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‘A Map of Betrayal’

by Ha Jin

Pantheon, 304 pp., $26.95

In Ha Jin’s new novel, “A Map of Betrayal,” Gary Shang is “full of secrets.”

Shang’s most prominent deception, just one of many, is his profession as a double agent for China and the U.S. He works as a translator for the Central Intelligence Agency, passing along information about American plans and activities in Asia to his communist Chinese bosses, possibly including Chairman Mao himself. But a secret life comes at a high cost. In order to conceal his dual identity, Gary must extend the deception to his private life, tinging his relationships with dishonesty and regret.

Ha Jin’s first novel, “Waiting,” won the National Book Award in 1999. In this, his seventh novel, Jin, a professor of English at Boston University, continues his astute examination of the immigrant Chinese experience in this country.

The narrative in “Betrayal” is understated and unhurried, with chapters on Gary’s career and personal life alternating with his daughter Lilian’s investigation of the Shang family history. The story starts in 2011 in the voice of Lilian, a 50-something professor who is awarded a Fulbright lectureship at a teachers college in Beijing.

She has just finished reading her father’s diary — a detailed account of his life as a spy, said to be “the biggest Chinese spy ever caught in North America” (the author has said Gary is loosely based on real-life Chinese spy Larry Chin). But Lilian hungers for the missing personal pieces of his story. During her stay she travels to rural Shandong province to look for her father’s first wife and children, Lillian’s half siblings. Gary’s marriage to Yufeng was arranged by their families in the late 1940s.

Lilian’s experience in modern-day Beijing is a fascinating window into contemporary China, especially the life of young men and women: their dating practices, their use of new technology, and their uneasy relationship with the Chinese government.

During his clandestine career, Gary is a diligent, if reluctant, spy. Not particularly ideological or chauvinistic, he tells a communist Chinese official interviewing him for espionage work in 1949 in Shanghai, “ ‘I need to eat and have to take whatever is available.’ ”He is hired as a translator that same year by a U.S. cultural agency based in China, which eventually becomes part of the CIA. Gary follows the Americans to Okinawa as the Nationalists lose ground in mainland China, moves to the States in 1955, and ends up working at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. He does his jobs exceptionally well for both the CIA and the Chinese government, leading to promotions and accolades.

In America, he meets and marries Nellie, a white American. He also becomes romantically involved with a Chinese woman named Suzie Chao. Their affair continues for the rest of his life.

Gary’s spy work takes place during the height of the Cold War, when tensions among the three superpowers were fraught with threats and counter threats, including the prospect of nuclear annihilation. This was also a time of tumultuous change in China, starting with the communist takeover in 1949, the disastrous Great Leap Forward that resulted in millions of people dying of famine in the 1950s, and the chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s.

Though seemingly passive as the conundrum of his life unfolds, Gary grows increasingly resentful and bitter. The only thing that truly stirs his emotions is something he can’t have — a return to his wife and children in China. “His heart was always elsewhere,” Lilian notes. A rash request to the Chinese government for a large sum of money in the late 1970s to help his American wife buy a bakery leads to scrutiny by the FBI, Gary’s arrest and a highly publicized trial.

Ha Jin’s writing has a serene simplicity. He slowly and deliberately constructs the edifice of his narrative, and because of this gradual buildup and Gary’s apparent resignation to his fate, the last third of the novel packs a powerful punch that is both poignant and unexpected. It is comforting as a reader to be in the hands of such a masterful storyteller.