I don’t generally review fiction but my instinct about this book about a Chinese prisoner of the Korean War was correct: it reads more like a documentary voice-over than a novel. The author, an emigré from China, undoubtedly knows the subject from the inside, having served in the army before coming to the US where he is now a Professor of English and an award-winning writer. His writing takes us back to the thrilling days of yesteryear when authors had a calling to the craft and books were supposed to be morally uplifting and intellectually stimulating, and not necessarily pretty.
The narrator/hero of the book is Yu Yuan, an old man recalling and reflecting on the past. A studious and rather spiritual chap recruited from Hunagpu Academy, he is convinced by the Maoist overlords that he has a patriotic duty to fight against the Americans in Korea. He and his fellow soldiers are given the impression that the Americans are weak and that victory is all but assured.
Yu Yuan is shocked to find that this is not true and thus begins the tattering of the whole cloth of lies that he is fed by his Communist superiors. He is quickly captured and most of the book concerns his tenure in various POW camps where he is forced to choose between Maoism and the freedom to ally himself with the winners. He keeps choosing Maoism, because if he is still a loyal party supporter he believes he will eventually be repatriated and rejoin his aging mother and his fiancée. But he will not choose Communism, he resolves, over life, an alternative that looms very real when he witnesses the party faithful murdering and even cannibalizing those who have made the wrong choice.
Having the ability to speak and read English distinguishes Yu Yuan while also making his lot far more difficult as his skills as an interpreter are exploited by both sides. The atmosphere of the camps is vividly described in harrowing detail, including types of torture (the Americans did less but had their methods) and the constant paranoia among men who fear their own leadership as much as the enemy.
The book is a cold, lonely journey. Yu Yuan is a sad man trying to reconcile who he has tried to be with what he fears he is becoming. He is an accurate observer and we feel that we are there with him, and wishing we were not. There is a plain formality in the dialogue which at times feels wooden yet seems common to the genre of fiction grounded in the language and mores of the Chinese people. The hierarchy of status is a factor in all relationships, and especially so within the Communist party structure.
One can read this book thinking of today’s political prisoners, and speculate on the question of loyalties and the train of circumstance that brings people to fight blindly for a cause they don’t necessarily believe in.