Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2012. Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.
Geling Yan’s The Flowers of War is set during the Nanking Massacre — sometimes known as the Rape of Nanking — in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed when Japanese forces captured the Chinese city in December 1937.
An American church offers shelter
In this fictionalised account, a group of 16 terrified schoolgirls find safety in the attic of an American church. St Mary Magdalene is protected by a high wall and regarded as neutral territory in the Second Sino-Japanese War. It is run by Father Engelmann, an American who has lived in China for 30 years, with the help of Deacon Fabio Adornato, another Westerner who was born to Italian-American parents and raised in Yangzhou.
But a day after the girls have been taken in, a group of women clamber over the wall demanding equal protection. They are prostitutes from the nearby Qin Huai River brothels and they do not want to be taken by the Japanese soldiers as “comfort women”. Father Engelmann tries to turn them away, claiming he does not have enough food, water or shelter, but he eventually agrees they can stay in the cellar — for two days.
To make matters worse, two wounded Chinese soldiers secretly enter the compound. They have survived a shocking massacre and have nowhere else to go. Again, Father Engelmann tries to turn them away but relents and they are housed in the cellar with the prostitutes.
Tension between those seeking refuge
The story basically shows how these four divergent group of people — the religious men, the prostitutes, the schoolgirls from privileged backgrounds and the soldiers — must live together under extraordinary circumstances, where prejudice and tension abounds, food and water is in short supply, and fear of Japanese evasion is ever present.
I had expected The Flowers of War to be dark and very moving, but apart from the odd moment of horror, the story generally falls flat. Part of the problem is the lack of a central character with which to identify, so an emotional connection cannot be made. And Engelmann, Fabio and the schoolgirl Shujuan feel too distant — and cold-hearted — to really care about.
The prose, which occasionally shimmers, largely seems all tell and not much show. It’s not exactly pedestrian, but it does feel as if you’re reading the bones of a story which is in need of a bit more meat.
And, if I am honest, I found it difficult to believe that a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Shujuan, could be so prejudiced against the prostitutes. She is fascinated by their antics and often spies on them through a hole in the floor, but she is also so vehemently opposed to them, I couldn’t help but wonder where that kind of hateful attitude had sprung from? Were privately educated schoolgirls in 1930s China taught that prostitutes were the lowest form of life? Or was it something she learned from her rich parents?
It didn’t seem to add up to me — and nor did the epilogue, which felt tacked on and clumsy. Here, nine years after the massacre, Shujuan is just coming to realise how these women may have saved her life and is trying to track them down, because “if she didn’t remember them, who would?”
It’s a great shame that The Flowers of War was so dull, because this is an important — and dramatic — story needing to be told. Perhaps the film adaptation, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale, is better. It wouldn’t be hard.