When one considers the émigré writers who have adopted English as the instrument of their craft, one commonly thinks of such luminaries as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. One may soon be adding Ha Jin to that constellation. Although Jin does not indulge in the verbal pyrotechnics of Nabokov or the narratives-within-narratives of Conrad, his unblinkingly lucid prose searches with a steady brilliance and profound compassion into the dark corners of the human psyche and the societal polity.
Having emigrated to the United States in 1985, Jin has since published more than a half dozen highly acclaimed works of fiction, including Waiting (1999), which won the National Book Award. War Trash is indeed a worthy addition to his impressive repertoire. Like Jin's other fictions, War Trash centers on a protagonist from mainland China, although it departs from its predecessors by placing its action in Korea. The time of the novel is the 1950's, and the Korean War is raging. The novel's protagonist is a Chinese soldier captured and held in U.S. and U.N. prisoner of war (POW) camps. The narrator-protagonist provides a forthright, unadorned account of his experience, so seemingly factual that the reader has the illusion of confronting a nonfiction work. The effect is akin to reading Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963). Jin's novel is realism at its very best.
In the novel's prologue, Jin piques his reader's curiosity by raising two questions about his narrator. This seventy-three-year-old man from Communist China is writing his memoir while visiting his Chinese American son's family in Atlanta, and he is worried about the anti-American tattoo on his belly. He is worried that at a moment of heightened security concerns, he might be strip-searched at the airport and denied future access to his American family. The reader naturally wonders about the tattoo's provenance.
The other curiosity is this man's deep respect for doctors and his desire that his grandchild should become a doctor—not for the usual financial and social reasons but because he feels that “medicine is a noble, humane profession…. Doctors …follow a different set of ethics which enables them to transcend political nonsense and man-made enmity and to act with compassion and human decency.” Germane to both questions is the problem of “political nonsense and man-made enmity,” of the absurd and of hate, a problem that finds its most lethal manifestation in war.
The warrior of Jin's novel is its narrator-protagonist, Yu Yuan, and the body of the book, a memoir of the wartime of his youth, explicates this problem. Yu's memoir begins in 1949. The forces of Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong have wrested control of mainland China away from the Nationalist (Kuomintang) General Chiang Kai-shek, who has retreated to the island of Taiwan. Yu is a cadet at Huangpu (Whampoa) Academy, China's equivalent of West Point, whose commandant had been General Chiang himself. When the Nationalists retreat, Yu remains in mainland China and is absorbed into the Chinese People's Liberation Army as a young officer. Very much a proper Chinese man, Yu puts his family first, and he plans to care for his aging mother and marry his choreographer fiancé.
In 1951, however, the Korean War breaks out, and Yu, like the rest of the Chinese army, is “volunteered” to fight in it. These Chinese People's Volunteers (so-called because China is not officially at war) are ill-equipped, poorly supplied, devoid of air cover, and fragmented in their communication. After crossing the Yalu River into Korea, they suffer horrendous casualties. The men are considered expendable; they are war trash, useful for some political design which they do not comprehend. Yu's unit is soon decimated, and Yu fractures a thigh and is captured by the Americans. He and the handful of wounded survivors are taken to a military hospital at Pusan, South Korea. There his leg is saved from amputation by an American Army major, Dr. Greene.
This doctor astonishes Yu and shatters several stereotypes he holds. This skillful, dedicated doctor who commands many men is a mere woman. This doctor wearing his enemy's uniform exhausts herself to save his leg. This supposedly ignorant American speaks fluent Chinese. (Her parents had been missionaries in China.) Yu realizes that in Dr. Greene's eyes, suffering wears no uniforms, and through her eyes, Yu begins to glimpse a commonality of unaccommodated humanity that transcends race, gender, nationality, political ideology. This encounter with Dr. Greene is at the root of Yu's desire, fifty years later,...