In the prologue to War Trash, Ha Jin compels readers to join him in a fictionalized memoir that traces a man’s prisoner-of-war experiences. We meet Yu Yuan, an elderly Chinese, when he is beginning his memoir during a visit to the United States with his family. He reveals his constant anxiety over an obscene tattoo emblazoned on his belly. What happens with that tattoo becomes a metaphor for the tangled, agonizing decisions Yuan had to make as a POW.
In 1951, Communist China sends so-called volunteer soldiers to support North Korea. The troops are called “volunteers” to distinguish them from China’s regular army and thereby avoid a direct confrontation with the United States. Yuan is one of these volunteers, and is captured and placed in a POW camp.
Though the camp is guarded by Americans and Koreans, Chinese political factions dominate behind the barbed wire. Between nationalists and communists (still reeling from the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949) tensions remain high, and the prison camp becomes a microcosm of the greater political struggle. Both factions use violence to coerce the detainees to repatriate with them—to Taiwan if they side with the nationalists, and to China if they side with the communists. In a particularly grisly scene, a prisoner is disemboweled when he refuses to succumb to the nationalists. Well-educated and fluent in English, Yuan is useful to both sides. Yet he is apolitical and somewhat passive—he simply wishes to return to his widowed mother and his fiancée in China. To do so, he must choose the communists and outwit the nationalists. It’s a decision fraught with peril.
Ha Jin includes long stretches of detailed narrative, lending the book authenticity and inducing a sense of claustrophobia. Like the despairing Yuan who yearns to return home, so the reader longs to leave the confines of his prison. In the hands of another writer, the reader might well put the book down. But Ha Jin is a masterful storyteller who deliberately keeps the reader in suspense about where Yuan will choose to go.
Yuan is a sympathetic, thoughtful, and ordinary man whose plight is the universal story of every combatant mired in a conflict not of his choosing. Told through Yuan’s unassuming voice, War Trash is a quiet book grappling with the big issues that emerge in war. Set 50 years ago, during America ‘s “Forgotten War,” it is particularly potent now, as we wage another war and reports of torture and mistreatment of prisoners emerge again.
Reviewed by Sara Campos