Ghost Towns

What Nanjing looks like today

All towns are haunted for someone. Any street you walk down, something will have happened there – a kiss, a fight, a death, even a murder. In a city as old as London, the streets are laid over and over with ghosts.  Everywhere you put your feet is soaked in history.

This week I’ve been thinking a fair bit about atrocity (I know, a bit dreary, but bear with me). I just finished reading Mo Hayder’s Tokyo, set in the eponymous city but dealing with what happened in 1937, when the invading Japanese army advanced on the Chinese city of Nanking. I’d been wondering about how it works to use real-life horror in a novel, especially a crime novel, where the intention is usually to entertain and enthral. What do we have the right to write about?

I stake some small claim to the Japanese capital – I spent a week there, once, and it settled into my skin – but feel something more of an entitlement to talk about Nanking (now Nanjing). After university I spent a year living there, a place with more than its own share of ghosts. I was already mulling over these thoughts when I read this brilliant post from fellow crime writer-and friend! – D.E Meredith, who in her former job worked as a press officer in some of the world’s most harrowing war zones. This is her take on using real-life memory to write commercial fiction, which is well worth a read, and helped me formulate what it was I wanted to say:

I’ve felt for a long time like I wanted to write about China, about Nanjing, but the one I experienced isn’t the one in the books. The things that happened there are hard to take in, from my perspective now in a different country and a different time. It’s difficult to believe the stories that hundreds of thousands were slaughtered here over just ten days; days of blood-soaked madness, rape, and torture. Even the history is slippery as blood. No one quite knows how many died, or can verify the atrocities that took place. Some say it never happened at all. So it’s a haunted place, where the bones were never laid to rest, never archived into history, where the wound still festers.

But when I lived there, almost seventy years later, Nanjing was a city of glass and steel towers, thriving markets, stalls full of knock-off DVDs. The place had grown up around the massacre sites – some kept open, bones encased in glass, in the middle of the city –and really, it wasn’t haunted at all. My memories of it run from my first days there, when I was desperately hot (Nanjing is one of China’s ‘furnace cities’, where it can hit 40 degrees plus to the end of October) and desperately alone. Even language was estranged from me, it seemed, as I walked down streets whose names I couldn’t even read, let alone pronounce. I tried to make sense of it, obsessively memorising the way home, noting the dinosaur-skin mottling on a cartful of watermelons, the particular stink from the river near my flat. As the year turned, my Nanjing was somewhere you cycled through slow summer streets, hanging off the back of a friend’s bike, and stayed up drinking beer at roadside barbecues. An exciting, bustling place, coated in dust from incessant construction works. I can’t reconcile that with the same city where so many died in the snows of winter, 1937. For me, there weren’t any ghosts.

I felt the same when, on my way home from China overland, I stopped in Poland and visited the site of Auschwitz. I’d always imagined the place in winter, but instead I found myself on an ancient bus, trundling through lush Polish countryside at the height of summer. I’d never imagined being hot there, but as we trooped round the death cells, the crematoria, the endless horrors, sweat trickled down the  back of my vest-top, and I became more and more tired and thirsty. I resisted as long as I could, from some kind of respect, but however much I was horrified by the place, I was still a person alive there in 2005, and I was hot and tired and I needed a drink. Realising this, that Auschwitz, whatever else it is, is also just a place on the earth, was a bit of a shock. Outside the camp, there’s a wide grassy area, where families had gathered for picnics. There was a hot dog stand, and the air was filled with the sound of children laughing, all of this just a few yards from the famous gates to death. It was as if, with our memorialising and our preserving, we had tried to keep open the scar on the earth. As if to let it heal would be an atrocity in itself. But despite that there was sun, and children laughing, and ketchup. Something had healed, and once again, the ghosts weren’t there.

I used to experience it growing up – the Northern Ireland you may have seen on TV, all bombs and walking behind coffins, that wasn’t the one I grew up in, not entirely. I couldn’t reconcile the two in my head. And it’s the same for places stamped on our memory by atrocity –it isn’t the setting at all that matters. My geography is not the same as yours, because on a very basic level, geography is memory. Everywhere’s haunted for someone, and for someone else it may be just a building, a patch of grass, a street where something happened, once, long ago.

I haven’t answered my own question of what we are allowed to write about. I think it can only be a good thing if we remind people of the past, allow them to feel the true horror of it, so we don’t forget. It’s very difficult to keep horror alive through museums and facts  -maybe writing the emotions of it will help us remember? I don’t know.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Tim Mayer says:

    Good article. Some of the same objections were made about THE MEN BEHIND THE SUN movie.

  2. A well articulated and evocative piece of writing. Do you think that there is a difference in abstracted atrocities and those that have affected you on a personal level, such as witnessing or being personally affected by the violence? Not meaning to dismiss your memories of Northern Ireland where you expressed that the portrayal of the violence was not necesarily your experience within that situation.

    1. Hi Kate
      Absolutely. I think that’s what I was trying to say, that it’s very hard to be hurt by something that doesn’t personally affect you. It’s sad but that’s human nature I think.

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