What I've been reading
Before I get into this, I should point out that this is my last book in the alphabet. I read my books in alphabetical order by author, because I'm weird. Well, actually, it's because I buy so many books (and yes, I know I should stop, but I love books) that I found I would read books I bought more recently and ignore books I bought further in the past that I hadn't gotten a chance to read yet. So I decided to simply read my books in alphabetical order. I break the pattern occasionally, but for probably a decade I've been doing it. This is my second time through the alphabet, and now I have to go back to the beginning. I've already started a new book by an "A" author. It's oddly gratifying finishing the alphabet and going back to start over, even though it's a somewhat arbitrary way to read my books. But I feel good. And isn't that all that matters?
So let's delve into this book. As you can tell by the subtitle, it's a romance, and it's one of the odder ones you might ever read. It's certainly not bad, just ... odd. I'll get to that. I should say something about the writing style. I'm not sure if it's the translation (probably), but Ye's prose is often difficult to get through. Obviously, the story of Nanjing in 1937 is well known, especially to the Chinese, so Ye doesn't feel the need to explain some of what's going on in the grander scheme of things with the Japanese and the Chinese. We do get plenty of historical context, but there are some odd references to events that we're expected to understand, and I assume if we were Chinese, we would. The prose itself is occasionally turgid, and again, I have no idea if it reads differently in the original language. The heavy hand of the third-person narrator is evident very often, and sometimes it feels as if Ye is guiding his characters through the narrative rather than letting things play out naturally. It's a fairly dense novel, so Ye has to keep track of several main characters, so it doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would as I kept reading, but it's tough to get into. There's your fair warning!
Nanjing 1937 tells the story of Ding Wenyu and his strange love for Ren Yuyuan. Ye begins his story on the first of January and follows Ding throughout the year. Ding first sees Yuyuan at her wedding to Yu Kerun, a rising star in the Chinese air force. This is, naturally, a problem, but Ding is an unusual person. He's 20 years older than Yuyuan, and spent several years in Europe after lusting after Yuyuan's older sister two decades before. He has a amazing ability to learn languages, and has spent his life womanizing and wandering around the world. When he returns, he becomes a professor in Nanjing and builds a reputation as a eccentric fellow who ignores all social conventions. This is evident from the wedding, where he stares inappropriately as Yuyuan for several minutes while gossip swirls around him. This begins the strange romance between the worldly professor and the naïve young soldier (Yuyuan is a confidential secretary in the army).
It's not what you think, though. Ding becomes more and more obsessed with Yuyuan, but he doesn't pursue her. He begins writing love letters to her, usually more than one a day, and delivering them to her. Yuyuan is the model of propriety, however, and she never responds to the letters. She simply reads them and keeps them, but the fact that she never leads Ding on and, in fact, tells him whenever she sees him that she isn't interested and finds him ridiculous doesn't deter him at all. His father forces him to marry the daughter of an important steel magnate, but Ding ignores her and the story of their divorce forms part of Ding's attempts to form a relationship with Yuyuan. Yuyuan's own marriage is far from perfect, as Yu Kerun is immature and besotted with the fame of being a star pilot, using his celebrity to pick up whatever woman he chooses. Ding also has an interesting relationship with a rickshaw driver, Monk, whom he always used to search the city for prostitutes. Once he meets Yuyuan, however, he swears off his former lifestyle and dedicates himself to his love for her.
Ding is a fascinating character, because of the cultural differences between the 1930s and today and between China and the U. S. Ye continually narrates how ridiculous he is, sending two, three, or even four love letters a day to Yuyuan, staring at her inappropriately whenever he sees her, telling her how much he loves her and how his love is totally spiritual and beyond the realm of the flesh. Everyone in the book feels that he's ridiculous, too. However, we come to realize how noble he really is - yes, he wants to divorce his wife, but only because it was an arranged marriage, and he never cheats on her anyway. He's speaking truly when he says that his love for Yuyuan is totally spiritual - he never tries to pry her away from Yu Kerun, and he never makes any moves on her. The other characters in the novel act far worse than Ding does, yet in the eyes of society, he's the one who acts horribly. Yu Kerun flaunts his affairs, even moving in with a girlfriend late in the novel, but because he's a hero, his poor treatment of his wife is overlooked. What makes Ding fascinating, as Yuyuan comes to realize late in the book, is that instead of worrying about everyone liking him, all he cares about is making sure that Yuyuan is happy. Everyone else is concerned with their image, but Ding simply doesn't. This makes him seem ridiculous, when in fact he is the most steadfast person in the book.
Ye introduces several subplots that help illuminate the main relationship. Monk, the rickshaw driver, is besotted with a young girl, and her mother (with whom he's having an affair) offers her in marriage. When she rejects him, he reacts far differently than Ding does, and the subtle commentary is that the low-class Monk is less deserving of love than the upper-class Ding. This also shows the two ways obsession can turn - ugly, like in Monk's case, or ethereal, like Ding's. Yu Kerun, who cannot relate to Yuyuan in any meaningful way, falls in with Qu Manli, a teenaged girl who traps him into a more tightly-knit relationship than his own marriage. She doesn't want to marry Yu, but she does want him to divorce Yuyuan so that she can toy with him without guilt. It's ironic that Yu Kerun, who treats his wife so poorly, finds himself ensnared by a woman with far more guile than Yuyuan. Only then does he begin to realize what a fine woman she is, but by then it's too late.
As Yuyuan's marriage falls apart, she can't help but be drawn to Ding and his abiding love. Ye continues to refer to the political events in China during 1937, as the year saw the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yuyuan is in the army, so when the government abandons Nanjing (it was the capital of China at the time), she must stay behind as part of the last-ditch effort to stop the Japanese advance. Ding, naturally, stays with her. Ye refers to the major events of the year, such as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, and several historical personages appear in the book. As the book moves toward its conclusion, we keep wondering how Ye will write about the horrors of the Rape of Nanking. Ye, however, chooses an interesting way to end the book that allows him to avoid it. Ding and Yuyuan must make horrible choices, of course, and any book set in this city in this year can't really end well, but the ending is unusual in that it's far more "real" than what we might expect, in that it's somewhat random. That's the way life is, after all.
This is a difficult novel to get into, mostly (I think) because of the translation. Once you do get into it, however, it's a rewarding love story, because it's unlike most romances you read. In most love stories, something is keeping the lovers apart, but in this book, the obstacles aren't contrived, like they often are in romances. In this novel, the culture itself is against the lovers, and Ye does a marvelous job showing how oppressive that culture is. We can wonder why these people couldn't get together, but we're approaching it from a different cultural perspective. As we read, Ye makes it clear why this romance is so difficult for the two of them. It's a tragic story, yes, but it's also somewhat inspiring. Nanjing in 1937 wasn't torn by war until the very end of the year, so it's not like Ding and Yuyuan are struggling through violence, but they are struggling to find something more than war, and almost everything is against them, including everyone they know. As we move toward the inevitability of the ending, we can't help be caught up in the nobility of Ding's feelings toward Yuyuan and Yuyuan's struggle to accept them. It's a wonderful romance and a powerful novel about a desperate time in Chinese history.