War Trash by Ha Jin is a conventionally written fictional memoir that begins by detailing the involvement of Communist Chinese troops in the Korean war--as experienced by the narrator, Yu Yuan, who is not a party member--and then becomes a captivity narrative when Yu Yuan and thousands of fellow soldiers are taken prisoner by U.S.-led U. N. forces.
I found this novel to be interesting chiefly because of its point of view. The horrors of war recounted here are unfortunately commonplace and the situation in which the Chinese prisoners of war find themselves is commonplace, too. That doesn’t mean they aren’t shocking. They are. It just means war tends to be war, and being captured and brutalized tends to be pretty much the same everywhere.
The one difference between this story and something by Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn is the constant and effective pressure exerted on Yu Yuan and others by the resourceful Communist Party leadership that stages various revolts and demonstrations during the captivity period.
These Chinese soldiers, party members or not, don’t fall out with one another as often or as violently as is typical in other literatures. There’s fear, obedience, control, and ingenuity, but all of it revolves around fundamental Marxist-Leninist-Maoist doctrine. Yu Yuan has a simple style of relating how this works and manifests a kind of human solidarity with his fellow captives without, until the end of the novel, revealing the cynicism and betrayal the Party leaders have in mind.
That’s what makes this book oddly compelling. The naiveté of Yu Yuan’s tale has to be overshadowed by what his readers must all know by the time he writes the last lines of his memoir: Mao Zedong was an arrogant, heartless, brutal giant whose pitiless leadership brought about as much wreckage as achievement.
Those of us reading War Trash today know this. That’s undoubtedly part of what Ha Jin wants to capitalize on--our fuller sense of history. But at the same time Ha Jin succeeds in humanizing Mao’s pawns in the Korean War and making them seem, by and large, dignified, stoic, and generally caring individuals. This isn’t commonplace, not in the least, and Ha Jin deserves great credit for expressing the Chinese soldier’s viewpoint before letting China’s ultimately cynical Party perspective crush so many of the book’s minor heroes and protagonists.
The Korean War, known widely in the U.S. as “the forgotten war,” was an early example of superpower conflict. Korea, in comparison to Japan, for instance, wasn’t of great strategic importance, but it did have symbolic political significance, and the contrast today between North and South Korea bears that out, justifying some of the sacrifices made. The North is a nightmare state. The South is a kind of boom state. A woman has just been elected president of South Korea. Yes, her father was once South Korea’s most notable dictators, but her triumph, set against the quasi-aristocratic succession of dictatorial rulers in North Korea, is a great one.
In this context, Ha Jin slips in with his fictional account of the beginning of the North/South division. This is an unpretentious novel, but it well-written, unfortunately quite accurate, and worth reading.
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