Geling Yan’s novel The Flowers of War – Jingling Chisan Chai is set in Nanking in 1937 during The Rape of Nanking or The Nanking Massacre, when the city was occupied by Japanese troops. The story which is inspired by true events takes place in the compound of an American church. Father Engelmann hides a group of school girls and when some prostitutes from the nearby brothels climb over the wall, he hides those as well. Later, three Chinese soldiers, two of which are badly wounded will also come and seek refuge. Their presence endangers the others greatly.
The Rape of Nanking is one of those horrific events which are hard to imagine and I was very curious to see how the author would handle this. I must say she’s written an amazingly powerful and beautiful book which gives us a good impression of what has happened without dragging the reader down too much. Still, especially due to the very sad ending, we never doubt for one minute how atrocious this must have been, notably for women.
Having a group of beautiful and very seductive prostitutes hide in the compound also leads to comical moments. The girls are still very young and pious and hate “those women” with a vengeance. The prostitutes on the other hand love to provoke and shock the priests and the girls.
In the beginning of the novel nobody expects that the Japanese occupation will turn into such a nightmare and Father Engelmann frequently says that he knows the Japanese to be very polite and expects that they will stay civilized and follow the Geneva Convention. When rumours of rapes and executions are spread he learns that he was wrong.
Because the church is neutral territory, Engelmann lives under the assumption that they are all safe inside of the compound. Safe but hungry because there is hardly any food left in Nanking. However Engelmann is wrong and the end of the story is harrowing. The Japanese don’t only enter the compound because they are looking for food but also because they are looking for women. It is known that the Japanese took female prisoners and used them as so-called “comfort women” and turned them into prostitutes or rather sex slaves.
I didn’t expect to love this book so much but I did. Geling Yan tried to show that war brings out the worst in people but also the best. It explores different moral choices and questions what is really good and what is bad. In the end, the prostitutes who are seen as bad, are the ones who prove to be capable of the greatest kindness and compassion.
The characters are very well-developed. We learn the back story of almost all of the characters and truly care for them by the end. There are numerous moments in which two people are listening and caring for each other and manage to share true beauty despite of the mayhem that is raging outside.
It occurred to Fabio that he might stop drinking if he had someone to tell his troubles to. A listening face like hers was intoxicating enough.
I thought this was one of the most subtle books on war I’ve read so far. It’s written in a very simple, straightforward and engaging way and tells a story of beauty, humour, sacrifice, compassion and hope without ever letting us forget the horrors or minimizing them. The biggest strength were the many characters which came alive in a few sentences.
When I choose a book for the readalong I tend to focus on the war aspect but ultimately The Flowers of War has a lot to say about the precarious condition of women. The stories of the prostitutes are heartbreaking. It’s also well shown how conditioning makes other women, in this case the girls, hate them because of their trade. They are treated like the scum of the earth although they are good-hearted and kind and in most cases had no other choice. Many come from poor families and have been sold to brothels at a very young age.
One of the core messages of the book is captured in this quote in which Father Engelmann speaks to one of the Chinese soldiers who hides in the compound
“God used him to give me inspiration. He wanted me to save myself by saving others. God wants people to help each other especially when they are injured or weak. I hope you will trust in God. It is God you should trust, not weapons, when you are powerless to control your fate, as you are now.”
I’m looking forward to read what others thought of this novel. I liked it a great deal.
The Flowers of War – Novia (Polychrome Interest)
Book and Movie
The Flowers of War was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is The Heat of the Day by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. Discussion starts on Thursday 28 March, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.