Ha Jin examines the struggle of a Chinese spy torn between his homeland and his new American life in A Map of Betrayal. I found Ha Jin when I read his stunning portrayal of Chinese life in Waiting; he has the ability to transport the reader to China with his detailed descriptions and his emotional observations. In A Map of Betrayal Ha Jin creates a stirring inner conflict with the story of Gary Shang, the most important Chinese spy who infiltrated the CIA.
Lillian Shang, an American professor, discovers her father’s diaries detailing his secret past, separated from a wife and children in China, before he established his cover in the United States and married her American mother. Working for China, Shang constantly looked for a way to satisfy his yearning to return home, yet his ties through his new family and connections created a conflict of emotions and loyalties. Lillian returns to China to find his family, as Ha Jin slowly unravels a past full of history and intrigue.
Prominent names – Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao – float through the narrative as the author connects the politics of the times to Gary Shang’s journey from lowly translator to astute analyst and secret arbiter for both countries. Ha Jin attributes a number of détente agreements, including renewed relations between China and the United States, to Shang’s secret efforts.
Although the detailed descriptions can be overwhelming at times, reading through them gives the reader the history to create an effective backdrop for Shang’s life. When the plot turns to reveal another generation of spies, Ha Jin follows the current attitudes between countries. The ending offers a clear perspective and poses the question: Is the man betraying the country or the country betraying the man?
A Map of Betrayal takes careful reading to catch all the nuances, but a worthwhile book to contemplate and possibly discuss.
Related Review: Waiting
Buying a used book might offer unexpected bonuses – highlighted phrases, dog-eared pages, notes in the margin, and underlined sentences. Jhumpa Lahiri, author of some of my favorite books – Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies – in her article for the New York Times, My Life’s Sentences – wrote about words that she needed to underline to isolate and remember. Oh, how I would love to have one of her used books.
Having just finished Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, Ward’s concept of the impact of words in a real book was still with me when Lahiri wrote…
“…it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”
Katie Ward time travels through seven eras with books as the catalyst, but Lahiri confirms that readers can do this any time they open a book. Some phrases in books are so resilient, we never forget them. Like Lahiri, I underline sentences I want to remember, usually noting them in a journal, not trusting my memory. Words like…”A screaming comes across the sky.” (from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)
For Lahiri, it’s Joyce’s ” The cold air stung us and we played til our bodies glowed.”
Do you save favorite words from your reading?
Lahira uses the rest of her article to explain her own writing process – not as a primer for prospective writers – but as a testament to her own struggle with words – which she has clearly conquered.
Just re-read Waiting, Ha Jin’s novel of a man promising himself that someday, he will make his life right. A recent flurry of emails reminded me that the world inside the beltway (Washington, D.C.) is different than the one outside – it is more intense. You could call it focused, but maybe it’s really myopic. Waiting reminds us that ordinary people caught up in political changes – in this case China – still have personal lives that cannot be put on hold.
Ha Jin , born in Liaoning, China and a member of the Chinese liberation army during the Cultural Revolution, was a graduate student at Brandeis University when the 1989 Tiananmen incident broke out. Waiting gives us Ha Jin’s inside look at Chinese culture – contrasting roots in traditional village life with the rigid urban social system of a military doctor.
As a good Chinese son, Lin Kong took a wife who would care for his parents, while he studied to become a doctor. Years after his parents are dead, Lin still honors the marriage with annual visits to his wife, Shoyu, and each year he proposes a divorce so that he can marry Manna Wu, a nurse.
The love triangle has an unexpected twist. Only Shoyu, the arranged wife with bound feet seems to know what she wants, as the story follows Lin’s struggle to decide. Ha Jin reminds us that most people plan and wait until the time is right. In the meantime – time keeps passing and life happens – not controlled by plans.
Ha Jin’s most recent work is a collection of short stories focusing on Chinese immigrants in America – A Good Fall Stories. But if you haven’t yet read this National Book Award winner, what are you waiting for?