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War Trashby Ha Jin
2005 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
"Ha Jin's finest work yet. A richer deeper hue woven with emotion. It is perfect."
"Born in 1956, Jin missed the Korean War, but he lied about his age when he was 14 to join the People's Liberation Army in China, and this novel is steeped in the details of history as much as in the flavor of personal experience. In fact, the voice of War Trash is a rebuttal of its title. It's a timely story about discarded survivors whose lives are more complex and more pitiable than the ideology on either side would have us believe." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire Christian Science Monitor review)
Synopses & Reviews
From the National Book Award-winning author of Waiting, here is his most ambitious work to date; a powerful, unflinching novel 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 story against a sweeping canvas of confrontation.
Set in 1951 and based on historical accounts, War Trash takes the form of the memoir of Yu Yuan, a young Chinese army officer, a "volunteer" fighting unofficially in Korea when he is captured. Yu's fluency in English thrusts him into the role of unofficial interpreter in the psychological warfare — between the prisoners and their captors and between rival groups of prisoners — that defines the world of the POW camp. Yu's only allegiance is to his dream of returning home. But by the end of this unforgettable novel, the very concept of home will be more profoundly altered than Yu can even begin to imagine.
"Jin (Waiting; The Crazed; etc.) applies his steady gaze and stripped-bare storytelling to the violence and horrifying political uncertainty of the Korean War in this brave, complex and politically timely work, the story of a reluctant soldier trying to survive a POW camp and reunite with his family. Armed with reams of research, the National Book Award winner aims to give readers a tale that is as much historical record as examination of personal struggle. After his division is decimated by superior American forces, Chinese 'volunteer' Yu Yuan, an English-speaking clerical officer with a largely pragmatic loyalty to the Communists, rejects revolutionary martyrdom and submits to capture. In the POW camp, his ability to communicate with the Americans thrusts him to the center of a disturbingly bloody power struggle between two factions of Chinese prisoners: the pro-Nationalists, led in part by the sadistic Liu Tai-an, who publicly guts and dissects one of his enemies; and the pro-Communists, commanded by the coldly manipulative Pei Shan, who wants to use Yu to save his own political skin. An unofficial fighter in a foreign war, shameful in the eyes of his own government for his failure to die, Yu can only stand and watch as his dreams of seeing his mother and fiance again are eviscerated in what increasingly looks like a meaningless conflict. The parallels with America's current war on terrorism are obvious, but Jin, himself an ex-soldier, is not trying to make a political statement. His gaze is unfiltered, camera-like, and the images he records are all the more powerful for their simple honesty. It is one of the enduring frustrations of Jin's work that powerful passages of description are interspersed with somewhat wooden dialogue, but the force of this story, painted with starkly melancholy longing, pulls the reader inexorably along. Agent, Lane Zachary at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[Jin's] narrator, Yu Yuan, is one of the most fully realized characters to emerge from the fictional world in years....[A] moral fable, timeless and universal." Russell Banks, The New York Times Book Review
"This is more than a novel. It's an historical document about a forgotten part of a forgotten war. No historian could bring to light this tale of interminable loneliness and suffering about Chinese prisoners during the Korean War as well as Ha Jin has." Robert D. Kaplan, author of Warrior Politics
"Ha Jin is one of the finest writers in America: subtle, huge-hearted, possessed of an utterly original, mind-altering vision of the world, and an exquisite, disciplined style. His work never fails to thrill me, and expand my ideas about life, and about the transformative powers of fiction." George Saunders
"Ha Jin's stark, evocative prose transports us to a harrowing world we have never before seen and which we will not soon forget." Michael Shapiro, author of The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow
"I am enthralled by Ha Jin's work: he always presents moral conundrums within historical contexts; the frayed edges of humanity; the ways in which both the tenacious and hopeless survive. He is one of our most gifted and essential writers." Amy Tan
"Ha Jin's taut drama of war, incarceration, coercion, and survival is galvanizing, and his ardently observant narrator is heroic in his grappling with the paradox of humankind's savagery and hunger for the divine." Booklist
"[P]owerfully moving.... Appearances to the contrary..., though War Trash is indeed a work of fiction, one has to keep reminding oneself of that fact. The seamless, somewhat unsettling fusion of invention and reportage is aided and abetted by the fact that Ha Jin taps into two ancient and honorable Western literary traditions — the novel in the form of a nonfiction memoir, and the nonfiction memoir as prison narrative.... It's a brilliant and original enjambment, and Ha Jin pulls it off with mastery; the result is that his narrator, Yu Yuan, is one of the most fully realized characters to emerge from the fictional world in years.... With the suspense building toward a surprising climax and an utterly satisfying end, there is a philosophical certitude and serenity in the final pages of the novel that one rarely experiences in fiction. It is a Buddhist calm.... War Trash is not a large novel, but it is a nearly perfect one." Russell Banks, New York Times Book Review
War Trash, the extraordinary new novel by the National Book Award–winning author of Waiting, is Ha Jins most ambitious work to date: a powerful, unflinching story that opens a window on an unknown aspect of a little-known warthe experiences of Chinese POWs held by Americans during the Korean conflictand 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 inhabita 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 prisoners 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 novelan astonishing addition to the literature of war that echoes classics like Dostoevskys Memoirs from the House of the Dead and the works of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owenthe very concept of home will be more profoundly altered than they can even begin to imagine.
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