I’ve made some fairly good progress on my Fill in the Gaps 100 Books reading list over the past couple of months, including completing Ye Zhaoyan’s Nanjing 1937. For anyone with even a passing familiarity with Chinese history in the past 100 years or so, the words “Nanjing 1937” have to be pretty cringe-inducing. What is interesting about Ye’s novel is that it takes place in the year leading up to the horrific events for which that era of history is most remembered. (Rightly so, of course.) Ye’s comments in his afterword reflect his own embarrassment that he focused not on the more serious side of that time and place in history, but on a love story set against that backdrop. It turns out that this, though it causes Ye some embarrassment, is what most makes the novel interesting.
The characters in the novel are not lovable, particularly the main character. They each have, well… not so much flaws as glaring problems with their personalities. Ding is a philanderer and lacks focus and seriousness. But then, he seems to typify a population that somehow managed to bury its head in the sand as one of the most heinous acts ever committed in any country at any time marched right up to its doorstep. And in that, the novel provides a sort of insight into the collective psyche of the people of Jiangnan in the days just before the Japanese invaded and turned the place into a living hell.
I have to say that I am not exactly fond of Ye’s writing, or at least of the translation (by Michael Berry). There are spots where I think it could be smoother, but then, I suppose that is true of any story that anyone writes or translates (including, of course, yours truly). Even with the limitations of the language of the novel, it is a read that can transport you to one of the most intriguing times in history. And by averting its gaze from the most horrific event that sits just around the corner — waiting to happen just as the book closes — it manages to become all the more poignant a portrayal of that time and place.