In a 2009 interview with the Paris Review, the Chinese writer Ha Jin declared: “I live in the margin as a writer — between two languages, two cultures, two literatures, two countries.” Jin came to the United States in 1985 to study American literature at Brandeis and has achieved remarkable literary success here: winning the National Book Award for his second novel, “Waiting,’’ and publishing many acclaimed poems, stories, and novels.
Like Jin, the protagonists of his latest novel, “A Map of Betrayal,” occupy the “treacherous territory” of margins — Gary Shang, “the biggest Chinese spy ever caught in North America,” and his daughter, Lilian Shang, American-born, “half-Chinese and half-Irish.” The novel alternates between Lilian’s first-person account of her quest to “piece together [her father’s] story” after the death of her mother in 2010 and a third-person recounting of Gary’s life starting in 1949. Communist and newly married, he stumbles into espionage, works as a CIA translator, starts a second family in the United States (despite having a wife and twins back in China), and spirals through arrest, trial, and tragic death in the early 1980s.
Jin’s master spy is no 007 or George Smiley. What distinguishes Gary is his ordinariness, “his simple, casual fashion of conducting espionage,” and his easily understandable motivations, both pragmatic and ideological. When taking his first spying job, he says, “I need to eat and have to take whatever is available.” As he racks up commendations and does exemplary work, he finds “glory in serving his country.”
Lilian’s task is to recover the fragile truth lining the stolidity of her father’s self-deceptions: how his double-life resolved into a haunted half-life. Who is betraying whom? And how do we acquire the stable perspective from which to make such judgments? “A historian by profession,” Lilian strives not to judge but to understand. She SEARCHES for a capacious, forgiving, and subtle interpretation of a struggling soul. Gary’s contradictions, rationalizations, and defenses are humanized in a way that makes his life-defining reversals believable: the inexorable movement from dedicated employee to master spy and from loving husband to adulterer and bigamist (this on the orders of his Chinese superiors). Even as he acts in duplicitous ways, we empathize with him, isolated and lonely in an unfamiliar country, falsely reassured by his handler that his Chinese family is being well taken care of, striving to be a good employee and patriot.
The aftermath of Gary’s life is a wilderness of competing interpretations. Whether lionized as a hero or denounced as a traitor, he and his life’s meaning are insistently flattened out. Lilian’s first impulse is protectively anti-analytic: She resists people’s “categorizing [her] . . . father’s situation” and reminds a student: “[h]is life was very complicated.” As she learns more about her father’s inner turmoil, Lilian “[comes] to believe he’d been not only a betrayer but also someone who’d been betrayed.”
“I wanted to tell it in my own fashion while remaining as objective as possible”; Lilian’s cool restraint stems from both her professional training and a temperamental reticence all too reminiscent of her father. Like Gary, whose “daily work help[s] him keep at bay the memories of his family and homeland,” Lilian’s obsessive work of reconstruction (reading his diaries, traveling to China, reuniting with Gary’s first family) becomes at once an answer to and a stay against sorrow, confusion, and the shock of loss.
In his spying career, Gary staves off guilt by casting himself as a peacemaker, a conflict resolver, a dual patriot. At his trial, he emphatically insists on his dual allegiance: “The two countries are like parents to me.” And in a declaration that aligns him powerfully with his daughter, torn between her warring parents, he says of China and the United States: “They are like father and mother, so as a son I can’t separate the two and I love them both.”
One of the great triumphs of “A Map of Betrayal” is how it uncovers and underscores the similarities between the domestic and the political, the family and the larger culture. Lilian spies for her father and protects her mother. She is only able to pursue her investigation of her father’s life and to establish a friendly relationship with her father’s mistress once her mother has died, and her ability to tell her father’s story marks her liberation from the burden of mediating, translating, and negotiating between her parents.
In an oft-quoted passage, novelist Jayne Anne Phillips connects children, spying, and storytelling in a way peculiarly resonant for Jin’s novel: “[W]e children who become writers evolve into a particular genus of angelic spy, absorbing information, bargaining with ourselves, banking on the possibility that we might one day intervene in the dynamics of loss, insist that sorrow not be meaningless. In this way we might speak, yet not betray a trust.” As she intervenes, however belatedly, in the dynamics of loss, Lilian insists that the sorrow shadowing her family not be meaningless; she is finally able to speak without betraying trust.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’