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POW tale is painful, forceful

WAR TRASH, by Ha Jin, Pantheon, 352 pages, $25.

"War Trash," set in the 1950s, is a novel, but it takes the form of a memoir, written by the fictional Yu Yuan, a young Chinese army officer sent to Korea to aid the communist side.

Predictably, he is captured by American forces and starts leading the miserable life of a prisoner of war. But because Yu has a comfortable command of English, he becomes an unofficial interpreter in the various camps in which he finds himself sequestered, thus elevating his status.

Still he never knows whom to trust, if anyone, and is pretty much always going from the frying pan to the fire.

With the help of extensive historical research, Ha Jin has created the day-to-day life and the bizarre relationships that apparently characterize the lives of POWs. For instance, a leadership structure forms of the most connected and aggressive POWs, and the group psychology is fascinating. Everyone feels a constant need to communicate in spite of orders to the contrary, and so they succeed in creating the necessary mechanics.

What is not evident initially is that the prison leaders are not accepted or revered by communist leaders in China. Besides the brutality the POWs are subjected to, by both American leaders and communist prison pseudo-leaders, they are caught in a hopeless conundrum about their eventual fate. When the war is over, what do they do? Where do they go?

American POWs are assured some kind of hero status when they return home, but the communists under Mao or the Nationalists under Chiang Kai Shek have no idea whether they will even survive. The Communist dictum that a soldier will never be taken captive seems to assure any POWs of disgrace and imprisonment upon returning to the mainland.

Yu constantly thinks he will be able to return to his aging mother and fiance in China — but roadblocks are continually thrown in his way. Many POWs crack under the pressure, but Yu is smart enough and educated enough to keep himself busy, always reading whatever he can find, mostly the Bible.

While the story itself is depressing, Ha manages to make every aspect compelling. His writing style is unfailingly clear and interesting. He re-creates the oppressive atmosphere so effectively that images of characters and acts of violence constantly form visually for the reader — as if it were happening before him.

Even though the novel was not written to elucidate or exploit the POW atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq — Ha's first draft was completed in 2000 — there are ways in which the mistakes made by American soldiers in Iraq seem more understandable.

Ha is surprisingly even-handed in telling a story that involves the Communist Chinese, the Nationalist Chinese, the Koreans and the Americans. While he says that the Chinese and Koreans "were more expert in inflicting pain," the Americans tortured in a less elaborate way. Each nationality must bear some of the responsibility for the brutality that occurs in these camps.

This is an awful story told brilliantly — with feeling and humanity. Yu emerges as someone with wisdom and a greater appreciation for life and his fellowman, wherever they may live. He becomes a better person at the same time that others are crushed, either emotionally or physically.

This book may very well be another prize-winner.