The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #45 (November 7, 2006), page 13 & 20.
Wars inside wars, prisons inside prisons
Ha Jin’s POW story
By Ha Jin
Vintage Books, 2005
Paperback, 350 pages, $14.95
It seems for almost every extreme human drama there’s a special genre of writing on bookstore shelves for those of us too meek, or too lucky, not to have to experience them ourselves. Take scaling Everest, or spooking around behind the Iron Curtain. Better someone else report on it. Prison writing — someone else’s — easily falls into that kind of category. Birdman of Alcatraz comes to mind, as does Henri Charrière’s Papillion. Probably the ugliest accounts of institutional dehumanization in Western literature are prisoner-of-war stories; worse still are death-camp narratives such as Viktor E. Frankl’s grim account of his years at Auschwitz — when and where hellish social norms empty the place of nearly all indices of human dignity.
Take Abu Ghraib.
War Trash, by National Book Award-winning author Ha Jin, steps precisely into that awful place. His tale begins in Atlanta, Georgia, where road-weary protagonist Yu Yuan is playing distractedly with his granddaughter, but then his story quickly restarts in Mao Zedong’s 1949 China. The book’s thick middle is a journal-like rendering of the years 1951 to 1953 in icy, divided, and warring Korea. In POW camps.
The war between the "Chinese People’s Volunteers" and Communist North Korea on one side, and the "Imperialist United States" and its running-dog (United Nations) allies on the other, is over for Yu Yuan. Another just-as-mortal war rages, lulls, and rages again inside his camp’s barbed wire, among the "war trash."
Prisoners’ individual and collective lives are of course not on ice, simply removing men from the main stage, whether that’s civil society or organized war, does not end human drama. Norms and roles distort, stakes become extreme, but most human enterprise rolls on with an intensity that could be dark comedy were it not such an intensely driven tragedy. Losers, engaged in an absurd race to ruin. Trash warring.
POW Yu Yuan has to survive his war wounds and his American captors, and he has to survive ferociously opposing POW factions. Chinese captives must commit early and publicly to be shipped either to "Red" or "Free" China when the war outside ends. Ideology is everything.
POW camp enforcers and executioners make Chinese politics everybody’s business. Yu Yuan perfects a mildly acceptable identity to all sides, but in truth he is not interested in Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek or Chairman Mao Zedong; he simply longs to return to his needy mother and lovely fiancée. Yu Yuan wants to be home.
Even Sunday mornings have huge stakes. Praying in Chinese with Methodist Father Hu would be taken as siding with the pro-Nationalists, so Yu Yuan goes to American Father Woodworth’s Catholic service, as much to practice English as to talk to God. He soon regrets his move. Father Woodworth explains to Yuan that church-attending Chinese are entitled to better beds and more food because "to me and my God, Communism is evil." Yuan has inadvertently stepped on to an escalator from grave politics to holy war.
"But most of us are not Communists at all," Yuan answers innocently, stupidly. "We stay with them mainly because we want to go home. As sons, we have our duty to our parents. Some men are husbands and fathers and ought to return to their families."
"I understand it’s a tough choice," Father Woodworth grimaces, "but life is full of choices … you should know there are different kinds of duties. The highest is your duty to God and to your own soul."
While American captors and Chinese captives, pro-Communists and pro-Nationalists, Christians and non, and a dozen more camps shoving for big politics and little privileges, some petty, all deadly, torment each other day and night, year in, year out, Yuan wants only to get along and get out of prison someday soon.
How Ha Jin works
And herein lies the magic of Ha Jin’s deceptively simple prose and rhythm. POW Yuan Yu is always just a little removed from his human environment. He is a quiet thinker, a bit slow to move, almost always marginalized by his mindfulness and his aloneness. Ha Jin and his main men are sincere, some would say naïve — no matter, it works. Like post-war European existentialist writers, the author and his protagonist are parked slightly off life’s shoulder. But unlike the Western pause, their alienation is less angry, perhaps more sentimental. Yu Yuan’s compromises are not cynical; they are often impulsive, always hopeful.
It all works so well that Ha Jin’s characters’ survival has earned him a 1999 National Book Award and a Flannery O’Connor Award, a 2000 PEN/Hemingway, and a 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award for War Trash, all of them written since he arrived in America, all of them written in his second language. Seemingly simple English turns supple in his hand. Whatever linguistic limitations Ha Jin humbly confesses don’t seem to interfere with his precise human portraiture. In fact, his minimalism makes our emotional connection even tighter.
And this, as much as telling a terrific tale, is the treasure of War Trash.