A Chinese translator spends 30 years undercover at the CIA in National Book Award winner Ha Jin’s spare yet powerful new novel, A Map of Betrayal.
The novel is far more John Le Carré than Ian Fleming. Gary Shang drives a Buick, not an Aston-Martin, and wields a camera, not a gun. He’s known as a quiet man with a taste for jazz and Hank Williams whose chrysanthemums are the envy of the neighborhood.
But in the spring of 2010, Lilian Shang, Gary’s American-born daughter, learns about the desperate loneliness behind Gary’s long mission after she receives her father’s diary from his former mistress: “six morocco-bound volumes, each measuring eight inches by five. I hadn’t known he kept a journal, and I had assumed that the FBI had seized all the papers left by him, Gary Shang, the biggest Chinese spy ever caught in North America.”
As Lilian begins to piece together her father’s life, she journeys to China to search for his first wife, Yufeng, and the son and daughter his handler didn’t tell him about until he had been embedded with the US for years. Gary was the kind of spy known as a “nail,” the handler, Bingwen Chu, tells Lilian.
“A nail must remain in its position … and rot with the wood it’s stuck in, so a spy of the nail type is more or less a goner,” he says. “Gary must have known that.”
Only, as becomes clear as Lilian reads her father’s diary, Gary didn’t. He was haunted by fears for his wife and the twins he never met, but couldn’t risk contacting them for fear of bringing the wrath of the Communist government down on his family. His handler keeps telling him everything is OK at home, and that Yufeng is getting his monthly salary, yet somehow always forgets to bring a picture of her or the children to their biennial meetings.
The more she reads, the more Lilian becomes convinced her father was both betrayer and betrayed.
The novel unfolds on two tracks, as Lilian hunts for her father’s family in 2010 and learns they have secrets of their own, while chronicling her father’s past as objectively as possible.
Gary tries not to become too attached to life in America. This becomes especially difficult after the Chinese government encourages him to remarry and have a new family, so that he will better fit in with his colleagues.
“In the center of his plight may have resided this fact: mentally, he couldn’t settle down anywhere,” Jin writes. “His heart was always elsewhere. Wherever he went, he’d feel out of place, like a stranded traveler.”
Jin delves into the emotional costs to both Gary and Nellie, his American wife, who can tell that her husband is distant and secretive but has no idea she is married to a spy.
“Every worthy spy must have iron patience, being capable of taking refuge in solitude while biding his time,” Lilian reads in her father’s diary. Or, as Nellie’s dad put it, “the dude kept a poker face even at his own wedding.”
While their marriage could in no way be described as a happy one, Gary can’t help feeling an attachment to Nellie and pride in the smart, bookish daughter he plans to leave behind to return to his original family. In addition to an appreciation for Western supermarkets and libraries, he becomes a fan of the NBA and the films of John Wayne.
Or as Chu tells Lilian, “No fish can remain … unaffected by the water it swims in.”
Near the end of the novel, there are some curious omissions. Lilian doesn’t ever talk about the repercussions she and her mother surely would have suffered after her father’s secret was revealed, or how she felt after learning about her father’s double life.
But its portrait of Gary is a poignant one of a man torn between two cultures, who has undergone some herculean mental gymnastics to justify his betrayal of one for the other.
At his trial, he argues that he is a patriot of both the US and China. “They are like father and mother, so as a son I cannot separate the two and I love them both.”
The heartbreak underlying his fate is that he is telling the truth.