Called the "forgotten war" by at least one of its chroniclers, the Korean War had consequences that are rather more difficult to forget: a hostile and impoverished North Korea run by a pudgy dictator, and one of the largest concentrations of American soldiers abroad. But in his new novel War Trash, award-winning author Ha Jin has chosen to focus on an even less-remembered aspect of that war: Chinese POWs faced with the choice between repatriation and resettlement in "Free China," aka Taiwan.
Ha Jin presents War Trash as the memoir of Yu Yuan, a Chinese officer. As an English-speaking intellectual and graduate of the Nationalists' famed Huangpu Military Academy, Yuan fears reprisals from the Communists. But China is Yuan's home, and home also to his fiancÅ½e and long-suffering mother. Ha Jin makes the point that well after China's war with itself concluded in 1949, the war continued to divide families and friends.
Much of the novel takes place in POW camps administered by Americans as dubious of the war's aims as were their Chinese adversaries, who believed that their invasion of Korea was intended to preserve China's territorial integrity. At times War Trash reads like "Ha Jin's Heroes" for its depiction of the various schemes the POWs employ to harass their American captors, sometimes with comic effect. And while the Americans were not unknown to torture their inmates (giving lie to the surprisingly prevalent notion that Abu Ghraib was unprecedented), Ha Jin concedes that "the Chinese and Koreans were much more expert" in "the art of inflicting pain."In previous works like Waiting, which won the National Book Award, Ha Jin tended to view history as an ocean upon which individuals bob like abject buoys; in War Trash, a mood of resignation likewise prevails, reflected in simple, nonjudgmental and unsentimental prose. War Trash may not be his best novel, but it confirms Ha Jin's dedication to telling the stories obscured by statisticians or the evening news. Kenneth Champeon is a regular contributor to ThingsAsian.com.