Nanjing 1937 by Ye Zhaoyan Faber and Faber $154 Ye Zhaoyan is a prolific but variable writer, and this translation of his 1996 novel contains many of the faults of previous efforts: it is derivative, spasmodic and so eclectic it nearly loses its identity. But somehow the whole rises above the sum of its parts and represents a significant shift in the author's authority. It also marks progress for mainland writers hoping to break free of stereotypes and traditional constraints. The triumph of the novel is its main character. Ding Wenyu is a comical figure who has returned to China to be a professor of foreign languages following a couple of decades abroad allegedly studying. In reality he has been whoring and socialising with Chinese emigres, many of whom are destined to become significant players in the drama of Chinese history. He is a pain with a cane, a randy dandy. He was sent away as a youth following his hopeless and unrequited love for a married woman. In a fantastic and faintly ridiculous coincidence, he falls in love with the same girl's sister on her 1937 wedding day in Nanjing, where he has fled to following an arranged, loveless marriage. The drama of his love, which he claims is pure and unselfish, is played against a backdrop of political tension. The threat of further Japanese incursions building on their occupation of four northern provinces threaten the security and prosperity of the southern Nationalist capital. Ding moves in the highest circles and the relationships between his family and that of his hopeless love, Yuyuan, are as complicated as the political and military manoeuvres underpinning the rapidly developing situation. In the same way as Ding is not taken seriously by anybody, few people take the threat of invasion to heart. He hopes against hope, like his contemporaries, that somehow all will be well in the end. As the year progresses, Ding's daily love letters look increasingly ridiculous and selfish as the possibility of war starts to sink home. He simply does not care: he is totally lost and oblivious to the approbation of those around him. Yuyuan has married a famous airman who treats her badly. He wallows in his own fame and is openly unfaithful, blaming her for being a white tiger - she has no pubic hair. She refuses to abandon him when it becomes clear the marriage is a sham and, incredibly, even when he is killed in action. Ye cleverly weaves the deteriorating situation in Nanjing with the doomed love affair. As Japanese troops advance, the action heats up on both fronts. It becomes clear that any happiness in the traditional sense is impossible. Emotions run high and the result is tragic for everybody. Though the novel is something of a fictional pastiche that has more than a passing resemblance to classic Russian literature, it is nevertheless cunning. This complex mix of satire, military imagery and sentimentality is a testament to the purifying nature of love and its ability to rise above the most parlous circumstances. Ye comes from an influential literary family. This might have induced some complacency in the past. This book represents a watershed for him and perhaps many of his contemporary colleagues. In the end it is what is left unsaid about the atrocities in Nanjing at the end of 1937 that convey the most powerful messages. Such subtlety should not go unrewarded.