Pantheon, £17.60, 320pp from the Independent Bookshop: 084,30 600 030; Harvill Secker, £10, 250pp. £9 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nanjing Requiem, By Ha Jin
The Flowers of War, By Geling Yan, trans. Nicky Harman

 

Ha Jin's novel Nanjing Requiem begins with the words of a Chinese servant boy, Ban, forced to witness an orgy of pillage and murder as the victorious Japanese army rampage through China's fallen former capital. Ban's shell-shocked voice serves as a memorable opening chapter. The Japanese have killed so many people that the bodies pollute the streams and wells. Rice cooked with the water turns red.

In December 1937, Japanese troops seized Nanjing from Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces. In the "Rape of Nanking", the conquering army inflicted six weeks of barbaric cruelty on the city, murdering over 250,000 people and raping and torturing 20,000 women, according to Chinese estimates. This savagery has been subject of countless films, novels and histories and remains controversial. Some factions in Japan deny the massacre happened, while China views it as perhaps the single most tragic episode of its modern history.

These two new works of fiction provide further accounts of the period. Both novels are inspired largely by one true event. During the massacre Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary, saved thousands of lives by sheltering up to 10,000 women and children in her Ginling College campus. Vautrin's diaries record an incident in which Japanese soldiers demanded the use of 100 prostitutes hiding in the refuge. With little choice, Vautrin allows them to take their pick, knowing that gang rapes and possibly brutal death awaited these "comfort women" in army brothels.

This episode forms the backdrop of Minnie's fatal breakdown in the US-based Ha Jin's Nanjing Requiem, which tells the story of her heroism through the eyes of her sensible and stoic (fictional) Chinese assistant, Anling Gao. Minnie is consumed by guilt that she did not help those dragged away. Her obsessive bid to save one young girl - who ends up deranged in a mental hospital, where she is abused as a sex slave - mirrors her own mental decline, which culminated in her suicide in 1941.

In The Flowers of War by Chinese bestseller Geling Yan, Vautrin appears briefly at the end. Instead, the book tells the story of a fictional group of schoolgirls sheltering in a church under the protection of a pair of good-hearted Western priests. As Nanjing burns, 13 prostitutes from the Qin Huai River brothels clamber over the wall and beg for clemency. When the Japanese arrive asking for "girls", Father Englemann - like Vautrin - must make a life-and-death choice. The novel (beautifully translated by Nicky Harman) appears in English to coincide with its adaptation by China's best-known director, Zhang Yimou. Despite his budget of over $90 million (the most expensive film ever in Chinese cinema), critics have accused him of selling out with Hollywood-style sexing-up of a traumatic period.

Thankfully, Yan's novel is more nuanced. Shujuan, one of the schoolgirls, forms the moral arc of the story. Trapped in the church, she is furious at the changes in her body, at the war raging outside and, above all, at the prostitutes whom she views with disgust. Yan masterfully depicts these bubbling tensions. In a savage scene, the schoolgirls beat up a pretty teenage prostitute, pulling out hanks of her hair and scratching her face. While characters such as the beautiful and soulful brothel leader Zhao Yumo verge on the "hooker with a heart" cliché, such moments provide the novel with a painful authenticity.

By contrast, Nanjing Requiem is a strangely anaemic book. We see the horrors inflicted on the city through the eyes of middle-aged Anling: a woman with a pragmatic obsession for details that elicit few emotions. The use of the first-person, above all, renders other characters one-dimensional and distant.

Minnie appears more like a paper saint than a woman afflicted by the crippling doubt that killed her. Ha Jin writes in his second-language English, and his sparse prose can achieve a masterful precision. Yet stilted conversation often dulls the drama. However, both novels demonstrate how humans cope when forced together in wartime, and they map the bitter rivalries and tentative camaraderie, that ensue. Sitting at the centre are stories of sacrifice. Both are testament to the bravery of women in the most horrifying of circumstances.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn