By Ha Jin. Pantheon. 352 pp. $25
The "war trash" of this hypnotic novel are Chinese soldiers who were taken prisoner by U.N. forces -- mainly American -- during the Korean War. Written in the modest, uninflected prose of a soldier's letter home, Ha Jin's story, a mixture of authentic historical detail and realistic invention, is a powerful work of the imagination whose psychic territory is not the hunger and humiliation of the prison camp but the haunted past that was the old, lost China and the mysterious future that is in the process of becoming Mao Zedong's chimerical new China.
Caught between the two is the narrator, an instinctively decent young man named Yu Yuan, a cadet at Huangpu Military Academy, the West Point of Nationalist China. Though on the losing side, he feels "grateful to the Communists, who seemed finally to have brought peace to our war-battered land." Because Yu speaks English, the communists permit him to complete his studies. He soon finds himself crossing the Yalu River with the 180th Division of the People's Volunteer Army. He leaves behind his widowed mother and his young fiancée, for both of whom he feels deeply and worriedly responsible.
The soldiers of the 180th Division are told to expect little resistance from the soft, spoiled Americans they will meet in combat. "At the mere sight of us, the Americans would go to their knees and surrender -- they were just pussycats." Poorly equipped with Soviet weapons they do not know how to use, incompetently led by Party hacks, the 180th soon encounters reality. Pounded by U.S. airpower and shattered by ferocious American ground attacks, the division is surrounded and destroyed. Thousands, including a grievously wounded Yu, are taken prisoner.
After surgery in an American hospital, Yu is sent to a large, American-run prisoner-of-war camp on Koje Island in the Sea of Japan near Pusan. "Inside the compound," Yu tells us, "my first impression was that I had returned to the Chinese Nationalist army: everywhere I turned, I saw people wearing the sun emblem of the Nationalist Party." These men, who are in control of the camp by American consent and through sheer force of numbers, are still loyal to Chiang Kai-shek. They plan to go to Taiwan after the war. The communists, many fewer in number, are determined to return to the motherland.
Each side competes fiercely for the loyalty of every new prisoner. Because of his value as an interpreter, Yu Yuan is a desirable prize. Though Yu is not a communist -- and realizes that he is likely to have an easier personal life in Taiwan than in a Maoist China that will always suspect his loyalty -- he opts for return to the mainland. His reasons are Confucian: An only child, he is the sole support of his old mother, and he also supposes that he must soon become a father as the result of a single night of lovemaking with his fiancée.
When he declines to join the Nationalist faction, its enforcers knock him over the head and, while he is unconscious, tattoo the English words "[Expletive] COMMUNISM" on his belly. Thus indelibly branded as an enemy of the people, Yu Yuan struggles to elude the fate that political zealots have designed for him. But in his insistence on being the captain of his soul, he fashions a destiny with which it might have been impossible to live had he not, in the end, been able to live with himself -- and with the obscene tattoo that is a constant reminder that what is written is written.
Charles McCarry's 10th novel, "Old Boys," was published this summer.