Mystery of history

In the spring of 1998, I had coffee with Iris Chang. She’d just faced every author’s greatest book-tour fear: At her afternoon reading at the University of Missouri, I was the only person to show up. She was to read from and sign copies of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, her history of the attack on the Chinese city by Japanese forces. Because the lack of rivals for her attention meant I’d get a private audience, I bought the coffee.

The Rape of Nanking is a hard book to read, and it must have been even harder to write. I wondered aloud how she could bear it. But she would have none of that. Like all good historians—all good writers—Chang didn’t allow herself to look away. Even in the enormity of the suffering of the people of Nanking, we are obligated to look. She quoted Toni Morrison, who said of African slaves in America, “If they could live it, I could write it.”

Chang died in 2004, and Mo Hayder has dedicated her new novel, The Devil of Nanking, to Chang’s memory. In some ways, Hayder’s novel is easier to read than Chang’s history; the story, fast-paced as it is, provides room to breathe. But it is also more difficult; Hayder’s characters are so fully developed that the decades slip away. 1937 seems much, much closer than it was before.

Hayder has given us a narrator who is both incredibly observant and aware yet maintains a sort of innocence that we later discover is mostly ignorance. Obsessed with the torture and murder of Nanking’s citizens by the invading Japanese army, the contemporary young woman we know only as “Grey” is driven to track down a film of the massacre that may or may not exist. Her search takes her to Tokyo, where she confronts a Chinese professor of sociology who she believes has the film in his possession.

Grey wants the film to prove that she is not insane; one wonders throughout if getting what she wants will not instead prove exactly the opposite. Shi Chongming, the survivor of Nanking, needs her to track down for him a particular ingredient in a Chinese medicine that has wound up in Tokyo. In order to see the film, Grey must go on a quest for his grail—a trek that leads her into the path of “the devil of Nanking,” a Japanese officer of particular cruelty.

The story takes a circuitous and dangerous route through a “hostess” club presided over by a Marilyn Monroe-wannabe madame. Characters include an incredibly perverse American youth; a pair of Russian twins; and a godfather in the yakuza, the Japanese version of the Mafia. Threaded throughout are entries from a journal the professor kept during the rape of Nanking.

As one would expect from the subject matter, there’s a great deal of violence; it’s not for the squeamish. Billed as a “literary thriller,” The Devil of Nanking lives up to that label; it’s loaded with plot twists and fully formed images that are both too beautiful to believe and to horrible to bear.

Ultimately, history itself is the mystery; as Grey searches to understand the difference between ignorance and evil, we readers are left to wonder how much difference there can be when the results are so similar. The point is that by avoiding the facts of history, we open ourselves up to the evils of ignorance. In The Devil of Nanking, we are forced to look and, in facing evil, perhaps learn to avoid it.