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Rarely does one encounter an espionage novel told in as straightforward and unadorned a voice as Ha Jin’s. The National Book Award laureate and two-time PEN/Faulkner-winning author’s new novel, “A Map of Betrayal,” chronicles the story of Gary Shang, “the biggest Chinese spy ever caught in North America.” The novel features two narratives in alternating chapters. The first tells the story of Gary Shang, who infiltrates the CIA on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party during the height of the Cold War. He leaves his new wife and parents behind in China to follow the government’s orders to settle in the U.S., where he marries an Irish-American woman with whom he has a daughter, Lillian. The other plot is told by a middle-aged Lillian, who embarks on a search to find her half-sister in China after learning about her father’s past via his secret diaries. In “A Map of Betrayal,” Ha Jin reaches his usual high standards by combining a gripping narrative with an elegant, straightforward style of writing. However, the book is occasionally bogged down by historical technicalities and an ambiguous protagonist.
Ha Jin’s incredible writing once again proves its potency in this novel. His simple, matter-of-fact prose adeptly expresses the bleak wariness of a spy caught between two worlds against his will. Disillusioning yet deeply moving, “A Map of Betrayal” reads like a compilation of the best traits of two masterpieces—John le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” for its realistic, unglamorous portrayal of espionage, and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” for its sparse prose chronicling an individual psychologically scarred by war and forces greater than himself. Ha Jin does not try to impress with his ornamentation, yet it is in the absolute absence of embellishment that one can access the pure, raw emotions of the characters.
However, the book is not without its shortcomings. Although the lucid tone of Jin’s writing first appears ideal for a historical novel, in some unpolished parts the narrative does not mix successfully with historical facts. The author’s recounting of U.S.-China relations is superbly executed, clearly written, and easy to digest. It firmly grounds the reader in the current of history and the fraught relationship between the two countries. However, the background information sometimes goes on for too long and veers into a rather dense textbook-style footnote. This severs the emotional flow of the novel and may create a barrier for some readers, especially for those not too familiar with Cold War history or the mid-20th century East Asian political landscape.
Ha Jin also stumbles in his attempt to create a convincing protagonist. Although some readers may find Gary Shang’s ambiguity appealing, Jin ultimately fails to create a persuasive lead. Unlike the other characters in “A Map of Betrayal,” Gary suffers from lack of development. His characterization as a lonely spy suffering from an identity crisis does provide the perfect ground for the author to exercise his signature style of writing—penetrating insights into human emotions and societal contexts. However, this very narrative construct paralyzes the character to the point that he becomes vacant and less fleshed-out than some of the supporting characters. For example, in comparison to Gary, his friend Bingwen Chu is a more complex character who enigmatically shifts between being Gary’s long-time confidant and a communist informant who withholds information about his family to ensure that his friend will continue to spy for the government.
Even if one likes Gary for realistically representing the world of espionage, his lack of agency and quick resignation make him unsympathetic, which detracts from the charms of the novel. In contrast to Lillian, who feels more approachable—partly due to her chapters being told in her first-person perspective—Gary is not helped by the omniscient perspective in which his chapters are told. The sparse soliloquies that give insight to his inner turmoil are rather distant and read like summaries of his emotions. For example, when Bingwen tells Gary that he might have to start another family and live overseas for many years, the narrator states, “He came within a breath of protesting but realized that would only make matters worse and might jeopardize his family. He heaved a sigh, unable to fathom the full implications of the directive.” Jin could have better elaborated on Gary’s struggles, even if it was only to show his eventual submission into his fate. Gary Shang may be a good spy, but he is not the most endearing lead character.
Perhaps it is Jin’s intention to make Gary an inaccessible character to the readers. After all, he is inaccessible to his colleagues, to his friend, to his wife, to his own daughter, and maybe even to himself. Maybe he becomes a shadow of his former self when he becomes Gary Shang, abandoning his former name, Weiman. Despite the shortcomings in characterization and treatment of historical facts, “A Map of Betrayal” is elegantly written and deeply haunting, and it deserves another acclaimed spot in Ha Jin’s bibliography.
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