Review: A Map of Betrayal

Novel by Ha Jin
Review by Scott Lang
Issue No. 12 – June 2016

In his personal essay “Exiled to English,” Ha Jin emphasizes that “loyalty is a two-way street.”

This idea similarly informs his latest novel, A Map of Betrayal, which deals with the relationship between loyalty and betrayal. The book relies on this dichotomy to structure the narrative, which is woven together skillfully by the author. Jin’s protagonist, Gary Shang, is a low-level Communist spy who works up the ranks of the C.I.A. as an interpreter, ultimately revealing that his allegiance is to both countries. Shang states in court that the “two countries are like parents,” but finds out too late that national loyalty is bitterly one-sided. The result of Gary’s lifelong sacrifice as C.I.A. mole is nothing more than a prison sentence in America, and disownment by his home country of China. This intriguing narrative certainly delivers on the title’s promise of betrayal.

However, Jin’s real achievement comes not through the construction of his spy novel façade, but in the way he reveals how Gary Shang’s double-life unfolded from the years 1949-1980 through the eyes of Shang’s daughter, Lillian. This second narrative, set in both contemporary America and modern-day China, sees Lillian acting as a bridge to connect her father’s past with the present day. The chapters themselves, demarcated by year rather than number, oscillate between the past and present seamlessly.

An historian by profession, Lillian attempts to reconstruct her father’s dubious past through his personal journals, sent to her by his former mistress. What is revealed from Lillian’s examination of these journals provides redemption for her father, who was once considered, “the most important Chinese spy ever caught in the United States.”

Compellingly revealed throughout the novel are the other dimensions of Shang’s life. Rather than be demonized as a spy for Red China, he is compassionately presented as a man who spent his whole life carrying great secrets at the risk of running afoul of both the U.S. and Chinese governments.

Ha Jin skillfully weaves together a novel that is both a family history and a Cold War tale of espionage, as well as a title which will surely resonate with contemporary readers, steeped as we are in headlines about D.N.C. hacks and Edward Snowden. This novel broaches the topics of patriotism and loyalty to one’s homeland in a refreshing way—by considering them from the individual level.

A Map of Betrayal
Ha Jin
Vintage International
304 pages, $26.95

Scott Lang is a native of Salt Lake City and currently an M.A. student in English at Weber State University. His love of writing focuses largely on contemporary social concerns, with his most recent work appearing in the New Orleans Review, published by Loyola University New Orleans.

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