POW camp as a microcosm, with its own battles

October 17, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

War Trash, by Ha Jin. Pantheon Books. 352 pages. $25.

You've never read a novel about prisoners of war quite like this one.

With few exceptions, POW fiction up to now has been about unity and cunning, the hatching of clever plots against clueless sentries and evil commandants. There is tunneling and wire-cutting. Secret signals issue from woebegone exiles of "the cooler" or "the oven." Above all, there is camaraderie, as soldiers from all walks of life close ranks to torment the common enemy.

On occasion you'll find some racial tension, a stooge or two, or a bit of cultural abrasion between Brit and Yank, hayseed and city slicker. But the idea of, say, Democrat POWs taking up arms against Republican POWs as they battle to the death inside the barbed wire over who gets to return home would be about as likely as an alien saucer alighting on The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

Yet, from a Chinese perspective, that's pretty much what happens in War Trash, Ha Jin's sometimes plodding but always fascinating fictional memoir of a Chinese soldier held captive in an American POW camp during the Korean War.

Within the fence-lines of War Trash, the captives are more prone to fighting among themselves than against their American and South Korean captors, and almost always save their most savage blows for fellow countrymen as part of the political struggle between the Communists of Mao Tse Tung and the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek.

Both sides want to claim as many soldiers as possible for repatriation -- the Communists to the mainland, and the Nationalists to the offshore island of Taiwan. Caught between these passions is the relatively passionless Yu Yuan, a mainlander but not a Party member who only wants to go home to his mother and his fiance, no matter who's running the show. A one-time trainee of a Nationalist military academy, he nonetheless believes that Chairman Mao's revolution has done some good, an ambivalence that makes both sides seek his allegiance.

While Yu's lack of conviction lends a negating blandness to his narration, it offers the advantages of objectivity. It also puts him in peril. Like a vessel cut adrift in a hazardous strait, he is forever in danger of wrecking upon the shoals of one side or another's outrage.

The Nationalists get hold of him for a while, and try to guarantee his loyalty by branding his chest with an anti-Communist tattoo. When the camp's changing fortunes push him into a Communist barracks, he is peppered with suspicious questions and assigned to dangerous chores that test his loyalty.

Rebels within either fold meet violence. Yu watches in horror as a Nationalist firebrand literally cuts the heart from a Communist who refuses to denounce the Party. As for the other side, Yu observes, "History has shown that the Communists always treat their enemies more leniently than their own people."

Watching all this from the sidelines with a sort of bemused boredom are American sentries. They share some of the Nationalist antipathy for the Communists, and sometimes express it with an almost casual brutality. But the most striking thing about these soldiers of President Truman, as far as Yu is concerned, is that they seem more interested in people than in party, and their actions are determined more by personality than by politics.

Finally, the two sides are separated into different camps, although fate continues to push Yu into one and then the other. Left to their own devices, the Communists at last turn their energies against the enemy from abroad. But even then, their actions tend toward political martyrdom, as with an attempt to secretly make a Chinese flag and then, suicidally, raise and defend it in the face of a lethal American attack.

"Most prisoners got carried away with the plan," Yu says. "Many applied for the shock team and the flag protection group; some even wrote pledges in their own blood; one of the hotheads was so worked up that he broke his little finger in front of others to show his passion to fight this battle."

Within these sharp portraits of zealotry one sometimes detects the blurred framework of a parable for our times. In an age in which patriotic symbols are routinely appropriated to cloak all sorts of dubious causes, Yu's words take on special resonance when he laments the pointlessness of such efforts even as he marvels at the zeal that produces them.

"On the one hand, I admired the courage our men had displayed, and in a way I'd been awe-struck by their passion and bravery, which I have to admit I didn't share. On the other, I doubted whether it was worth losing a man's life for the sake of a flag, which, symbolic as it might be, was just a piece of nylon cloth."

Dan Fesperman is a Sun reporter and a novelist. His most recent book, The Warlord's Son, was published last month.

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