BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Atypical Love in a Time of Brutality : TREE OF HEAVEN <i> by R.C. Binstock</i> ; Soho Press; $22, 224 pages


Two less likely lovers would be hard to imagine. The man, Kuroda, is a captain in the Japanese army that is slaughtering and pillaging its way through China in 1938. The woman, Li, is a dirty, emaciated refugee whom fate has surely marked to be raped and killed by the four enlisted men who have cornered her in a barnyard in a village east of Nanking.

Kuroda is a scientist, a former botany professor, but he subscribes to the prejudices of his time. The Chinese, he believes, are an inferior race, as evidenced by their feudal poverty and their collapses on the battlefield.

To Li, Kuroda is just another of the “beast soldiers” who have ravaged much of her country and driven her, a doctor’s daughter from Shanghai, onto the roads in midwinter. Her death, very soon, is a foregone conclusion; only the method--bullet, bayonet, cold, hunger or disease--and the exact time have been in doubt. Until now.


Yet war, as this expert and moving first novel by R.C. Binstock illustrates, can make strange bedfellows. More to the point, it makes bedfellows of the strange. The reasons Li and Kuroda are misfits in their own cultures are precisely the reasons, in the midst of horror and chaos, they can appeal to each other’s humanity.

Li’s husband abandoned her because she is infertile. Even before that, she was too self-absorbed and intellectual to play traditional feminine roles with ease. Fear and hardship, perversely, have brought her a kind of freedom: “I think I have been waiting for something like this all my life. For a reason to cut my universe down to a circle 40 paces wide. And in its center, me.”

Kuroda, too, is intellectual, and thus unwelcome in any army. And he has just witnessed one of the 20th Century’s great atrocities: the weeks-long orgy of torture and murder that began when the Japanese captured Nanking on Dec. 13, 1937. Although he did not actively participate, he was afraid to interfere. Memories of events that he expects will never be reported to the outside world, or believed if they are reported, throb in his mind:

“I saw rape, constant rape: Japanese soldiers copulating with countless Chinese women in the open air . . . crying infants nearby, and stabbing them when finished. I saw stacks and stacks of bodies. I saw schoolchildren chased through the streets by laughing men who killed them when they caught them, or let them live with pieces gone. I saw prisoners marched into pits and covered over. I saw prisoners set afire.”

Left behind the main force to command the garrison of the village, Kuroda rescues Li from the men about to assault her and makes her his servant.

Binstock proves to be a master of restraint. His style is idiom-free, timeless; he has done much research but resists the temptation to show it off.

The most basic details are uncertain. Kuroda remembers asking at the beginning, “Can you cook and clean?” Li remembers volunteering that she can and waiting for him to decide her fate. After a walk in the countryside, where they see the “trees of heaven” that spring up inexhaustibly on any waste ground, Li remembers asking in a rush, “Do you want to sleep with me?” Kuroda remembers her saying carefully, “I think I ought to be your mistress.”

The relationship is doomed, not least by its own ambiguity. Where does sex end and rape begin? How does compulsion shade into something gentler? What is the polarity of power and love? Kuroda has a wife and child in Japan. His men resent his humanitarian rules and wait for a chance to get hold of Li. They doubt that Kuroda is competent to lead them against the Chinese guerrillas beginning to infiltrate the area.

“Tree of Heaven” is not the sweeping kind of historical novel. This is a story about how isolated individuals anywhere can be crushed by history--and, in being crushed, sometimes achieve an intensity of emotion impossible in ordinary life. Binstock runs a risk, to be sure, in making Li and Kuroda as untypical, as unlikely--as strange--as they are, but otherwise how could they love at all?