The Flowers of War by Geling Yan, translated by Nicky Harman
First things first: Don’t let the book cover lead you too far astray. What you see here is actually the movie poster for legendary Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s latest international endeavor. While the film, The Flowers of War, is based on Geling Yan’s novel, originally titled 13 Flowers of Nanjing, the details of the two mediums are quite different, most obviously that the film’s male lead, played by Stateside actor Christian Bale who embodies an American mortician posing as a priest, is a character who does not even appear in Yan’s original story. As I haven’t seen Zhang’s film, I can only address Yan’s novel here …
Sixteen young girls from the St. Mary Magdalene mission school have been forced to take shelter in Father Engelmann’s Catholic church [yes, that’s Engelmann as in ‘angel-man’]. The Japanese have taken over the city of Nanjing, and the girls – all orphans except for two girls whose parents could not pick up their daughters before the city fell – are unable to reach the Safety Zone.
The city is in violent turmoil, in the midst of one of history’s most gruesome war massacres, commonly referred to as the 1937 “Rape of Nanking.” Father Engelmann and his protegé Deacon Fabio Adornato [as in ‘fabulously adorned?!’] – an Italian American by background, a Yangzhou village Chinese by upbringing and cultural adoption – together with a skeletal church staff, remain dedicated to keeping the girls safe.
Into the temporary sanctuary arrive a group of flamboyant prostitutes hoping for food and shelter. Try as they might, Father Engelmann and Deacon Fabio cannot turn them away … to certain death. The innocent girls are both repelled and fascinated by the worldly prostitutes.
As friction builds inside the church walls with supplies quickly vanishing, three wounded Chinese soldiers, who have miraculously escaped barbarous mass execution, arrive at the church gates seeking sanctuary, bringing reports too horrific to imagine. When the Japanese Imperial Army inevitably demands access, the church’s men, women, and children must figure out a way to survive, in spite of the unthinkable sacrifices …
Yan’s chilling story is told mostly through the teenage eyes of student Shujuan, one of the two non-orphans, angry at her “cowardly parents” for not having rescued her. Yet Yan also sidesteps into omniscience to capture pivotal moments of the prostitutes’ past lives, the decades-long relationship between the elder Father and the younger Deacon, the short-lived exchanges between Fabio and Yumo. As spare as this ‘inspired by true events’-novel may be, it provides indelible testimony to finding humanity in the most inhumane conditions.
Tidbit: Miss (Minnie) Vautrin makes a brief appearance on page 213, as “one of the organizers of the Safety Zone.” The fictionalized account of her life in Ha Jin’s latest unforgettable novel, Nanjing Requiem, provides quite the companion text to Flowers.
Published: 2012 (United States)