three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
By: 
Ha Jin
user_rating: 
0

A-WarTrashYu Yuan, a Chinese resident and survivor of a POW camp in the Korean War, is literally a marked man. The obscene anti-American tattoo that his captors left on his belly tells part of his story. Now 73 and retired, he has decided to tell the rest. War Trash, Jin’s fourth novel, describes in unflinching detail the hardships Chinese POWs endured during a war that American history often ignores. For the benefit of his young grandchildren, Yu recalls a struggle of betrayal, torture, and shifting alliances—a struggle he hopes they will never have to endure.
Pantheon. 352 pages. $25. ISBN: 0375422765

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In reading Ha Jin’s powerfully moving War Trash, one might be forgiven for forgetting that it’s a work of imaginative fiction and not a nonfiction account by an elderly Chinese man writing in fastidious, plain-spoken English. … War Trash is not a large novel, but it is a nearly perfect one." Russell Banks

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"There’s a muted quality to this narrative that would grow dull from a less talented writer, but here he holds our attention like a whisper. The slightly stilted, temperate tone runs all the way to the last word, and the cumulative effect is deeply moving." Ron Charles

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"War Trash is, appropriately, both a work of profound humanism and devastating nihilism." Linda Jaivin

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ha Jin’s story, a mixture of authentic historical detail and realistic invention, is a powerful work of the imagination whose psychic territory is not the hunger and humiliation of the prison camp but the haunted past that was the old, lost China and the mysterious future that is in the process of becoming Mao Zedong’s chimerical new China."
Charles McCarry

Rocky Mountain News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"After awhile, the even-handed approach of [Ha’s] documentary style proves somewhat pedestrian and fades into an indeterminate catalogue of hardship. … Yet even as parts of the novel blur into a sterile listing of incidents, Ha commands our attention with vivid poignancy later in the novel." Geoffrey Bateman

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"Despite the struggles between the forces of repatriation and liberation and individualism versus the group-think of the imprisoned Chinese loyalists, the drama of Yuan’s tortured soul never really catches fire. The story portrayed here so meticulously seems more of historical interest than of dramatic."
Alan Cheuse

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Jin’s narrative is frequently repetitious and slow of pace. … Most unsatisfying is [his] 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."
Gordon Weaver

Critical Summary

Critics agree that War Trash, by the National Book Award-winning author, has an unusual tone. Yu’s methodical, even pedantic storytelling of the Chinese soldiers taken prisoner by U.N. forces struck some critics as dull; many complained of slow patches. However, several readers praised this very slowness. To them, Yu’s is the soft voice of a man who wants to record a painful past without sensationalism. The New York Times Book Review even called Yu "one of the most fully realized characters to emerge from the fictional world in years." War Trash, which was extensively researched, proved too academic for some tastes. For those unperturbed by its dryness, the novel offers a faithful account of a nearly forgotten time—one that may shed light on the events of our own.

Also by the Author

Waiting (1999): Award Star Winner of the National Book Award. A Chinese army doctor is passionately in love with a nurse, but must wait 18 years to dissolve his arranged marriage.

The Crazed (2002): 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003. A Shanning University student, Jian Wan, cares for a literature professor who has suffered a stroke and renounces his beliefs. Wan questions his own values and sets off for Tiananmen Square.