Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2016

A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin

A Map of BetrayalI picked this up on a whim at the library, not knowing anything about the book or the author, but when I got home I discovered that I already had an early novel by Ha Jin, it’s called Waiting (1999).  Ha Jin is the pen name of Xuefei Jin, a Chinese-born writer who was in the US doing his PhD at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and he stayed there, making a career as a Chinese author writing in English and as a Professor of English at Boston University.  He’s actually a prolific author, notable enough to have been interviewed by The Paris Review, and A Map of Betrayal (2014) is his seventh novel.

According to his bio at the university, his books have won a number of awards, including the PEN/ Faulkner twice, the National Book Award and the Flannery O’Connor prize. Most of his novels seem to be rated four stars at Goodreads where there are thousands of reviews of his work, including some by my GR friends.  So, even though I’d forgotten all about it, I must have been paying attention at some stage, because I’d bought Waiting… maybe that’s why I noticed the book at the library?

Anyway…A Map of Betrayal turned out to be quite an interesting book, though not without flaws.  It’s about a Chinese spy in America, but it’s not about the intricacies of passing secrets.  It’s about divided loyalties and the moral vacuum forced upon the protagonist.

The story is told by the Lilian Shang, a college lecturer and daughter of the spy, a narrative voice that IMO makes the novel flawed from the start.  She is American born and bred, yet strangely phlegmatic about her father’s conviction as a mole in the CIA and his subsequent suicide.  In a country so assiduously patriotic as the US, she seems to suffer no embarrassment or hostility, and seems also to be able to travel freely between China and the US without arousing suspicion from the authorities of either country.  Calm, humourless, and (in a voice that might be channelling the author) given to straight-taking about the boilerplate and  purple prose of her students at Beijing Teachers’ College, Lilian is keen to unmask her father but remain objective about it.

There was no denying that my father had been a top spy, but the more I worked on his materials, the more I was convinced that money hadn’t been the primary motivation in his espionage for China.  He was a man with a sizable ego; to me, he seemed too big for his boots and full of delusions.  By professional standards I wouldn’t say he was a skilled spy, and his role had largely been thrust upon him by circumstances.  As his life was gradually taking concrete form in my mind, I came to believe that he’d been not only a betrayer but also someone who’d been betrayed.  Before school began, I immersed myself in reconstructing his story.  A historian by profession, I wanted to tell it in my own fashion while remaining as objective as possible (p. 8)

So, in middle-age after her mother’s death, Lilian decides to find out more about her father’s double life, making contact with his mistress Suzie and investigating the wife and family he left behind in China.  With access to her father’s diary and a book written about his activities, she learns how Weimin was sent to America as a translator for the CIA in 1949.  He was given a new identity as Gary, but was not made aware of the ramifications of his work until it was too late for him to change his mind.  He had a wife and children in the provinces, and was given assurances that they would be looked after financially, but he could not ever keep his promise to return home.  In fact, his Chinese handlers told him he should marry an American woman in order to embed his American identity, get the Green Card and citizenship, and blend in to avoid suspicion.

In time, his loyalties become divided.  His second (bigamous) marriage to Nellie is a disaster, and he has a long-term affair with a Chinese woman called Suzie, but he feels compelled to avoid divorce, and he loves his daughter Lilian.  But in addition to the complexities of his love life, he begins to feel at home in America, and his access to information about China under Mao sabotages his patriotic feelings about his homeland.  He’s baffled by Mao’s extravagant claims about progress when he knows that China is militarily and economically weak, he’s appalled by the Great Leap Forward and anxious about his family’s welfare during the famine, and he’s conflicted about Chinese-Soviet rivalry and the merits of rapprochement with the US.  Nevertheless he continues doggedly to feed information and analyses to China, and of course eventually he gets caught.  (That’s not a spoiler, the reader knows this from the start).

The problem with the novel is the cool, detached voice of the narrator.  She flits back and forth between university campuses in China and the US, meeting the remnants of his Chinese family and becoming embroiled in a highly unlikely reprise of her father’s activities through her nephew Ben.  These trips enable authorial commentary on the current situation in China but (perhaps because Ha Jin has never returned there himself) these descriptions are curiously flat and unconvincing.  (I kept thinking of Linda Jaivin’s lively evocations of modern China in The Empress Lover and found A Map of Betrayal unsatisfactory by comparison).  Lilian gradually adds to her store of information about her father, but the reader learns nothing about how this impacts on her feelings.  It’s all very dispassionate, and there is more description about the meals they eat than the conflicted feelings one would expect this character to have.

On and off, some of the narrative also sounds somewhat like a simplistic history lesson for an audience that doesn’t know much about China.

Now able to read more reports on the Far East, Gary could see that China was in a shambles.  The Great Leap Forward had been a catastrophe, and the whole land had been ravaged by a continuous famine.  The collectivization in the countryside ruined the agriculture.  People wouldn’t work hard anymore because they were no longer paid and could eat for free. During the previous fall a lot of crops were left in the fields, to be eaten by birds and animals or just to rot.  Even fruit was not picked in some orchards.  When people had consumed all the food before the winter set in, they began to eat the seeds.  As a result, many fields couldn’t be sown in the spring.  This reduced grain production drastically. Now in both cities and the countryside people were starving and dying.  Many secretly left their villages for provinces where the famine was less severe.  (p.136)

The negative picture of China is relentless. Lilian’s companions warn her not to eat certain foods because of contamination, draw her attention to discrimination against migrant workers, and complain about the level of surveillance.  She muses about the disparities between rural Chinese and Beijingers, and about Chinese poverty and homelessness.  She is quite rude to a waiter because of his careless use of language, which blurred the actual forms of things and ideas.  Indeed the only good thing apparent about modern China seems to be that the roads are good once out of the traffic snarls in Beijing.

The nebulous writing of her students is a consequence of the absence of sincerity, and she deplores the excuse that blunt speaking is not the Chinese way:

I told them, ‘Your explanations don’t hold water.  What I cannot abide are cynicism and intellectual relativism.  A punch in the face means pain, to open fire on peaceful demonstrators is a crime, incarceration without charge is a violation of a citizen’s rights, a home torn down without enough compensation is a loss, selling recycled sink grease as cooking oil is profiteering, to borrow others’ ideas without acknowledgement is plagiarism. (p.99)

(Remembering both Tiananmen Square and Kent State University; Guantanamo Bay as well as reports of Chinese imprisonments without charge, I am not sure whether this passage is meant to be ironic or not).

These aspects of the novel aside, A Map of Betrayal does explore the conflicted nature of espionage.  Because Weimin/Gary is always under the control of a remote authority focussed solely on accessing secret information, his personal life is always compromised.  For almost his entire adult life, nobody understands his professional and personal dilemmas, and nobody cares.  He has to retain a secret identity and it is not until late in his life that he finally unburdens himself to anyone.  It’s not unexpected that at his trial the Chinese disown him, but it’s still a harsh consequence for a lifetime of service to them.  His lover, Suzie, weeps for him.  But Lilian doesn’t.

If we stop to think about it, there must be espionage activity going on in different scenarios all over the world and yet we know very little about the human cost of living a double life…

Author:  Ha Jin
Title: A Map of Betrayal
Publisher: Pantheon Books, 2014
ISBN: 9780307911605 (hbk)
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond A Map of Betrayal


Responses

  1. I loved Waiting when I read it way back when Lisa. It’s one of those books that I found quite mesmerising, but it probably also has a cool detached style, or what I think I thought at the time, a slow gentle style. Of course it had to be slow because there’s a LOT of waiting, but I liked how Ha Jin explored the personal-social-political imperatives in people’s lives and how these combine to result in behaviours and actions. That is, politics and social conventions, combined with the personalities of the main characters makes it a really interesting book.

    • I’m certainly going to check it out. I don’t mind his style being detached, it’s just that I don’t think it’s appropriate in this book for his narrator, given the father-daughter relationship. (Actually, I wondered why he chose to write as a female rather than a male narrator too.)

  2. I have quite a few Ha Jin novels, including Waiting, and like you I’d kind of forgotten I had them. Must give one a try.

    • It’s amazing the stuff we book-hoarders have on the TBR, eh?

  3. I read Waiting a long time ago and remember liking it a lot. Although why the marketing division decided to advertise it as a grand romance I have no idea. It’s very misleading and really threw me off during the first half of the book.

    I’m considering picking up another Ha Jin someday. A Map of Betrayal was one of the candidates but its flaws I probably cannot ignore while reading (the narrator can move seamlessly between USA and China? Really?).

    I think I’ll look further into Ha Jin’s short story collections. I love short stories.

    • I find these ‘between two cultures’ novels from expats/refugees interesting – but they are sometimes clouded by the baggage of migration, especially when politics is involved. It stands to reason that an author shocked by Tiananmen Square would be very critical of China and that anti-Chinese readers would enjoy reading that, just as in today’s climate a novel that’s overtly anti Russia/Putin would get traction in the same way.

      But in the case of China, I’d much rather read authors who are still living and working there. They have a distinctive style, utterly unlike western ways of writing, and the ones I’ve read have been withering satires of China that critique the country from inside.

      BTW it is possible for an academic to divide time between China and Australia, Ouyang Yu does that, spending six moths here and six months there and writing in both languages. The problem in this book is that the narrator is the daughter of a spy, despised in the US and disowned by the Chinese. Surely this daughter and all the other members of the family would be tarred by the same brush to some extent, and both sides would keep a very close eye on any travels between the two countries? Yet she not only travels freely she easily finds ways to subvert surveillance in China. It seemed unconvincing to me…

  4. […] graduate studies in the US and has made a career of writing about China in English.  I read his A Map of Betrayal a while ago, and came to the conclusion that the plentiful awards this writer has won, are more in […]


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