With a National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkners and a Pulitzer nomination under his belt, Ha Jin is one of America’s most decorated living novelists. He’s made a name for himself writing beautiful stories centered in China, where he was born and raised. Jin didn’t start writing in English until his 30s, but he found his voice in his adopted country, in his newer tongue. Several of his books are actually banned in his homeland. In 2009 he told the Paris Review, “I live in the margin as a writer — between two languages, two cultures, two literatures, two countries. This is treacherous territory.”
His latest novel, “A Map of Betrayal,” straddles the U.S. and China and explores some of this treacherous territory. It tells the tragic story of Gary Shang, the most important Chinese spy ever caught in North America, through the eyes of his daughter Lilian. Lilian is a biracial woman in her mid-50s, born and raised in the U.S., now a professor and historian. After her mother’s death, Lilian contacts her father’s long-term mistress, who gives her Gary’s diary, a set of six journals recording his life between 1949 and 1980 — the whole of his spying career.
The journals call into question the prevailing image of the infamous Gary Shang, brilliant mole and mercenary. Lilian comes to believe that her father had his own reasons for his actions and that he was “not only a betrayer but also someone who’d been betrayed.” She sets out to reconstruct her father’s story: “A historian by profession, I wanted to tell it in my own fashion while remaining as objective as possible.”
Half of the novel is devoted to the resulting history of Gary’s long career, folded into the frame narrative of Lilian’s journey of discovery and reconstruction. In 1949, Gary, then called Weimin, is a young secret agent working for the Communists. He’s a newlywed separated from his bride in the countryside in Shandong, with plans to reunite and settle down in Beijing or Tianjin or Jinan.
When his superiors take note of his English skills, he’s encouraged to apply for a job with a U.S. cultural agency, and his fate is sealed. He becomes Gary. He moves to Okinawa, then Virginia. He becomes a translator for the CIA. At the urging of the Chinese government, he settles down in the States, marrying a white woman and fathering Lilian. His marriage suffers when he takes a Chinese mistress, but his American life becomes stable, at least on its surface. He becomes a citizen, working a steady job.
In a way, “A Map of Betrayal” is an innovative twist on an immigrant novel, exploring themes of identity, assimilation and confused loyalties through the high-stakes narrative of a spy novel. Gary has all the trappings of a successful immigrant — “If he were a common immigrant, he might have felt at home in this place, adopting it as his homeland.” But while he grows to love the U.S., he never stops missing China. “For him, happiness lay elsewhere and he could visualize it only in his homeland and in the reunion with his original family.” His longing only intensifies when he learns, years late, that his first wife gave birth to twins after his departure.
Lilian learns of this family through Gary’s journals, and she is able to find and connect with her relatives in both China and the U.S. Lilian, who regrets not having children of her own, forges strong bonds with her niece and nephew, taking deep interest in their lives. She becomes particularly worried about her nephew Benning (nicknamed Ben), whose shady dealings contain disturbing echoes of her father’s career of espionage. Though it has its moments, this present-day narrative is much weaker than the history. It’s less structured and as a result it meanders, often to bland effect. The side plots veer toward the ridiculous and not in the poetically absurd manner of Gary’s history. There’s a pregnancy trap, some accidental federal crime.
The novel suffers from a certain clumsiness at the sentence level as well. Ha Jin is a proven artist, but “A Map of Betrayal” is not his most polished work. Clouds are “fluffy like cotton candy,” landscapes “could be drab"; we learn toward the end of the novel that "[i]n spite of his gloominess, Gary did have a dry sense of humor, which would bubble up every now and then.” Jin also lapses at times into dry, awkward history textbook prose. (“The demise of the village would surely transform the country from within. But how would this massive migration affect Chinese society as a whole? Who would benefit? At whose expense? What might be the consequences in the long run?”) The result is a lot of good information and food for thought that disrupts the rhythm of the novel.
Despite its uneven writing, “A Map of Betrayal” is a poignant novel that portrays the emotional drama of an immigrant torn apart by conflicting loyalties and “bone-deep loneliness.” “If only he could become a citizen of both countries, a man of the world,” comes Gary’s lament. He may be a traitor and a superspy, but his tragedy is relatable, almost simple. It should strike many close to home.
Cha is the author of “Beware Beware.”
A Map of Betrayal
Pantheon: 304 pp., $26.95