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War Trash Hardcover – October 5, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0375422768 ISBN-10: 0375422765 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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 fiancée 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

Ha Jin's new novel is the fictional memoir of a Chinese People's Volunteer, dispatched by his government to fight for the Communist cause in the Korean War. Yu Yuan describes his ordeal after capture, when P.O.W.s in the prison camp have to make a wrenching choice: return to the mainland as disgraced captives, or leave their families and begin new lives in Taiwan. The subject is fascinating, but in execution the novel often seems burdened by voluminous research, and it strains dutifully to illustrate political truisms. In a prologue, Yuan claims to be telling his story in English because it is "the only gift a poor man like me can bequeath his American grandchildren." Ha Jin accurately reproduces the voice of a non-native speaker, but the labored prose is disappointing from an author whose previous work—"Waiting" and "Ocean of Words"—is notable for its vividness and its emotional precision.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (October 5, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375422765
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375422768
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #815,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

If you love Chinese culture, then this book is for you.
Agnes Meo
Although the split between the Nationalist and Communist prisoners dominates, there were many, like Yuan who sought a "middle way," without ideological fanaticism.
John P. Jones III
To be fair, there are not really any "good guys" or "bad guys" in this book.
Linda Linguvic

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 68 people found the following review helpful By nrofoxbabe66 on October 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
My god, I would have thought that a front-page review in The NYT's Book Review would have made this book a bestseller, but something is wrong with the universe. This is one of the most moving, compelling, finely-wrought works of literature I have ever read, as important as any major work of American fiction of the last 10 years. Ha Jin's novel uses the flat, subdued voice of an everyman (in this case, a Chinese POW) to explore the themes of nationalism, war, torture, survival, political relations and most of all family. The book's modest style helps make it more than ambitious, but critical. Most of all, this is an inredibly readable book, not self-conscious or fancy, but as urgent as a letter from a missing member of your own family. I urge you to read it today and remember why you started reading novels in the first place.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By John Sollami on January 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
After finishing this book, I feel finally released from the hellish nonexistence of POW life. This novel is almost unbearable in its grim, relentless depiction of the thousands of men held captive for years in Korea as they awaited the results of endless negotiations on their fates. Although their lives are individualized by the novel's narrator, Yu Yuan, an English-speaking graduate of the prestigious Huangpu Military Academy of Nationalist China, these POWs are nothing more than pawns in a geopolitical power struggle between Maoist mainland China and Nationalist China (and the U.S), represented by Chang-kai-shek and Taiwan. In the long run, no one really cares much about these thousands of displaced souls. And Yu Yuan, shifting loyalties in a dangerous but practical attempt to stay alive, finds himself trying to return to what life he had in mainland China: his old mother (he was an only child), and his fiance, who he misses terribly. But what Yu Yuan struggles to return to proves to be an illusion. Through Yu Yuan's eyes we see the corrosive effects of war, and the utter loss of identity and of meaning it produces. Although such themes have been voiced many times before in many other novels, War Trash is unique in portraying this historic period, the Korean War, and in its single-minded focus through the eyes of its all-too-human narrator.
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40 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Author Ha Jin, born in the People's Republic where he lived until 1985, offers a unique perspective on Chinese culture, different from that of most "Chinese" novels written for a western audience. Setting the novel in a POW camp in South Korea from 1951 - 53, Ha Jin focuses on the differing attitudes the Chinese, Koreans, and Americans have toward home, country, and each other. Through Yu Yuan, a young soldier from the Chinese Communist army, Ha Jin shows how differently this young man sees his life and his obligations but how similarly he values friendship, justice, honor, and love.

The only son of an elderly mother, Yu Yuan is a twenty-three-year-old member of the Chinese army when his unit enters Korea to aid the North Koreans in 1951, but the Chinese army, Yuan discovers, is not a "well-oiled machine," and there is no glory in battle. Their weapons are Russian, but no one can read the instruction manual. Lines of communication are so long that men can get orders to march in two different directions from two different officers on two different days, and no officer is allowed to make his own decisions. Yuan recognizes that his own life has no value.

Wounded during a vividly described battle which inflicts atrocious casualties, Yuan is assigned to a POW camp, hiding his true identity because being captured is a crime in China. Abominable camp conditions, presented in stunning detail, become especially challenging for Chinese like Yuan and his mates, who want to return to their families on the mainland after the war. The Nationalist Chinese, allies of the US, have been given almost free rein within the camp to bully the mainland Chinese into going to Taiwan, instead of returning home.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Michael Jones VINE VOICE on January 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This important novel which masquerades as the memoir of the eponymous Yu Yuan, a Chinese POW and repatriate of the Korean conflict, may deceive you in its simplicity. It is anything but simple. There are no clear cut lines drawn, no obvious "good" or "evil" characters portrayed here. The reader is only made painfully aware of the complex politics of waging war and its profound influences on the common soldiers, the everyman, the "war trash" of this novel's title.

Ha Jin evokes a visceral hatred of war itself simply by revealing one human being's struggle in its midst. Yu Yuan faces many challenges as an English speaking Chinese POW, who yearns for his fiancée and old mother back on the mainland. Ha drags the reader through each of his hero's agonizing dilemmas only to release her with the infused notion that perhaps none of Yu's choices were made by him but, contrarily, for him.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly, not just to anyone who might deplore war and its odious affects, nor just to the "everyman" it documents, but also to those who would presume to wage war even though some of those individuals may not particularly care to read books.
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