WHEN LILIAN SHANG, a Chinese-American academic who splits her time between America and Beijing, reads her deceased father’s diaries, she discovers a secret. Her father, Gary Shang, was a Washington-based superspy for Beijing and betrayed everything and everyone to try and be true to one thing — the Motherland. Ha Jin’s sprawling new novel alternates between Lilian’s slow unraveling of her father’s three decades of treachery and his own version of events and justifications for his undercover life. From the founding of Mao’s China in 1949 to the start of the reform process under Deng Xiaoping in 1980, Gary Shang had been deeply embedded within the American intelligence services as a traitor.
In 1938 E. M. Forster wrote, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Yet so many of us are intimately (and irrationally, Forster would argue) loyal to the place where we happen to be born. Gary throws a twist into Forster’s choice — born in China but leaving to live in America as a young man, he is a spy with masters on the other side of the world, but also an immigrant to the US who develops all the affections for his new country that most immigrants do. Eventually, at his trial (we know from the start that Gary is a spy so, fear not, this isn’t a spoiler), Gary declares, “The two countries are like parents to me. […] They are like father and mother, so as a son I cannot separate the two and I love them both.” But this isn’t enough — love them both he may do, but he still repeatedly and thoroughly betrays one to the other.
Forster’s conundrum may be applicable in his own society: 1930s Britain. But it’s less easy to reconcile in nations founded on immigration. If loyalty to the country of birth were the main motivating factor, then surely America (as well as Australia, New Zealand, and other nations founded on immigration) would not have survived — everyone would be way too conflicted.
Gary’s problems are compounded by the fact that his motherland is pitched, for most of his time undercover, into self-isolation. As an analyst in Washington, Gary is reduced to sifting the scant information seeping out of China during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. He knows of the state-induced starvation, the strict limits on freedom and movement, the horrific self-destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Yet he remains loyal and continues to spy for Beijing despite his growing awareness that his Chinese spymasters are lying to him about the fate of his family, home village, and the country. The original bait that kept him on their hook, of a family left behind, slowly ebbs away as a reason to keep spying the longer he is cut off from China. Yet he still cares deeply for the fate of a home village he has not seen for decades and a Chinese revolution he has not directly experienced.
Gary has no great ideological hatred of America, no ax to grind against capitalism or Washington. He is paid by the Chinese, but not much, and spending what he does receive presents some difficulties as CIA analysts with access to classified documents who suddenly and inexplicably have bulging bank accounts tend to be somewhat suspect. He settles into an ordinary American life — a house in the suburbs, a homemaking wife, the school run, I Love Lucy, cheesecake, Friday night beers. It’s mostly enough for him. He does take a Chinese-American mistress, but she proves to be little solace in his occasional bouts of loneliness and homesickness. As with all expats, from anywhere, living anywhere overseas, Gary has the inevitable tendency to see only the good in his home country, to slip into a comforting and self-justifying nostalgia.
You will have gathered by now that this is not a conventional espionage novel. Gary faces few tense moments in his espionage career. He’s not a frontline agent, but rather a virtual one (virtual in the pre-internet meaning of the word). He pushes paper, copies the occasional bit of useful stuff, and prepares briefings that are overly optimistic and completely detached from Beijing’s realpolitik. He’s never in much danger of being caught; there are no car chases or poison-tipped umbrellas. When he does meet his Chinese handlers, it’s not a tense scene on a park bench but rather over a delightful bit of dim sum in Hong Kong. Gary never sees the blood of the agents he dooms; he doesn’t know them. He is at a massive remove from the trenches of the Cold War and its visceral horror and face-to-face betrayals. At best his office colleagues would feel let down, hoodwinked, but there’d be no bullet in the back of the head at dawn for any of them. This is not a novel of suspense but of motivation — so why does Gary bother?
Thus to the old question: What motivates spies? Adventure, idealism, avarice, patriotism? In Gary’s case, knowing of the situation in China while enjoying the freedoms of America, patriotism is the tricky explanation. Like many spies, he opts for the rose-tinted glasses, the idealized state of his spymasters. Usually this involves a converse detestation of the enemy country to justify treachery — the old tropes like Britain as class-ridden and imperialist, America as unjust and swaggering. Ha Jin, though, puts Gary in a more ambiguous position: fond of his motherland, and fond of his adopted America. He can see the disastrous excesses of China in the 1950s and 1960s just as clearly as he can see America slipping into the bloody bog of Vietnam, and he wants to save both from the errors of their ways.
A Map of Betrayal moves beyond the ideological certainties of typical Cold War spy novels. It asks just how rooted we are in our beliefs. Are we advocates of democracy because we were born in one? Do we back our president or dictator because they happen to be ours? Our governments, schools, parents, media tell us what appear to be absolute truths, but since different truths are absolute in different places, if we were born in one place rather than another would our home truths change? For most of us that is indeed the case. For Gary Shang, though, the relationship is more nuanced — he is not in the land of his birth, but neither is he in a new land of his choosing. He is a spy, and, for Gary, that is a job that he undertakes and accepts. The circumstances of life have determined his profession rather than any ideological decision.
By the end of his espionage career, Gary looks from Washington toward a changing China, a country opening up after years of isolation, and perhaps the possibility of rapprochement. And China did change. Lilian, Gary’s daughter, though, finds herself in arguments in Beijing in the current day that Forster would have recognized. Lilian, the liberal American, argues with her Chinese nephew that “a country is not a temple but a mansion built by the citizens so they can have shelter and protection in it.” She continues passionately, “It’s unreasonable to deify a country and it’s insane to let it lord over you. We must ask this question: On what basis should a country be raised above the citizens who created it?” Lilian’s mainland Chinese nephew, raised in an educational system and media saturated in nationalism, is unmoved by such arguments, replying simply, “I love China unconditionally.”
Gary’s love of China is not quite unconditional and becomes less so the longer he is isolated from it. Yet ultimately he adheres to the old saw, “My country, right or wrong” — the too-often-heard lament of the lazy patriot. Presumably he, like so many others who’ve used this glib phrase to cover a multitude of sins and weak moral choices, forgot the rest of what Carl Schurz (a German-born revolutionary who immigrated to America, became a Union Army General in the Civil War, US Senator, and Secretary of the Interior in the Rutherford B. Hayes administration) said: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” Gary Shang wants to change both countries he loves but is finally left alone, stranded between two loves he can never reconcile.
If there is a quibble with Betrayal, it’s that the recitation of Chinese history can be a little rote and reads as a series of rather sterile lessons, each of which goes on too long. But when Ha Jin gets personal, and takes us into the secretive world of the spy, he also forces us to ask the question why, ultimately, we believe what we believe. And that’s why A Map of Betrayal lingers, somewhat uncomfortably perhaps, in the reader’s mind long after the last page.