The Smashing of a Child’s World : A tale of two innocents caught in the Rape of Nanking burns in the imagination and the heart : THE TENT OF ORANGE MIST, <i> By Paul West (Scribner: $22; 263 pp.)</i>


Like J. G. Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun,” the agony in Paul West’s “The Tent of Orange Mist” lies in a drowning of what Yeats called the ceremony of innocence. In both books the ceremony belongs to children who must face, by themselves, the savagery of modern war. In both books the terror comes with the Japanese invasion of China; at the start of World War II in one case, and just before it in the other.

In “Empire” a 12-year-old English boy, separated from his family by the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai, makes his way home to find that his parents have been violently abducted. Alone, he finds himself in a prison camp for foreign families, a gentle child turned feral, and scavenging to stay alive. It is an atrocity, but in the boy’s survival there is something of the picaresque freedom of other displaced children, Kim or Huck Finn, for instance, and of their growth--although here it is growth into a world turned hallucinogenic by Hiroshima’s mushroom. Ballard’s novel, a masterpiece of the ‘80s, opens mysteriously outward.

West’s book, on the other hand, closes inward. The lives of its two innocents, a girl and her father, are crushed, though one survives deformed in spirit. They are caught in the 1937 Rape of Nanking (Nanjing), whose toll the Chinese have estimated at 300,000. The accuracy of the figure is uncertain--here as in other parts of its war Japan has yet to confront its past--but it was a terrible one.


“Tent” is claustrophobic, deliberately and brilliantly so. War comes to Scald Ibis, 16 years old and delicately reared, when the Japanese burst into her house. She does not know that they have just beheaded her younger brother and thrown him into the garden well, or dropped the raped, bayoneted body of her mother in the Yangtze River. Her father, a wealthy scholar and calligrapher--his daughter’s odd name stems from two of his whimsical allusions--is not there and she is alone.

A precocious student of art and poetry, Ibis lacks brute images and language to understand what is happening to her. All she has available is the refined reasoning that has served her in her sheltered life.

West is an original and daring writer whose books have been both made and marred by the chances he takes. He has never written anything so risky and triumphant as the terrible evolution of Ibis’ perceptions when a half-dozen Japanese officers, led by Col. Hayashi, rape her, interrogate her and turn her house into a brothel. Her immediate reaction is to grasp at the vestiges of civilization that they retain while brutalizing her--it is what she has been conditioned to see.

“Scald Ibis found herself being questioned by weary, sedate men of discernible cultivation,” West writes. She fixes on the illogic of the interrogation--which she can cope with--not its horror. “Surely hordes of invaders should not be asking such questions of a 16-year-old. If they upset a country they should know where the pieces landed.” She could be prim Alice in a nightmare Wonderland.

Desperately, she registers demeanors. After the officers assault her, they “kept looking at her as if they had shared a good joke together, as if her ravishment had been a prelude to good-humored reverie, a whiff of opium, a bite into succulent plums.” Then, insinuating itself through her shock, comes the feeling that she is “transformed, somehow distorted, no longer eligible for the finer things.” The pain grows more specific but still partly figurative: “Men pummeled her as if ramming home an inferior argument.”

Eventually, in this awful ascent from innocence--by this time Hayashi has become both her protector and abuser--we hear a howl all the more terrible for the literate metaphors that Ibis can no more relinquish than her own odor:


“Hayashi remained a morose and tricky man with a feral cry deep inside him; when he climaxed, he let it out like someone being disemboweled. That was it, she decided: He needs it out of him and therefore inflicts upon himself a repetitious pain. One day the pain will fall silent and he will leave me alone forever. I am a hutch and he is trying to take up residence within me. I am a kennel and he is the dog. I am a coffin in which he wants to die.”

Worse than the smashing of a child’s world is the rebuilding. The violence of the first days gives way to a deadly order. Hayashi, an ambitious bureaucrat, hopes to win a medal for setting up the finest military “comfort” house in Nanking. Other women will serve as house prostitutes; Ibis will be a geisha. He keeps his fellow officers at a distance, virtually gives up having sex with her himself, and imports two geishas to train her.

She sings, recites, learns the gestures and the rituals and, at the same time, the odd authority that a geisha exercises. The same officers who unhesitatingly rape a helpless Chinese girl submit, as they do to other ritual hierarchies, to the ceremonies that the geisha is mistress of. Ibis makes them babble in French and English; she tells herself that it is they who are being humiliated, not she. If she can survive she will return, someday, to her old life and innocence.

West lets her believe it for a while, the more so when her father, Hong, sneaks into the house disguised as a servant. She now has two to protect. And just as the daughter’s cultivation leads Hayashi not so much to favor her as to confine her in a higher humiliation, the same happens to Hong. He is given a uniform and made an interpreter. Both are saving themselves; both are losing themselves.

It is too much for the wonderfully fiery and complex Hong to bear. Seeing Ibis perform a geisha act so grotesquely vile that it cannot be described here--it is the Japanese spectators, she insists, who are degraded--he breaks out in macabre violence and meets a macabre end. Ibis survives, and lives on after the war in a prosperous, savagely ironic exile from the childhood she thought to reclaim.

West has written what in some ways is a small masterpiece. His portraits of an innocent in the breakers of Yeats’ blood-dimmed tide, and of the fierce and civilized passions of Hong, her father, burn in the imagination and the heart. His Japanese officers, brutal, comical and banal, are not without compunction, but it is a compunction so devoid of any awareness of their Chinese victims that it becomes monstrous: the monstrosity we suffer from those who don’t see us.


Some of the book’s strength is clouded by an excessive stylistic elaborateness that can seem arbitrary. A series of brief interpolations from what purport to be the journals of an early Jesuit missionary take on a didactic irrelevance: irrelevant because they interrupt and because it is unclear what light they are meant to cast.

Notably, there are a number of passages in which the missionary describes in repulsive detail the hygienic difficulties he experiences owing to the fact that he is not circumcised.

These things are irritating--at least I find them so--but perhaps not terribly important. A more serious objection comes, paradoxically, from the book’s extraordinary qualities. Caught in their trap between survival and soul, Ibis and Hong are truly caught. Hong breaks out, terribly; Ibis’ unique light hardens into gray. West is delivering judgment, which he has a right to do, and it is a mordantly just one. Only, he has raised two such winged characters that judgment seems to fall short; what is wanted is transfiguration.