I was going to consign my review of Ken Liu’s 2011 novella “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” to a few concise sentences in my review of the collection in which I first encountered it, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. The story (if it can be called that), however, incited such a variety of reactions in me, positive and negative, that I decided to try to work my thoughts out in a little longer format. An attempt thereat, follows.
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is a story about the atrocities Japan committed upon China in WWII. Human experimentation, vivisection, torture, slaughter of civilians, unlawful imprisonment, rape—the whole eight yards (save genocide) define the Japanese program in China in the 1930s and 40s. Having lived in China for some time, I can attest to the fact every year, when Japan holds its ceremony at the monument honoring soldiers who died in WWII, China (or perhaps just the Chinese government?), get indignant if not insulted when little to no acknowledgment of the violence and cruelty leveled against China by those very soldiers are mentioned. Liu of Chinese descent, the novella likewise indicates his interest in finding some sense of justice over the matter.
The main premise of the novella posits a breakthrough in physics wherein humans from the present are able to go back in time and observe actual history. A Chinese-American subsequently proposes to use the technology to allow anyone the opportunity to enter Chinese history circa 1930s to witness the Japanese atrocities in China, all with the mind of informing the world of ‘the truth,’ and to some degree force the Japanese to be more forthcoming regarding their role in events.
If there is anything “The Man Who Ended History” does well, it is to give perspective into the multiple viewpoints of the situation. Liu having done his research, informing the storyline are fictional characters whose views are based on actual commentary and reminiscences from people who lived the events—Chinese, Japanese, and beyond (hence the subtitle “A Documentary”). Disbelievers to bystanders, jingoists to truth seekers, all have a place in the story of the researcher’s quest to make historical reality more universally known. Knowing how representative the perspectives are of real-world opinion makes for interesting reading, as well as a truly human overview to a historical instance.
The core of the novella thus is the desire to have history communicated as it really happened, and not as convoluted memory, textbook elision, or secondhand hearsay. And therein lies my issue with “The Man Who Ended History.” To say the novella is backwards-looking is accurate; the events are repeated and replayed through different opinions and from various perspectives in hindsight. Little, if anything, is said of the future. This is key given that, in the words of speculative fiction scholar Marek Oziewicz, "You cannot erase the past. You have to deal with it in a constructive way, and that always involves some form of forgiveness." In the novella, however, I do not believe ‘foregiveness’ is mentioned in any constructive, forward-thinking fashion. With the story so backward-looking, Liu’s ability to come to some sense of resolution is stunted, and if his view is representative, then likewise is China’s. Holding common truths is important for humanity’s overall perspective on history, but at some point acceptance and effort are required to forgive the unchangeable, regardless if the unchangeable is acknowledged or not by the offending party. Bottom line, long-term, perpetual victimhood is damaging on many fronts, and does not help a society advance beyond the negative historical events it perceives as unresolved. And yet this novella would seem to sustain such victimhood.
From another Chinese perspective, Lin Yutang’s major novel Moment in Peking (1942) is a sweeping epic that tells of the upheaval in China between the start of the 20 th century and WWII. Japan vilified through a climax which features the rape and murder of a married virgin, Lin’s sentiment is understandable considering how fresh the events were at the time of the novel’s publishing. But Liu, more than a half-century later, pores over those events with the same perspective, which seems unconstructive given the time that has passed, and almost certainly not a path toward resolution.
My last point regarding “The Man Who Ended History” would be something along the lines of let the person without sin be the first to cast a stone. Or, significantly more people died at the hands of Mao Zedong during his decades of rule after WWII than the Japanese’ in WWII. Granted, no human experimentation or mass rape occurred, nevertheless millions suffered and died slow, terrible deaths in famine due to Mao’s zealous decision making, not to mention the unknown number of people killed, imprisoned, and tortured at the hands of the Red Guard during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. To my knowledge, the Chinese government has never publicly apologized/acknowledged this to its population, and for as long as Mao’s portrait hangs on Tiananmen Gate, I’m not sure it can be expected. Liu briefly mentions Mao in the novella, but it would be nice to have the Chinese government set the example with an apology/acknowledgment before asking the Japanese for the same—even if fictionally. Saving face is a tricky business, indeed.
I still don’t feel this “review” addresses all my thoughts on “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”. Seemingly every page sparked note taking, proof of how thought-provoking the story is. Thus, read for yourself and form your own opinion.