WAR TRASH by Ha Jin (Pantheon), 350 pages, $35 cloth. Rating: NNN
HA JIN interviewed with Janette Turner Hospital by SUSAN G. COLE at the Premiere Dance Theatre, Saturday (October 30). See Authors Fest listings
Sometimes tone is everything. Ha Jin knows that. His faux memoir, War Trash, has that eerily flat sensibility that keeps readers at a distance even when the content is tense and terrifying.
Yu Yuan, the narrator, is a Chinese POW - war trash - during the Korean War. In almost every way, he fails to fit in at any of the prison camps he's sent to, whether they're run by the Koreans, Americans or Taiwanese. Deeply ambivalent, he's a committed socialist but not a Communist party member. He's a university graduate, an intellectual, someone the party doesn't always trust.
More important, he usually speaks English better than everyone around him, which gives him privilege and eventually puts him in critical positions at pivotal moments. It also makes the Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese and Americans suspicious. That's what keeps the story taut.
The political conflicts are fascinating, defined and described in the diarist's even tone; English is, remember, not his first language. A sequence describing the Chinese government's attempts to convince the soldiers to return home, as Taiwanese stand guard, is particularly evocative. Yu is torn again. He wants to return to his mother and fiancée in China, but knows that because he let himself to be captured instead of fighting to the death, he's considered a traitor.
The scenes describing the minutiae of the prisoners' preparations for their theatre performances are amazing depictions of art and triumph in the most bizarrely adverse conditions.
By virtue of its deadpan tone, it's missing some emotional life, but as an experiment in narrative, War Trash is effective and unflinching.