The Flowers of War

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am


The Flowers of War
by Yan Geling
translated by Nicky Harman
Harvill Secker

The Flowers of War comes in a striking cover. In the foreground, one of those familiar images from Shanghai advertising posters of the 1930s, a pretty girl with arched eyebrows and Cupid's-bow lipstick stares out with a winsome smile. In the blood-red background, you can make out soldiers in a trench and a pagoda. Beneath the title are the words 'The book behind Zhang Yimou's epic film'.

The novel tells a story of the fall of Nanking in 1937. In the compound of an American church, a dozen bewildered Chinese schoolgirls have been given sanctuary by the priest, Father Engelmann, and his deacon, a young Westerner who has been brought up as a Chinese. Outside the compound walls, the city is given over to lawlessness, starvation and the marauding of the occupying Japanese army.

Engelmann is desperate to preserve the neutrality of the church compound, and thus protect the girls, but he cannot turn away others who come seeking refuge: first a Chinese officer whose unit has surrendered, then a group of refugee prostitutes and finally two wounded soldiers who have escaped being massacred.

The schoolgirls are housed in the attic, and the prostitutes are hidden in the cellar. The teenage girls despise and resent the new arrivals. Supplies are running low, the news from outside is terrifying, and it is inevitable that the church compound cannot escape the attention of the Japanese army for long.

It is a fictional situation that certainly has plenty of potential. But Yan Geling's novel - a long short story, really - is oddly listless until the pace picks up in the final quarter.

The trouble seems to be the novel's unwillingness to take much of an interest in its characters. The interesting possibilities involving the priest struggling to care for his flock, the priggish and squabbling schoolgirls, the vulgar but vulnerable prostitutes, the young deacon who is neither American nor Chinese are not really taken up; they exist as a series of gestures, as do the heroic Chinese officer and, of course, the brutal Japanese.

The climax of the story is itself a gesture of self-sacrifice that seems oddly perfunctory, its psychology unexplored. This English-language version of the book will certainly do well, riding the wave of publicity for the film, with its celebrity director, its star (Christian Bale), the largest budget of any Chinese film ever made, and its selection as the Chinese entry for best foreign-language film at the Academy Awards.

The Rape of Nanking carries heavy emotional and moral freight. Perhaps Yan has missed an opportunity by tackling this difficult subject in rather predictable terms - heroic soldiers and villainous invaders, selfless priests, hapless virgins and prostitutes who turn out to have hearts of gold.