First of all, 恭禧發財! 새해 복 많이 받으세요! Happy Lunar New Year!
Here I am with another book with a movie adaptation. I’ve seen the movie poster (same as the tie-in cover above) at my local AMC advertising a sort of festival featuring Chinese movies. Asian historical movies, especially by Zhang Yimou, hold a special place in my heart so I planned on watching it. But time was against me and I wasn’t able to catch it while it was playing. Not long after, I came across this book at a used bookstore. I decided to pick it up because it is a rather short novel (250 pages, give or take; it took me a better part of a day to finish) and it was cheaper than going to a movie. *wink*
What do you get when you place a couple of schoolgirls, Catholic priests, wounded Chinese soldiers, and a bunch of prostitutes in a rundown church compound all hiding from Japanese invaders? It sounds like a scene from a B-movie comedy but this book is based on actual events during the Rape of Nanking in 1937. For weeks after Nanking fell, Japanese soldiers raided homes, massacred the Chinese military and civilians, and raped women and children. It was complete chaos and it seemed that all hope was lost.
It is but a little glimpse of how Nanking was during that time. The whole story is centered at the church run by Father Engelmann. The church is supposed to be neutral ground but that didn’t stop the Japanese in the end. Father Engelmann tried to keep things together, preserving peace and harmony among the innocent schoolgirls and their refugees, the prostitutes led by Yu Mo. Situations weren’t ideal for anyone and a lot of sacrifices were made along the way.
There is a huge contrast between the schoolgirls and the prostitutes, especially with one of them, Cardamom, being the same age as the girls. The ending becomes sad and oh so meaningful because of it. It is a tough idea to digest, at least for me… to choose between two “kinds” of people, to choose which life *should* be saved. The idea the lives of the schoolgirls are more important than the prostitutes’… that the girls have more to offer society and that the whores are pretty much dead anyway. That sacrifice is so tragic to me that when I imagine myself being in the shoes of one of the schoolgirls, I might never contain my guilt. Yes, I am alive but at the expense of another life.
It’s not meant to be a historical reference piece. There wasn’t much in there in terms of historical facts. It was more of the everyday lives of the people seeking refuge in the church. The author wanted to paint a picture of how life was for them. We read all about the violence in a big scale but when tragedy is viewed in a smaller environment, it becomes a big thing on its own. The translator had the difficult responsibility of maintaining the tone of the author. I did find that the writing was morose, probably in the attempt to keep the mood bleak but there were parts where it was just flat. I didn’t exactly get the sadness which somewhat took away from the experience.
Overall, it is a quick but very heavy read. You’ll get through it quickly but do not expect a totally happy ending. I felt rather depressed towards in the end and knowing that something similar to this did happen in real life… it’s not a happy thought.
Rating: 4/5. I have yet to see the movie but I’m told that it is very different from the book.