One of the cliches you hear about the Korean War in the early 1950s is that it is the "forgotten war." I hardly think it is that, since the Korean peninsula a half century later remains one of the flash points of world geopolitics, and its northern half is one of the last holdouts of the fanatical cult of personality that emerged from Stalinist communism. No, the Korean War is anything but forgotten, but it may be truer to say that it is not really known. So much of what happened in that war on the North Korean and Chinese sides is as invisible to us as the far side of the moon, and not until archives are open in those countries are we likely to know the full story.
Since bursting onto the scene of American letters in 1996 with "Ocean of Words," Ha Jin has been our most ardent witness to the nightmare world of Chinese Communism, and the furious implacability of his literary output resembles a coiled spring that is still unwinding. His new novel, "War Trash," is his seventh work of fiction in eight years, in addition to three books of poetry.
Ha Jin came to America in 1985 to study at Brandeis University and finished a doctoral degree in the field of poetry and poetics in 1993. But the massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 had convinced him that he could not return to China and that, moreover, to write truthfully about his homeland he would have to write in English. (His books are still not available in China.) Ironically, he had taught himself English while working as a railroad telegrapher in Jiamusi, a remote frontier city, hoping that one day he could read Friedrich Engels' "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844" in the English original.
"War Trash" is about the horrible fate of the Chinese soldiers who were sent into Korea in "human wave" assaults against the vastly superior firepower of the United Nations troops. China lost as many as 900,000 soldiers during the two and a half years of its involvement in the war, and some 65,000 soldiers alone in the "May Massacre" of 1951.
It is that massacre and its aftermath that figures in Ha Jin's "War Trash," a novel about the sacrifices of Chinese soldiers in war and in American-run prison camps on Koje and Cheju Islands. Ha Jin's hero, Yu Yuan, has the rare fortune of surviving the slaughter of his unit and is doubly fortunate to be self-taught in English, so that when he and others, including the fanatical Commander Pei, find themselves in a prison camp, his English makes him valuable to both sides.
Though this book is livid with the horrors of war, it is more centrally about the Orwellian world of revolutionary fanaticism, including the delusions of its martyrs and the cynicism of the leadership. There may be gruesome deaths on virtually every page of this book, but far more important to Ha Jin is the din of ideological assault on soldiers, in battle and in prison.
In the POW camp, the great battle is over repatriation: which Chinese troops wish to return home after the war and which prefer to be sent to Nationalist Taiwan, which is now in the hands of Chiang Kai-shek.
The Chinese are divided, and in the camps there is bitter conflict between the Communists and the Nationalists. Yu Yuan is not a Communist, but he has a fiancee and an ailing mother at home, and out of duty wants to return home. But he finds himself in a tug of war between the Communists and the Nationalists, the latter of whom warn that POWs returning to China will find themselves condemned as traitors for having surrendered and will be asked, "Why didn't you kill yourself to keep you honor intact?"
As we know from news out of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, POW camps are anything but rest homes, and POW life proves eventful, including the murder of Communist prisoners by Nationalists and even a revolt on Koje Island that involves the kidnapping of an American officer by Chinese POWs.
This actually happened. As a result, American tanks assault the POW compound and many dozens of prisoners die -- are "martyred" as Commander Pei would say.
Yu Yuan's most desperate realization, however, is that nobody wants him and his fellow prisoners, that they are "war trash" who may have propaganda value but are otherwise the despised survivors of war. Injured and crippled, their morale entirely gone, "No country would want these men, who were mere war trash and had no choice but to go back to China, where they still had their families."
"War Trash" is a difficult book to read. Part of that difficulty is the page-by-page cruelty of its subject, which is recited in a style of flat documentary realism. Ha Jin lists at the end some two dozen books that aided him in his research, and "War Trash" often reads as a novelized documentary.
Yu Yuan seldom comes alive as more than a witness to history, though the book may be deeply personal to Ha Jin himself, who dedicates the book to his father, "a veteran of the Korean War."
As a novel, "War Trash" may be short on the pleasures of subjectivity that we require of fiction, but as history it is both terrifying and absorbing.
By Ha Jin
Pantheon, 352 pages, $25
Mark Shechner is a frequent News book reviewer.