Ha Jin (金雪飞)
War Trash (2004)
Winner of the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award
Part 1. Quick Facts about War Trash
The author: Ha Jin (Jin Xuefei, 1956 - ) left his native China in 1985 and now lives in Boston area. When he was fourteen he lied about his age and joined the Chinese People's Liberation Army. His is the author of the internationally bestselling novel Waiting, which won the PEN / Faulkner Award and the National Book Award; three prize-winning story collections; the novels The Crazed and In the Pond; and War Trash, which won the PEN / Faulkner Award in 2005. He is a professor of English at Boston University.
Plot Summary: www.answers.com/topic/war-trash
My version: The story is Yu Yuan's memoir of his army life, who is a Huangpu Military Academy cadet who joined the People's Volunteer Army to fight the Americans in Korea. He left behind in his hometown his mother and his fiancee. Not long after the army entered South Korea, Yu's division was reduced to no more than a dozen people and he was captured. His command of English enabled him to work in POW (prison of war) camps as an interpreter, a half-official figure, which saved him from the fate of cannon fodder. Since pro-Nationalists far outnumbered pro-Communists in POW camps, those who were determined to return to mainland China had to "struggle" to survive stunning atrocity inflicted by pro-Nationalist leaders of the camps. However, things turned worse and worse and Yu had to agree to go to Taiwan with pro-Nationalists to survive. After several twists and turns of events, Yu finally could repatriate at the final session of Communist persuasion. Communist POWs returned, only to find themselves labeled as "cowards" and "criminals" because they survived indecently. Yu's mother died during the war, and his fiancee refused to marry a "disgraced captive." Many of Yu's fellows were thrown to the bottom of the society, though he was lucky to avoid harsh punishment because he was not a Party member, and was assigned a job as a teacher in a middle school, and later married one of his colleagues.
Part 2. A fiction which is "factual"
The author claims in "Author's Note" that althouth "this is a work of fiction and all the main characters are fictional, most of the events and details are factual." And he lists more than 20 books from which he draws the materal. The very statement that a fiction could be factual arouses questions, and "factual" is even more real than "realistic". And how could fictional characters do "factual" things? So it is here that we do find problems.
Part 2-1. The unbelievable superman narrator
Apparently, the author uses fictional characters to "string together" factual events and try to make them into a cohesive story. Since he draws the material from a relatively large number of sources, he has to condense the myriad of characters as recorded in and reflected from the material into his characters, which are a few. To make less trouble around characters and focus more on events and to make these events sound more factual, the author lets a character relate the story as he experiences it, instead of setting an omniscient narrator observing aside. And this has its own problems because a character-narrator cannot know everything about the story. Such a narrator, to present a story as "factual", has to, first, know every part of the story well, and, second, make impartial judgements on it. But the narrator in the story is a mere soldier who has intimate contact only with his immediate higher-up, how can he know the whole picture of the war, or, less ambitious, the part of the war concerning POWs except for his own speculation on events done by and intentions of who's higher than his higher-ups?
Being a memoir, the narration is unavoidably mixed with after-knowledge and afterthoughts, which is reasonable. Some of the speculations afterwards help build the "factuality" of the story, and I take them in and believe them. My doubts mainly rest on the narrator as he himself presents in the narration, although it is clear the author has to make him this way in order to let him present the story impartially.
From the beginning we have the narrator with superb composure, who is "going to tell the story in a documentary manner so as to preserve historical accuracy". Then, we find him presenting himself at the front as self-possessed as he is telling the story. A superman soldier who always remains conscious, remains lucky to be among the last ones shot or hurt, the last ones who faint or black out, he is designed by the author to observe more and tell more. And to tell them as "facts", he always maintains a super mind, quick-witted to analyze whatever happens to them -- more than merely see or hear. The very fact -- as presented by himself -- that he is never scared by the horror of the war and can remember much more than fragmentary details is simply unbelievable. Yu Yuan's behavior at the front is rendered more unbelievable when he becomes a normal human being who often blacks out and screams during operations on his wounds.
More amazing is his mental power and intellectual strength during his two-year stay at various POW camps. Yu Yuan is always able to analyse his situation and never loses his mind or has any emotional outbursts. It is true that his job as an interpreter and newspaper information collector allows him to train his mind when illiterate captives idle away, but some of his thoughts are still too amazing to believe. I am totally unconvinced by one episode in which he begins pondering on whether the poems, songs and plays (skits) written and staged by captives themselves are "real art". Though he had a highly-intellectual schooling before the war (his fiancee is also a student of fine arts) and he keeps a good mind at the camps, though he doesn't mix well with other captives (another point of doubt I'll analyse below) and doesn't share their thoughts and enthusiasm in self-made fun, that the real quality of "art" becomes his food for thought is something too far away, because there's nothing he could relate with "art" in the prison camps.
Yu's relationship with other POWs is doubtful, too. Although he keeps a low profile and doesn't mix with others subjectively, the fact that others do not come to bother him is beyond my understanding. The author keeps saying that intellectuals are among the minority and thus are not talked to often. But, being a half-official who knows more about the situation than common captives and lives together with them, it is improbable that, when an unknown change is coming, people will not ask him for information. According to the narrator, he himself is rarely cared about by others. He is not even invited to write lyrics for songs or plays -- activities which need an intellectual. Whenever the captives do anything, they seem to forget about him totally. This is undoubtedly the author's design, too, because the uninvolvement facilitates the narrator's role as an impartial observer.
In short, in order to present the story as "factual" as possible, the author fails to build a convincing main character. And I'll return to this point later.
Part 2-2. The narration
The narrator claims that he is "going to tell the story in a documentary manner", which he tries to achieve with (1) emotional restraint, (2) curt, direct sentences, (3) a focus on facts. The third point comprises two parts: (3-1) bare relation of facts and (3-2) careful reasoning conducted to elucidate facts he cannot observe by himself. Unfortunately, like every instance of reasoning aimed at elucidating facts, the narrator can never be fully impartial. This, indeed, makes the story more human than a real document, but it also defies the narrator's attempt of being documentary. From these partialities rise more of my doubts, mainly about the narrator's mind, which I shall deal with below, and the author's intent, which I'll talk about in Part 3.
The narrator, if he really tries to be impartial, tries only to touch on his patriotism when he slides to disbelieve Communism at an alarming speed. The point is, soon after being captured, he maintains his love for his motherland, but comes to disbelieve in Communism. I have no doubts about his patriotism, but the radical shift of thought alarms me. In one instance still in the first 1/3 of the story, one of his few friends is executed in the prison camp and the narrator has one of his rare emotional outbursts. He never suspects whether his friend has commited any wrong-doings and comes straight to accuse Party leaders of arbitrary killing. In a matter that involves two parties, only a firm believer in one could accuse the other without any hesitation. In such a case where the two parties are unequal, it needs a firm disbeliever in the higher one to insist unblinkingly on the justness of the lower one. In this case where the higher party is not supposed to be offended, our narrator is risking his life pleading for his friend while defying the rulers' judgement, an unlikely deed considering that he craves for survival throughout.
Some of his thoughts betray the narrator's -- or rather the author's -- political stance. It could be that the older narrator fuses his after-thoughts into the narration which he tries to make "documentary", but there're at times instances so oddly projected that I cannot help reading political implication into it. At the end of Chapter 3 when Yu Yuan is finally captured by the Americans, he issues a long string of questions about why the Americans would take the trouble of keeping him alive instead of killing him. He cannot answer them himself. Later when Yu Yuan has such strings of questions, he usually answers them with his own reasoning -- which only makes the first of such strings stand out because of its length and unanswered status. The reader is thus led to ponder over this question of Chinese' and Americans' attitude towards life and death, and when he/she finishes this novel, the question is answered; at the same time, a different impression on both parties is imprinted.
So however hard the narrator tries, the perfectly factual status of the narration is not reached -- perhaps on purpose.
Part 2-3. The Language: Chinese words in English disguise
The narrator specifically points out in the Prologue that he is "going to do it in English", without telling the reader why. Yet it is indeed a question worth asking: why does a Chinese veteran want to write a memoir in a language most of his compatriats cannot understand? After reading through the novel, another question has to be raised: why does he write in such awkward English that seems to be directly translated from Chinese?
I shall deal with the two questions later, and here I'll simply illustrate how awkward the language is and how it works. In Part 2-2 I mentioned "curt, direct sentences" as an instrument to achieve the documentary manner of narration. However, when this is applied to proper nouns and fixed sayings every Chinese is familiar with in their Chinese versions, the language is funny and awkward in a way that only those bilingual in Chinese and English can perceive. Random picks (since I didn't make notes, I cannot check up the exact location of the following examples):
"American imperialists and their Korean running dogs"——美帝国主义和他们的朝鲜走狗 (here "Korea" refers to South Korea)
"Even if you kill me, I won't bathe myself. Hit me, yes come on, see if your granddad will ever use this bath!"——“你们就是杀了我，我也不洗。打我啊，来啊，看看你爷爷我到底会不会用这盆水！”
"Drink up!" urged one voice.
"Yes, down it like a man."
—— No translation needed here.
"Comrades, today is our National Day, a sacred day celebrated throughout our motherland. So we're going to join our people back home to celebrate our country's third anniversary, and also to show the enemy our indomitable spirit. Come what may, our national flag must fly high in this prison camp, and we shall fight our last breath to defend it. Also keep in mind that our flag bears the color of the Revolutionary Martyrs' blood. We must protect the purity of the flag and never let it lose color in our hands ..."
"How could cowards carry on the struggle against our enemy? ... So you have no merit to talk about and must confess your wrongdoings and crimes."
And the lyric of a song upon which Yu Yuan ponders over the question of what art is:
Red flags fly high on October 1. / Our comrades' blood bears out / The American imperialsts' crimes. / However brutal the enemies are, / We shall be more resolute. / Our hands can stop their bayonets / And stones can block their bullets. / Shoulder to shoulder we form a bastion / To defend our national flag / And fight the savage foe. / Our hatred is redoubled - / The debt of blood must be paid in blood. / The evil American imperialists / Cannot escape the hands of justice. / We sons of the new China / Shall make our deeds known to the world / And keep our flags flying for good. / Rest in peace, our brave martyrs. / You will always live in our hearts.
Those who understand no Chinese, no doubt, will have difficulty fully understanding this type of English, as an Amazon reviewer says:
Although Ha Jin writes in English, it is apparent from page one that he is a Chinese writer. His writing is similar in form to other popular Chinese writers like Yu Hua. Short, dynamic sentences using mostly active voice. There are also awkward phrases where it is apparent Ha Jin is translating Chinese sayings into English, often an ill fit.
Yet this is exactly how the language works. This memoir -- this novel -- is written for Western readers. The narrator even takes the trouble of explaning Chinese lifestyle here and there in bits and pieces of inserted sentences. By using such translations, the author aims at evoking an alienated atmosphere where everyone is driven half-mad by what finally turns out to be fatally destructive. Thus when the story ends, an overwhelming sense of pain is only doubled because we have known from the alianated atmosphere that all these people are doomed.
Yet, not every translation is done in this meticulously awkward way. Somewhere in the book, the lines "青山处处埋忠骨 / 何须马革裹尸还" is rendered "Yearn not for native soil -- Your loyal bones can lie in any green hill." Why doesn't the narrator translate it into "You loyal bones can lie in any green hill / so there is no need to return a corpse wrapped in horse skin"? The answer is: here the author wants his readers to understand these two sentences, whereas all those Chinese slogans are rendered to preserve their absurdity not to be fully understood. Please remember: Ha Jin is a professor of English in a top American university.
Part 3. The author's intent
It is adventurous to suggest the author's implications with all the above apparent awkwardness in the text an experienced writer must have noticed before publication, for two reasons: (1) This is guessing others' mind, which could be over-interpretative, (2) This may reflect what's in my mind. But anyway, let reason speak.
Part 3-1. The narrator
The superman-like mental and intellectual quality of the narrator is in contrast with two things: (1) the way he ends up, which he keeps claiming to be "lucky", (2) his fellow soldiers who have worse endings. Near the very end of the novel, some 30 years after the war, the narrator sees one of his fellow soldiers on TV, who started his business in Taiwan and is wealthy enough to return to his hometown in mainland China to be welcomed by the local government. The narrator cannot help making a comparison with him and sighs many "if onlys" before he calms down and admits his relative luck. The implication is three-fold: (1) He is one of the top talents and he should have led a much more successful life. (2) If he didn't return, he perhaps wouldn't be doomed. (3) How well can his fellow soldiers fare who are not so talented as he is when such a talent as he is suffers this fate? Below all these implications, a question surfaces: who inflicts on them all this suffering? I don't have to give the answer here.
Part 3-2. The narration and the language
A novel written in English about Chinese matters by a Chinese author has at least two-fold facilities to circulate and catch attention. A Chinese author is always supposed to be authorative on Chinese matters, and a work written in English avoids the scrutiny from most Chinese readers. Thus an author is allowed more freedom to present and manipulate what he presents. I'm not saying Ha Jin manipulates the facts he claims to write in this book. In facts, I believe that most of the facts related in this novel is as factual as he claims. Yet if only readers are sober enough to discern what is factual and what are impressions merely suggested by the narration and the language, which Ha Jin is really good at.http://schonne.yculblog.com/post.2687364.htmlhttp://schonne.yculblog.com/post.2687907.html