocities preceding it. Many readers will be properly horrified at the conclusion, but I felt a bit of a letdown, like seeing a much-hyped movie, only to find that it’s merely great and not the unique cinematic masterpiece it was touted to be.
It’s hard to predict how such a book might affect Asian readers who will have their own preconceptions and emotional responses to the atrocities at Nanking. One could imagine a Japanese translation of The Devil of Nanking causing untold controversy, while a Chinese version becomes a runaway bestseller. Hayder’s version is indubitably one that reflects poorly on Japanese troops, though the inept and disingenuous Chinese army does not escape criticism, either. The Devil of Nanking certainly succeeds on a literary level, even as its subject will enlighten some and enrage others. It must be left up to the individual reader which response is the most appropriate, but those who can find a comfortable ground between the two extremes are in for a riveting and emotionally exhausting read.