Review by Craig Dietrich from May 2005 CAFAM Newsletter
Ha Jin, Professor of English at Boston University, is a rare writer who can work successfully in a second language. He learned English as an adult. His novel Waiting won the 1999 National Book Award and the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award, and he has published books of poetry and short stories and won other prizes. War Trash will be his last “Chinese” novel, according to the author.
It is an extraordinary book. As is the case with much recent Chinese fiction, War Trash evokes the Maoist years. But it takes up a forgotten subject, Chinese prisoners of war during the Korean conflict. It is both a novel and a kind of history. As the author says, “This is a work of fiction and all the main characters are fictional. Most of the events and details, however, are factual.”
Ha Jin tells of Chinese combatants held in South Korea. Their interactions with fellow North Korean POWs and with their American, South Korean, and Nationalist Chinese guards constitute a story of loyalty, survival, suffering, and betrayal. They are under great pressure to defect to Taiwan and the fiercely anti-Communist Nationalists. And they are pressed and coerced with equal zeal to stay loyal and repatriate to the Motherland.
How the characters cope with the circumstances of confinement and negotiate the political shoals is the main thread of the book. The great irony is that in the end those who turn their back on home have good chances of thriving. Those who remain loyal to family, nation, and Party are but of momentary symbolic value to the leaders who sent them to fight and die. When they return, they find, not thanks and acclaim, but derision and oppression.
Perhaps, if we think about it at all, we suppose that captured combatants, confined in camps, are neutralized and of little importance. However, as we recently learned from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, prisoners of war have ways of popping into our collective attention. Those who care to think about such things are well served by Ha Jin’s engrossing account of a forgotten chapter in history.