70 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2004
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.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2005
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.
42 of 48 people found the following review helpful
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. Water tortures, unremitting beatings, murders, denial of food, and the tattooing of anti-Communist slogans on the bellies of Communists are powerful "motivations" for refusing repatriation.
Buffeted by fate, Yuan epitomizes the helpless individual at the mercy of a system in which individualism is not valued. He yearns to return home to his mother and fiancee with some sense of honor, and does not think about freedom, which he has never known. Ha Jin's writing is efficient and exact, his narrative revealing stories of horrific battles, constant privation, and abusive behavior by Nationalist Chinese, mainland Chinese officers, and Americans. A strong novel which emphasizes culture more than individuals, War Trash lacks a love story which sometimes unites other war novels, but it remains fascinating and rewarding for readers interested in seeing how culture determines behavior. Mary Whipple
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2005
This is a wonderfully complex novel. Many of the other reviewers have touched on the back and forth of the issues facing the protagonist. I can only add my affirmation. I felt for him every step of the way as he tried to make the best decisions for his life while being pushed this way and that by enormous powers and ideologies.
There are times when the dialogue is stilted, but that's no big deal. And the honest, melancholy voice of the narrator reads so real it's easy to loose yourself into the memoir feel of it. The complicity of the issues and the wonderful way that such seemingly far-flung trials are evenutally brought home to the American experience are wonderful. The world is not so large as we'd like to think, and novels like this one testify as to why we should think locally / think globally at the same time.
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2005
Although Ha Jin writes in English, it is apparent from page one that he is a Chinese writer. His writing is similar in form to other popular Chinese writers like Yu Hua. Short, dynamic sentences using mostly active voice. There are also awkward phrases where it is apparent Ha Jin is translating Chinese sayings into English, often an ill fit. Though this can subtract from the rhythm of the book, it is a tiny complaint, and it is just about the only thing wrong with this book.
The narrator was a Chinese POW in an American camp during the Korean War. He is telling his story years later, when he is an old man living in America. In short, this is a story of the dehumanizing effect of war on man. It is not a completely depressing read, however. Through certain characters, the reader gets glimpses of hope and light: in the American soldier who befriends the narrator to discuss their girlfriends; the American general who is torn between bad international publicity and doing the right thing; and the young Chinese prisoner who the narrator takes under his wing and teaches to read. These are the individual faces of war, and where they exist, the novel is full of emotion. However, Ha Jin can turn a touching chapter into a tragedy in the blink of an eye, which is what makes this book so gripping and frightening.
I have heard Ha Jin compared to Dostoevsky. I have not read Dostoevsky's war memoirs, but have read his novels, and am strained to see any literary comparison, though I can see a philosophical one, I suppose...the struggle of the individual to come to terms with the madness around and inside of him.
Warning: This book is wonderful, but I wouldn't call it a page turner. Be patient with it.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
"War Trash" is a chameleon of a book, a novel that attempts to convince the reader that it is not, in fact, a novel.
Look past the cover and it presents itself as a memoir, a historical document about Chinese POWs in the Korean War, rather than a piece of historical fiction.
To Ha Jin's credit, it largely succeeds; he places himself so convincingly inside the head of his narrator, Yu Yuan, that the reader eagerly follows him there. Rather than feeling like an artfully constructed work of imagination and historical memory, this book actually reads like a mournful memoir from a soldier who lived out a forgotten chapter in a forgotten war, a captured piece of would-be cannon fodder rotting away in prison camps while the powers-that-be haggled to hammer out a peace that ended up looking a lot like the status quo ante bellum.
If the goal of art is to take us outside our experiences, to show us worlds we've never seen and to draw them so convincingly we believe we are there, then this is a masterful accomplishment indeed. Ha Jin's research and painstaking efforts at historical accuracy are worthy of a doctoral dissertation or a scholarly tome; events from this lost episode of history (violent camp revolts, the kidnapping of an American camp commandant, torture and politicking and cruel deeds perpetrated across the political spectrum) are imagined and presented in vivid and cinematic detail. Though the level of detail is appropriate for a dry, dusty history book, "War Trash" never feels like one, for it is a work of great empathy; it shows how ideology, cruelty, kindness, and simple survival instincts propelled ordinary human beings through extraordinary times. One feels and understands the motivations of all characters, Communist Chinese, Nationalist Chinese, Americans and South Koreans; one senses their humanity even as they too frequently throw it away.
In some ways, that humanity is well depicted, and in other ways, Ha Jin ever so slightly misses the mark. He accurately captures longing and loneliness and depression and grief and cruelty; he does not do as well with humor or simple dialogue. Memories and motivations seem real and fully realized, but conversations and actions do not always go over as well. Some of the characters feel like they are acting out political roles, rather than behaving as real people who just happen to be caught in a political situation.
Still, this book is a welcome reminder of the complexity and nuance of such situations, especially given the current conditions in the War on Terror. (Indeed, one wonders what role that conflict played in Ha Jin's decision to write this book. In some ways, this book is a chameleon of time and place as well as one of genre; it often feels like it's as much about Guantanamo and Abu Grahib as it is about Koje and Cheju Islands.) Warehousing human beings, no matter how necessary it may be, still corrodes the souls of both the guards and the guarded; the fact that our enemies are wrong does not make us right. "War Trash" disguises many things, but it presents this essential truth as clear as day, and we are better for it.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2005
I picked up "War Trash" by Ha Jin largely by accident. I'm living in east Asia, in South Korea and I happened to see the book on a "new releases" shelf near the checkout counter. When I read that the book took place during the Korean War, I thought that it would be an excellent book to read to educate myself about that conflict.
I was absolutely right. The book is not only a great insight into a little-understood and sparsely written-about aspect of that war (the perspective of soldiers of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army), but it is also marvelously well-written. It provides unique cultural insights, historical context and appears to be thoroughly well-researched.
I actually found the most interseting scenes to be the descriptive stories of combat from the Chinese side, but the prison-camp experience is fascinating as well. Although it lacks the social and political themes that make "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" or "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" truly timeless pieces of literature, it remains a great book and one of the finest I've read this year.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Catholic theologians have long theorized an in-between state of being called Limbo, derived from the Latin word for edge or fringe. Ha Jin's WAR TRASH introduces us to another form of Limbo, occupied in this case by Chinese prisoners of war surviving on the fringes of conflict during the Korean War.
The novel opens with the elderly Yu Yuan visiting his son and two grandchildren in the United States, promising to tell the story behind the offensive, anti-American words tattooed on his stomach. The setting then reverts to 1951 and Yu's involvement as a member of the Chinese Communist Army in Korea, from his capture and imprisonment, first in Koje Island, then on Cheju Island, to his tortured decision whether to go to Taiwan or return to the Maoist mainland (and his mother and fiancée), and finally, to his release in 1953.
Along the way, Yu is befriended by a female American doctor, assists an American priest, develops his English language skills enough to become an indispensable asset to his superiors, and learns to assert himself on his compatriots' behalf. More important, he realizes that he and his fellow soldiers are just pawns in a whole series of struggles, some propelled by individual self-interest, others originating from larger geopolitical issues. Regardless, the rank and file POW's are reduced in his estimation to valueless "war trash," human rubbish left in the wake of military clashes.
WAR TRASH is a story of survival, yet it never becomes preachy or maudlin or heroic. It is also a story about war's paradoxical ability to simultaneously dehumanize its participants and yet elevate the lowliest soldier to great acts of courage and humanity.
Most important, however, WAR TRASH is a story about identity. Yu Yuan is known in the camps under the alias Feng Yan, and at another time, he assumes the identity of a fellow prisoner, Chang Ming. But identity is more than just a name for Ha Jin, it is about roles and responsibilities. For Yu Yuan, that means alternately being a graduate of a Nationalist military academy, a lukewarm Communist, a devoted son and fiancé, an English-speaking interpreter, an intending repatriate to the mainland, and an intending emigrant to Taiwan. Even the tattoo on his stomach changes its meaning as Yu's identity changes. For the Chinese people at the time of Mao's Liberation, identity was among each person's most malleable possessions, and choosing correctly became a matter of survival as well as a determinant of one's future.
Ha Jin tells the POW story with straightforward simplicity, dwelling more on events and human relationships than on interior dialog or extended description of the camp conditions. The author creates a compelling story, speaking to us through an empathetic main character and surrounding him with intriguing personalities, from the scheming Commissar Pei and the loyal young Shanmin to his close friend Bai Dajian. His narrative is strongest when he talks about the small battles and triumphs in POW life: the value of a pencil, the warmth of canine friendship, the schemes for establishing communication, the pleasure in a bit of meat or barley.
In WAITING and CRAZED, Ha Jin addressed the great questions of life from the simplest of story lines and the most ordinary of human characters. This time, he has broadened the scope of his narrative setting, yet he has remained true to his practice of focusing on average people and the small details of their lives. His storytelling is always engaging, but it is his ability to reveal the profound in the mundane, the universal in the local, and the complex in the simple that makes each of his works a rewarding reading experience. I heartily recommend WAR TRASH for its human drama in the most uncertain of settings.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2004
This powerful, subtle, and brilliantly written novel about the Chinese POW's in Korea has so many levels of significance, it's hard to believe no one I know has even heard of it outside the glowing but obscure literary reviews it has received (I guess the NYT is now obscure). If this book is not widely received I can only blame it on its intelligence, detailed historical research (and accuracy), and its grasp of what humanity really means under different circumstances. I guess not enough sex and car crashes.