Monday, October 11, 2004

past perfect

Ha Jin's latest novel is a solid read, but won't meet readers' high expectations of this writer's work

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2004).

War Trash by Ha Jin. Pantheon $25

A NOVEL LIKE Ha Jin's Waiting, which won the National Book Award in the United States and elicited comparisons with Russian masters Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel, can become a heavy burden on a writer's subsequent work. Though impressive, Ha Jin's fourth book, War Trash, does not meet the same lofty standard.

Set in 1951-53 and written in the form of a memoir by Yu Yuan, a Chinese soldier captured and imprisoned by American troops during the Korean War, the book offers an intriguing view of that conflict. But perhaps because it reads so much like a memoir--the book hinges on Yu Yuan's political development--War Trash lacks the drama needed to make it a successful novel.

Apart from the setting, the story of political disillusionment is well-trodden territory for Chinese authors writing in English. Though Yu Yuan does not begin as a communist, he realizes quickly that he must ally himself with the communist leaders in the prison camp if he is to have any hope of returning to the mainland, rather than emigrating to rival Taiwan. Because he has an elderly mother and a young fiancée waiting for him at home in China, he fights off the overtures of the Nationalists and cooperates with the communist-led agitations at the prison, which include not only hunger strikes and other nonviolent resistance but also the clever capture of the American general in charge of the prison camp.

Yu edges closer and closer to joining the party himself. But his class background as an educated graduate of the formerly Nationalist-run Huangpu Military Academy holds him back. The more he observes the decisions of the camp's party leaders--symbolic struggles to fly the Chinese flag, for example--the more he comes to believe that their faith leaves no room for humanity. "I was ambivalent about the attempt to reseize the flag," Yu reflects. "On the one hand, I admired the courage our men had displayed, and in a way I'd been awestruck by their passion and bravery, which I have to admit I didn't share. On the other, I doubted whether it was worth losing a man's life for the sake of a flag, which, symbolic as it might be, was just a piece of nylon cloth." Making explicit the striking parallel between fervent communism and religious fanaticism, Yu concludes: "I had noted there was a kind of religious fervour in some of these men, who were capable of laying down their lives for an idea."

By the end of the novel, of course, Yu has become a cynic, ready to mouth the party's platitudes if that will get him home--but fully aware that every political machine grinds on without a care for the people who fuel it and even thrives on their destruction. "Without such obliteration of human particularities, how could one fight mercilessly? When a general evaluates the outcome of a battle, he thinks in numbers--how many casualties the enemy has suffered in comparison with the losses of his own army. The larger a victory is, the more people have been turned into numerals. This is the crime of war: It reduces real human beings to abstract numbers."

This passage has resonance today, as the world's collective thinking about political issues again falls victim to the foolish polarity of a theory of a clash of civilizations. But these are not new ideas, nor are they expressed well. All of Ha Jin's books have dealt with modern China's baffling combination of idealism and brutality. But Waiting, and to a lesser extent his other fiction, was remarkable foremost for its understanding of human relationships, not political ones. He captured the sweet tragedy of our frail loves and petty hates with sensitivity and wisdom.

And though he himself once served in the People's Liberation Army and sometimes writes of soldiers, Ha Jin's best stories have, like Chekhov's, always been about love. The chief interest of War Trash, in contrast, is in its value as history. The Chinese prisoners' perspective on the war in Korea and their American captors is not one with which many foreign readers will be familiar, and though the novel's thematic conclusions are thin gruel, the prisoners' machinations make good reading. But these are not the usual pleasures we expect from fiction.

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