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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
"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
"[H]ypnotic....Written in the modest, uninflected prose of a soldier's letter home, Ha Jin's story, a mixture of authentic historical detail and realistic invention, is a powerful work of the imagination..." The Washington Post
"A skillful and unusual novel, sharply real, without an ounce of gilding sentimentality....Ha Jin captures the detail and paralyzing sameness of the prisoners' days, yet without plodding — splicing in irregular moments of terror without artificiality." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"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
"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
"In spite of its great documentary heart, flashes of brilliant writing and a tone that is sober rather than shrill, War Trash winds up feeling less like a novel than a slice of actual history. Jin does not endow his protagonist with high powers of lyricism, brevity or a particularly happy ending." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Ha Jin displays this rawness unflinchingly, and he manages to do so without making his novel difficult to stomach or read." Kansas City Star
"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
"Ha Jin's sometimes plodding but always fascinating fictional memoir of a Chinese soldier held captive in an American POW camp during the Korean War." Baltimore Sun
"[T]he drama of Yuan's tortured soul never really catches fire. The story portrayed here so meticulously seems more of historical interest than of dramatic." San Francisco Chronicle
"Jin's narrative is frequently repetitious and slow of pace....Most unsatisfying is Jin's inability to consistently create credible dialogue; the premise that we are hearing Chinese spoken, for example, is too often shattered by the author's use of American slang." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"[T]he hallmarks of [Jin's] other fiction are present: the acute and empathetic psychological observations, the fascination with human imperfection, the sensual prose, the vividly described settings and, above all, that miraculously buoyant, sly humor." Los Angeles Times
"POWs are on the edge of history, always on the verge of being forgotten. In showing the tough moral choices facing these men, Ha Jin does a dual service here — reintroducing us to a war we hardly remember and to a kind of heroism that never grabs the headlines." Seattle Times
Ha Jin's masterful new novel casts a searchlight into a forgotten corner of modern history, the experience of Chinese soldiers held in U.S. POW camps during the Korean War. 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. Vivid in its historical detail, profound in its imaginative empathy, War Trash is Ha Jin's most ambitious book to date.
About the Author
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award; the story collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award; the novels The Crazed and In the Pond; and three books of poetry. He lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.
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