Ha Jin writes like a peasant. A peasant having some acquaintance with modernist aesthetics, but still a peasant. His characters--in story collections such as Under the Red Flag and novels such as Waiting--expect no mercy from the world and precious little generosity from one another. In their experience, brutality, starvation, oppression, and cruelty are the cards the universe has to deal out; these folks don't need Hobbes to understand brutishness. Life is simply a trudge from cradle to grave, to be contemplated unblinkingly, with sex and friendship along the way if one is lucky. Why bother expecting more than a momentary respite? Why even cry out against a remorseless fate?
This is the world of Jin's latest narrator, Korean War veteran Yu Yuan, as he describes his lost army's attempts to feed itself in 1951. China has turned back the American advance by entering the war on the Northern side, but its initial victories have been achieved by mass rather than skill. (A visually stunning example of the sustained power of those victories appears in the current Korean film TaeGukGi, where a tidal wave of yelling Chinese soldiers flows terrifyingly up the side of a snowy mountain and inundates South Korean forces on the other side.) Seen from up close, however, those soldiers are under-armed and under-armored, their command structure a feudal regime regulated by party loyalty and fear.
Yu and his cohort have been abandoned along a trail by ineffective leaders and then isolated by the Americans. With their supply lines cut off, the soldiers' attempts to avoid starvation lead to horrendous ends:
Men from southern China even ate toads and snakes. Many died because they had eaten poisonous mushrooms or a kind of wild onion that had forked leaves and that would blacken your lips a few moments after you swallowed it.... Dead men were scattered here and there like bundles of rags, some still holding a grass root or a tree leaf or a sprouting twig between their lips.
Indeed, food is never far from consciousness here, whether it's the boiled barley and soy sauce soup all the prisoners agree to share in one camp, the southerner who disgusts Yu by discoursing on the deliciousness of fried rat, or the feast of dumplings and dried squid laid out to entice anyone who might wish to change sides. Nourishment is the surest and simplest index of justice and morality available.
Taught to speak English by missionaries, Yu is more valuable than his cannon-fodder peasant fellows. Not a Party member, however, he must also know his place. (He is a former cadet at the Huangpu Military Academy and thus of dangerously bourgeois background.) Party politics will always overrule common sense. So when his unit falls into enemy hands, the politicking has only begun. Yu is thrown into a prison camp teeming with intrigue: Inside, the civil war is being waged even more violently, with all loyalties up for grabs.
The Americans seem content to let former Nationalists bully Communists as they see fit, in an attempt to either convince or compel them to head for Taiwan rather than the Chinese mainland whenever peace returns. In response, dedicated Communists set up a shadow party structure and willingly purge insufficiently dedicated elements. The North Koreans, with whom few of the Chinese can communicate, surpass their comrades in chanting and sloganeering. And worst of all, surrender officially represents an act of cowardice, which means that these prisoners may already have forfeited any chance of civic standing after the war.
The bulk of the novel concerns, in great detail, Yu's two years in various camps. Counterrevolutionaries beat him up and tattoo the words "FUCK COMMUNISM" on his stomach in one POW center. Yet he must forge on to prove his party loyalty without necessarily committing himself to a movement whose whims he does not entirely trust. "Most of us are not Communists at all," he explains to an American priest. "We stay with them mainly because we want to go home. As sons, we have our duty to our parents. Some men are husbands and fathers and ought to return to their families. For most of us there's no choice."
Yu feels the tug of his widowed mother and his fiancée, who has given him half a jade comb to bring back after the war. What will happen to them if he decides to switch sides?
It's a shifting purgatory that Jin describes here, yet the author also underlines the consistency with which everyone involved tossed away this "war trash." The Communists waged wars that expected and justified mass casualties as a mark of devotion; the Nationalists sold the soldiers meaningless promises of capitalist opportunity; the Americans manipulated them as chess pieces as long as they were of use. The narrator's angles of vision on the conflict can be startling, as when Yu notes that "MacArthur often smiled complacently in the photos and obviously enjoyed the war.... He looked like a nonparticipant in any battle, like someone who sat high above his men, reluctant to get his hands soiled."