Sunday, February 27, 2011

*War Trash, by Ha Jin

Vintage International, 2005
Originally published 2004
350 pp.

The Korean War is the background of this novel, a fictional memoir of a former prisoner of war from the (then) fledgling People's Republic of China. Yu Yuan sets forth his narrative as a "gift" for his American grandchildren, and relates the story of his time in a military prison camp and the postwar aftermath.  Neither a CCP member nor a member of the regular army, Yu served in the volunteer army and ended up being captured, put into a POW camp, and at that point discovered that not only was he a captive of the US military, but that he was also at the mercy of his fellow prisoners.  The Nationalists put pressure on many of the mainland Chinese to throw their loyalty toward Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan after their release,  often treating them brutally if they refused or remained on the fence about which side they'd take. He's also aware  that he'll never see his loved ones again if he does this; but worse, he has to "prove" his loyalty to the Communist prisoners.  All Yu really wants to do is to go home and get married, but if he repatriates, he faces the possibility of "denunciations, corporal punishment, prison terms and executions," because of the army's conduct code that declares that death is preferable over capture.  This constant struggle between countries and ideologies is a large part of the story, but not all. Woven into his memoir is the not-so-sterling conduct on the part of his US military captors,  the differences he perceives between rhetoric and reality, his conflicting sense of duty, and much more.

This book has been criticized for its stiffness -- many reviewers found Yu Yuan's narrative to be a bit clunky.  I took it as an author trying to capture an old man's voice, remembering events that happened some 50 years earlier.  My only problem with this book is that it was a bit repetitive in its reflections about the activities of the "struggle" of the Communists that continued in the camps.  Several scenes in the book told of slogan-shouting, prisoner demands, etc., and a few of these probably cut have been eliminated without doing damage to the flow or to the overall story.  But overall, War Trash has a great deal to offer.  One of my favorite scenes is one in which a priest leaves Yu Yuan (who speaks English) a bible which he had asked for to read to improve his English.  Then the priest asks him to translate some hymns into Chinese, and after doing so, Yu questions the priest on the Bible's teachings on equality, noting that all of the prisoners are sinners, but why are they not equal?

People are not treated equally here. The men living at the back are not even given their share of food. And you're one of them?Yes.I'm sorry, but this is the way things should be done.Why?Because most of you are Communists. To me and my God, Communism is evil...I had thought of asking him "Then why do you teach us the hymns that praise the wideness of God's mercy?...My conversation with him upset me profoundly and shattered my illusion that there might be shelter in God's bosom for every person.

One of the strongest attributes of this novel is that through Yu Yuan, multiple perspectives are revealed -- he sees things from the side of the GIs and officers of the US military, the prisoners, and even through the political leaders who are using the prisoners only as pawns in their larger game of propaganda, rather than showing true concern about their welfare.  Ha Jin's writing also evokes a strong sense of place and time, through his descriptions of the natural world and his fictionalized account of real events that occurred during the Korean War.  Throughout the story, Yu Yuan's voice never wavers; he is sort of like the messenger of those who have become caught up in wars or conflicts that they neither understood nor chose to be in. The camps provide Yu with an experience of the best and worst of human nature, regardless of nationality or ideology.

Definitely recommended, and if you haven't yet read his Waiting, you're in for an even better reading experience.


  1. Thanks, Pete! It was such a good book!

  2. War Trash is on my reading list, but I've somehow been dreading to read it. Thanks to your review, I think I'm ready to tackle it soon.

  3. It's actually quite good, and I'll be looking forward to seeing what you think!


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