- War Trash
The narrative power of Ha Jin's new novel, War Trash, hinges on the impact of unknown history. The novel purports to be the memoir of a Chinese prisoner taken by the Americans during the Korean War. Written for an American audience, it has nothing to do with America's current situation in the world, yet the horrors of the POW camps it depicts remind us of the horror of all modern armed conflict.
Yu Yuan, the narrator, is an unfortunate "volunteer" in the Chinese army sent across the Yalu River in 1951 to battle the Americans; he is a man of sensitivity and intelligence reduced to survival mode as his army starves on the battlefield and in the prison camps. Yu's ability to speak English accounts for his rising prominence in the Communist army, especially after the Chinese forces are captured.
Ha Jin sometimes violates narrative convention in allowing Yu to narrate key scenes that he couldn't have witnessed. The POW camps prove divided between Nationalist and Communist. Chiang Kai-shek loyalists inducted into the Communist army now dream of repatriat-ing to Free China (Taiwan) and eventually taking back the mainland. [End Page 209] The Nationalists enjoy the support of their American captors. The Nationalists' brutal treatment of the Communists—culminating in a startling scene of murder—seems almost unbelievable, yet it is a matter of history proving stranger than fiction. In an afterward that includes a two-page bibliography, the author assures us that the details are true.
Ha Jin privileges his story with a narrator who's a free thinker—something rare under Chinese Communist rule. As a translator and a political pawn, Yu Yuan is able to shift through the ranks of deadly enemies, caught between extremist ideologues. Not a Party member himself, he wants to return to the mainland to see his mother and his fiancée, who finally abandons him because he is politically suspect.
Shanmin, an illiterate boy whom Yu Yuan tutors, provides a touching aside and perhaps a glimpse of autobiography. Shanmin discovers in himself a self-imposed thirst for knowledge. Ha Jin himself served in the People's Liberation Army at a time when the schools were shut down. He could barely read Chinese as a teenager, but he eventually passed the entrance exams when the universities were reopened. He came to the U.S. to further his studies of American literature and never imagined leaving China permanently until he saw reports of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and realized that he couldn't return to the oppression in his homeland. The early care with which he forced himself to write is evident in every paragraph. His prose is clear and cautious, lovely in its precision, his tone and dialogue somewhat formal, a reflection of character and culture as much as it is a reflection of the writer's efforts and achievements.
Ha Jin, whose fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, won a PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award for his best-selling novel Waiting. His ambitious new book reminds us that history is often best conveyed through one man's story.