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Friday, June 24, 2005

Book Reviews

Recycled Lives

War Trash by Ha Jin. Pantheon Books, New York, 2004, 368 pages, $25.


Courtesy of Pantheon Books
In light of the reports during the last few years by the media and human-rights organizations about torture, inhumane conditions, and other violations of human rights in American military prisons and detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba, one becomes increasingly conscious of the possibility that these places and practices are not isolated incidents but rather the direct result of a broader political sphere in which human rights no longer account for anything. In the avalanche of statistics, body counts, leaked documents, and other so-called objective data, what seems to be missing is the individual story or voice of the victim. In other words, there is the real danger that a phrase like “human rights” has become so abstract that it no longer holds any real meaning.

Literature presents one alternative to the objectified historical record. Because it puts a face on personal suffering, one turns to historical fiction or fictionalized memoir in order to meaningfully approach and try to understand those who are victimized. We turn to literature to learn about moral perspectives, or to hear the voices of those who have been stripped of their humanity and of their right to be heard. We turn to fictional narratives because, in their own way, they become allegories of individual suffering, victimization, and dehumanization. In the specificity of experience (each person’s story as unique and non-repeatable), literature presents us with the responsible representation of the impressions, emotions, reactions, and experiences of those who have suffered, reminding us of the actual human beings who embody (or should embody) those certain general rights that are presumably universal.

Ha Jin’s latest novel, War Trash, begins with a prologue about the history of the tattoo below the narrator’s navel:

Below my navel stretches a long tattoo that says “FUCK…U…S…” The skin above those dots has shriveled as though scarred by burns. Like a talisman, the tattoo has protected me in China for almost five decades. Before coming to the States, I wondered whether I should have it removed. I decided not to, not because I cherished it or was nervous about the surgery, but because if I had done that, word would have spread and the authorities, suspecting I wouldn’t return, might have revoked my passport. (p. 3)

The tattoo on the narrator’s body is emblematic of the character’s life: an open and permanent wound, a site of memory that reflects on the narrator’s experience of the Korean War and more specifically on his life as a prisoner of war in American and South Korean military camps between 1951 and 1953. The tattoo’s original inscription, “FUCK COMMUNISM,” which is transformed into “FUCK…U…S…” during his stay in the camp, becomes a passport that allows the narrator to travel between past and present. It is a traumatic reminder of his past that has shaped and affected his life forever. At the same time, the tattoo’s message literally allows the narrator to negotiate between the pro-nationalist supporters of the regime of Jiang Jieshi (better known as Chiang Kai-shek ) and the communist prisoners, and ultimately to survive the camps and later Mao Zedong’s China.

Ha Jin—whose previous work includes the National Book Award-winning novel Waiting—presents us with the story of a 73-year-old Chinese man through his memoir of his earlier days as a Chinese army officer sent to Korea to fight on the side of the North Koreans. Most of the narrative consists of Yu Yuan’s life as a POW following his arrest by the American military, and his constant struggle to situate and identify himself not only within the specific boundaries of the camp, but also within the larger historical conflict of which he is a part:

I had placed my fate with the Communists, but would they ever trust me? To them I had always been a marked man with a problematic past….However, I wasn’t applying for Communist Party membership….There was no reason for them to reject me. On second thought, I wondered why I was so eager to seek their approval. Why worry so much about joining that organization? Perhaps I dreaded isolation and had to depend on a group to feel secure. Why couldn’t I remain alone without following anyone else? One should rely on nobody but oneself….No. If I mean to return to China, I have to take part in the pro-Communist activities; otherwise I’ll cause more trouble for myself. (p. 123)

Yu Yuan’s daily life is about his desperate attempt to physically and psychologically survive the camp experience by negotiating the constant conflicts between the Americans and the Chinese prisoners, and by positioning himself with respect to the division in the camp within the Chinese prison population. The title of the story, War Trash, refers to the condition to which the captors try to reduce their prisoners in order to deprive them of their humanity, identity, initiative, and will to resist. This condition can only be achieved through systematic manipulation, torture, and beatings by the other inmates or the authorities.

In the art of inflicting pain, the Chinese and the Koreans were much more expert than the Americans. When GIs beat you, they would kick and hit you, and they would break your ribs or smash your face, but they seldom tortured you in an elaborate way. This isn’t to say that they were not cruel. They did burn some inmates with cigarettes and even tied a man up with electric wire and then cranked a generator. But the Chinese prisoners, especially some of the pro-Nationalist men, were masterful in corporal punishment and even took great pleasure in inflicting pain on others….In contrast to the pro-Nationalists, the Communists were less creative and more blunt. If you were in their way, they either beat you half to death to teach a lesson or just killed you. (p. 86)

Yu Yuan’s story is a reflection and understanding of life and of the human condition behind barbed wire. The narrative is notable for its clarity and sometimes stoic observance of a particular experience.

The entire story is structured around Yu Yuan’s experience of the war and the camps as if his entire life has been haunted and shadowed by it. Although the narrator refers to other events of his after-camp life in Mao’s China, his experience of the Korean War reflects and points to this particular moment in Chinese and world history. In other words, his life after his release from the POW camp and return to China only repeats his experience in the camp. It is life in the camps that provides the narrator with invaluable lessons about life in general: “The less you met the enemy individually, the safer your future was likely to be. When we returned to China, every one of us might face the problem of clearing himself. As long as you have stayed with your comrades constantly, you might avoid the party’s suspicion, because your fellow inmates could testify to your activities in the camp” (p. 280). This is, of course, a lesson that the narrator learned in the camps. This is the story of the prisoners, “a batch of lost souls,” the narrator informs us, “whose fate the outside world seemed no longer to care about. ‘This is worse than Siberia, where at least some people would go visit,’ I often said to myself. If only we could know what was in store for us. If only there were a radio set with which we could hear news” (p. 246). The narrator not only suffers physical and emotional deprivation but is also caught in the middle of ideological and political conflicts within the prison population. The narrator must constantly present a different face or conceal his “true” identity in order to survive. In the end, it is not surprising that he feels homeless: “Why am I always alone? When can I feel at home somewhere?” (p. 305)—a condition that the narrator suggests will accompany him for the rest of his life.

But there are also moments of the unexpected, moments that point to the absurdity and mystery of life itself. We read about Shanmin, a 16-year-old illiterate prisoner that the narrator helped to educate, who goes on to write a play that,

…was staged in our compound and was well received. It would be inaccurate to say that the war and imprisonment ruined this boy, as they did destroy millions of lives. His was an exceptional case. He flourished in the camp. How mysterious, tenacious, and miraculous life could be! If Shanmin had stayed home, he might not have had the opportunity to learn how to read and do sums, and might have had to work the fields to help his parents raise his siblings, or might have gone begging from town to town. But in this prison he thrived and even got some education, which helped him grow into a capable man eventually. (p. 216)

The form of the narrative is documentary-like and oriented toward paradigmatic events and persons that become indicative of the narrator’s private and collective experience. Often it is quite clear in the story that the narrator is obsessed with documenting or making a precise record of his experience, which he justifies in the name of historical authenticity and testimony. As he informs us at the end of his prologue:

I’m going to tell my story in a documentary manner so as to preserve historical accuracy. I hope that someday Candie and Bobby [his grandchildren] and their parents will read these pages so that they can feel the full weight of the tattoo on my belly. I regard this memoir as the only gift a poor man like me can bequeath his American grandchildren (p. 5)

It is through this documentary narrative that the author is able to expose us to the diverse social, material, and ideological conditions that constitute and determine the historical reality of the novel, presenting us with a microcosmic reflection (that is, life in the camp) of real history. The camp, after all, is a political space of its own. Without neglecting or repressing the historical specificity of the narrative’s temporal frame, however, the novel ultimately becomes an allegory of our own time. In writing for those who have been prisoners of war, who have been tortured and seen their human rights violated, the novel presents us with a general moral crisis. In its own way, it offers the reader a sense of closeness and proximity, of personalization, that is missing from today’s accounts or reports on the condition in various US prison camps. Everything in our modern media is presented to us from a distance, and in relative safety. What is missing, of course, what we are not allowed to witness, is the “personalization” of the event(s) or the characters who are caught in it (them). In other words, the novel, on one hand, opens a historical space of representation through its own manner of documentation; on the other hand, through the main character’s experience, it creates a specific literary space of representation that personalizes history. Both as literary space and despite it, therefore, the narrative becomes the stage in which individual actions and agency are presented. The story of Yu Yuan’s experience is a story about how his life and humanity are affected by the war and the camps. It is a story of personal suffering and psychological homelessness, a story of the individual victim, which has often been repressed, downplayed, or ignored by historiography or by dominant political discourses of representation.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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