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War Trash by Ha Jin

War Trash (2005)

by Ha Jin

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War Trash by well known Chinese novelist, Ha Jin is straightforward, unembellished, without literary flourishes, and nearly devoid of literary elements like simile and metaphor. Despite the pared down prose, the story is moving, colorful, and manages not to sound merely journalistic or reportorial but confidently and artfully written. I'd characterize it as a narrative told by a man who is emotionally open and vulnerable but whose ethic is restrained and wary of exposing anyone else's experiences other than his own to public scrutiny. He does not suppose, rather, he doesn't presume authority over another's authenticity.

It may sound contradictory but Ha, through his narrator hero, Yu Yuan, gives readers a lot of information about the Chinese character. We see that the Chinese are unashamedly sentimental, especially about their mothers and home villages. They are frequently brought to tears and mourn deeply and in open display at friends' and relatives' deaths. Their national characteristic leans toward "herd" instinct -- that is, an openly expressed inability to deal well with solitary living or friendlessness, or without a clan within which to dwell. At one point, Yu Yuan recognizes in himself and his fellow captives a national timidity because they are docile and cooperative with their American captors, and disinclined to make any efforts to escape. He notes the sharp contrast between the Chinese and North Korean POWs who organize themselves in military style, collect and construct weapons, and plot and conspire against their enemy occupiers, and who are wholeheartedly devoted to Marxist communism.

In the period of the story, the 1950s, communism was climbing into entrenchment and dominance over the people of China. Yet, the bulk of the population was apolitical, or at least, politically naive mostly due to being uneducated or minimally so. In the notorious selection process when the Chinese prisoners were forced to choose for repatriation or for release from the POW camp to Taiwan, the soldiers reverted to making their decisions on a personal level, i.e., their desire to return to mothers, lovers, and villages vs. feelings of severed connections or untethered emotions, which produced a perceived rootlessness. None seemed persuaded by the political argument to build a great communist China, nor did they suffer qualms that their choice might be perceived as betrayal of the great leader, Chairman Mao.

Compared to authors like Dai Sijie, Ma Jian, and Yu Hua, Ha's literary style seems less allegorical. His characters in no way seem symbolic but honestly human, real, and natural. He does not draw on the rich lore of Chinese legend and mythology, which stands in strong contrast to, say, the novella of Bi Feiyu above. This, of course, can be attributed to the unrelated subjects of the two works, war vs. classic opera. Even with that said, I find Ha's style very western, firmly realistic, direct, simple, and practical in a manner I haven't encountered among other Chinese authors in my library.

All these points are why I feel supported in asserting that War Trash ranks in power as an equal to any of the highly regarded American writers of WWII fiction: Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, and James Jones ( )
1 vote Limelite | Sep 14, 2017 |
Jin's naïf-pedantic style worked well for etching the details of a sad, slow-motion love triangle in the empty, slow-moving world of pre-reform China in Waiting. It works less well for rendering the privations and intrigues of life in a Chinese POW camp in Korea in the fifties, with all the clever improvisational "Great Escape" and boy scout stuff, and the internal denunciations and counterdenunciations and weird machinations about who is gonna get repatriated to China and who to Taiwan, and reaching out across cultural lines for different kinds of interactions with the American captors (not idealized in a shit-eating way, though somehow it perpetually seems like something like that is about to break out and I was worried). It's a great, promising setting but Jin seems to just take you through an utterly plausible, utterly artless series of events and dilemmas as they may have happened to any individual real POW, with no attempt to spin them into a story, and also he has this didactic thing and so in combination it seems like he is constantly trying to teach you a lesson but keeps changing his mind about what that lesson is. ( )
  MeditationesMartini | Feb 7, 2017 |
@ Chinese (Comm.) 1951-53 — to support comm. Korea in war P.O.W. Camp — he speaks English

In 1951 Yu Yuan, a scholarly and self-effacing clerical officer in Mao’s “volunteer” army, is taken prisoner south of the 38th Parallel. Because he speaks English, he soon becomes an intermediary between his compatriots and their American captors.With Yuan as guide, we are ushered into the secret world behind the barbed wire, a world where kindness alternates with blinding cruelty and one has infinitely more to fear from one’s fellow prisoners than from the guards.
  christinejoseph | Sep 16, 2016 |
This book details the life of a young Korean forced into war then twisted about every which by
political winds. I was unfamiliar with the plight of Chinese POWs held by Americans during the Korean conflict in the early 50's and this history carried the story for me. I've been disappointed in the other Ha Jin books - the writing style isn't exciting and the stories are not so new. ( )
  Jeannine504 | Jan 23, 2016 |
This book is entirely about the POW's lives during the Korean War in the 1950s. The narrator is a Chinese soldier and the book is written as a memoir. It is all fiction based on fact. The book gives a lot of insight into the mind set of China at the time. Taiwan was already separated from the mainland. Life was not easy for the POWs for sure. I think I need to read more about this war. ( )
  skyrad43 | Jun 19, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375422765, Hardcover)

War Trash, the extraordinary new novel by the National Book Award–winning author of Waiting, is Ha Jin’s most ambitious work to date: a powerful, unflinching story that opens a window on an unknown aspect of a little-known war—the experiences of Chinese POWs held by Americans during the Korean conflict—and paints an intimate portrait of conformity and dissent against a sweeping canvas of confrontation.

Set in 1951–53, War Trash takes the form of the memoir of Yu Yuan, a young Chinese army officer, one of a corps of “volunteers” sent by Mao to help shore up the Communist side in Korea. When Yu is captured, his command of English thrusts him into the role of unofficial interpreter in the psychological warfare that defines the POW camp.

Taking us behind the barbed wire, Ha Jin draws on true historical accounts to render the complex world the prisoners inhabit—a world of strict surveillance and complete allegiance to authority. Under the rules of war and the constraints of captivity, every human instinct is called into question, to the point that what it means to be human comes to occupy the foremost position in every prisoner’s mind.

As Yu and his fellow captives struggle to create some sense of community while remaining watchful of the deceptions inherent in every exchange, only the idea of home can begin to hold out the promise that they might return to their former selves. But by the end of this unforgettable novel—an astonishing addition to the literature of war that echoes classics like Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead and the works of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen—the very concept of home will be more profoundly altered than they can even begin to imagine.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:31 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Captured by enemy forces, Yu Yuan, a Chinese army officer serving in Korea in 1951, takes on the role of interpreter due to his proficiency in English, a role that places him in a conflict between his fellow prisoners and their captors.

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