It had been a while since I read this book so was checking out Goodreads reviews to remind myself of the nuances. I ran across this review from “Jill” and think it conveys my impressions and does it more thoroughly than I would have. I’ve never done this before, but here it is.
About a third of the way through A Map of Betrayal, Ha Jin writes this about graduate students: “They mistook verbosity for eloquence and ambiguity for beauty, worshipping the evasive and fuzzy while looking down on lucidity and straightforwardness.”
Indeed, Ha Jin himself believes in lucidity and straightforwardness – arguably, to a fault. His latest book chronicles the story of post-war Chinese translator Gary Shang, reportedly based on the real-world Chinese spy, Larry Chin.
Gary Shang straddles two worlds. A loyal Chinese Communist, he is reasonably content in a newly-arranged marriage and in the presumably temporary position he has working for the Americans. When the Americans leave, they ask Gary to go with them – a boon for Gary’s Communist handlers. Gradually, he settles into a double life, married to the narrator (Lilian’s) Irish-American mother, and torn between his love for the country he lives in versus the country he left…and still loves.
It’s all fascinating stuff, but I couldn’t help but feel as if Ha Jin was torn between presenting his readers with a history lecture or focusing on the fictional world he creates. There are many insights into the 1950s and 1960s mileau (including John Foster Dulles’ desire to use a nuke on Red China). And there are many passages like this one on Vietnam: “Some Chinese army hospitals south of Kunming City has been treating wounded Vietcong soldiers. It looked like China was becoming the rear base of North Vienam. If the Chinese continued backing up the Vietcong on such a scale, there’d be no way the Americans could win the war.”
So I come back to my first paragraph: can straightforwardness embrace eloquence and ambiguity? It can, but not always here. In the end, I learned a lot but wasn’t quite able to immerse myself in a fictional world. Like Gary Shang, Ha Jin seemed to want it both ways.