In a complete 180 from last month’s book club, in which we read an entire trilogy, our little group decided to read a novella by Ken Liu for our March gathering. The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary was part of our original plan to read Liu’s short story collection The Paper Menagerie but, due to life constraints, we had to cut down the page count if we were to get more people on board for this month's meeting. In some ways, though, I’m happy we read just one story, because it was an important one and I’m not sure I’d want to highlight any other story from the anthology alongside this one. I wouldn’t want anything to diminish its importance.
The Man Who Ended History is an unhappy story. What makes it truly heartbreaking is that it’s grounded in a very real, very painful piece of history: Unit 731. You’ve likely never heard about Unit 731, so I highly encourage you to read about it, whether you use Liu’s novella as a starting point or otherwise. Western history doesn't focus very much on Japan's crimes against humanity during the Second World War and it's a shame.
When our group met, the first thing most of us said was, "that was sad." A lot of us were still thinking about it when we met up, about Unit 731 and other atrocities the Japanese committed in the Second World War. My own great grandmother escaped Nanjing during the Nanjing Massacre (The Rape of Nanking) and several other members' families were affected by the horrific crimes the Japanese regime committed; The Man Who Ended History was a reminder of a part of our history. And it's a part of history that the world often chooses to forget.
The story is also, of course, well-written. It's in the science fiction genre, but Liu has done a lot of research on the real-life Unit 731 and the political discourse around Japanese war crimes. It has a clever narrative structure, and a fascinating focus on historiography. All of his choices as a writer built on the real-life frustrations of Unit 731, and the complicated emotions that come with remembering a past that others want to sweep under the rug.
Reading The Man Who Ended HIstory also made me remember a moment from first year university. My history professor quoted one of his Masters students, and said, “History is fiction.” I don’t entirely agree with that, and neither did my professor, but his student acknowledged an important part of history and historiography: no one today can accurately describe something that happened in the year, say, 1301. We weren’t there. We can’t collectively travel back in time and experience every little thing, every little nuance, ever “big picture” event in order to have an accurate recording of history. But as Liu suggests, even if we could, things still wouldn't be that simple.
But that doesn’t mean historiography is pointless. It doesn't mean trying to remember the past is pointless, either. Liu gives many sides to Unit 731 debate, but he makes that much very clear.
I highly encourage you to read The Man Who Ended History. It's well-written, well-researched, and so, so important. It's won a ton of awards, too, if that's incentivizing.
The Man Who Ended History stuck with our book club members long after we finished it. It's hard to stop thinking about.
& that’s not a bad thing.