Tim O’Brien has said that fiction is for “getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” To me, this observation speaks to the strengths of the best historical novels: unlike textbook accounts, such novels convey the consequences and significance of historical events more memorably than mere facts ever could. They do so by connecting readers, emotionally, to characters who are at the center of these events.
In his début novel, Nanjing Never Cries, Hong Zheng builds these connections affectingly, immersing readers in the experiences of those who suffered during the Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were raped, tortured, and killed by Japanese soldiers who invaded the city in December 1937, as part the Sino-Japanese War.
According to Zheng, a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the novel was inspired by what he observed at a 1995 symposium at MIT, in memory of Hiroshima. In the Preface to his novel, he writes:
After hearing them repeating the story of American guilt over dropping the bomb, I raised my hand, stood up, and said, “I would like to ask you distinguished speakers: if a group of bandits broke into your home, raped your wife, killed your children, and were about to slit your throat before being subdued by the police, would the story be police brutality to you?”
An awkward silence settled over the room, Zheng writes, after which his objections were ignored. But after the symposium, Zheng notes, the Japanese speaker expressed agreement with him and asked him to sign a petition urging the Japanese government “to apologize for Japan’s past war crimes.”
Still, after making additional efforts to draw more attention to the Nanjing Massacre, Zheng believed that his concerns were being dismissed. He writes, “The prejudice I encountered made me realize that English novels about the Sino-Japanese War are needed. The true nature of this war must be brought to a higher level of Western consciousness.” Nanjing Never Cries—based on Zheng’s interviews with Nanjing Massacre survivors, among other research—is a powerful step toward meeting that commendable goal.
The novel weaves together the stories of May Chen, an eighteen-year-old Nanjing resident who is determined to get an education and further herself, and of two former MIT classmates, Calvin Ren and John Winthrop, who take up positions at Nanjing’s National Central University. Ren and Winthrop’s main purpose is not to teach but to carry out a secret mission: designing warplanes that will help China defend itself against the growing threat of Japanese bombers.
Not far into the novel, May crosses paths with John and Calvin. Calvin helps May further her education. Meanwhile, John helps her improve her English, as she accompanies him on hunts for valuable antiques. Soon, however, the Japanese invade the city, rendering these pursuits secondary to trying to stay alive.
I don’t want to give away too many details, but I will say that all of the characters experience, directly or indirectly, the worst horrors that Japanese soldiers visited upon Nanjing. Zheng brings us to the center of these atrocities, through writing that must have been emotionally, and perhaps physically, draining to produce. (Several parts of the book left me in tears. They are as difficult to get through as they should be.)
At the same time Zheng writes movingly, and with great beauty, about the ways in which characters face seemingly unbearable losses—at a few critical junctures, with the kindness and support of others. In one such scene toward the end of the book, as one character prepares for the burial of a loved one, she sees an unexpected group of fellow mourners approaching from the distance:
The paper objects are gifts intended to help the departed in the afterlife. After the mourners arrive at the grave, they burn these gifts, sending them on their way to the next world: “The fire rose. The stack slowly turned into smoke and ashes.”
At the end of the novel one character, May, gets a long-sought opportunity for revenge. But in the wake of great suffering and loss, the satisfactions of revenge can only go so far. They cannot heal deep wounds, mental or physical. They cannot bring back the dead. The finest historical novels, like Zheng’s, understand this. Through authentic, heartfelt portrayals of characters and their experiences, they make it clear that neat resolutions of tragic events are all but impossible. Sometimes, all that one can do in the aftermath of trauma is to try to persevere.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Historical novels, especially those focused on events that have not been addressed widely in the media
▪ The history of China, of the Sino-Japanese War, or of World War II (or events surrounding it)
▪ The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by Iris Chang