Booksluts Challenge #2: War Trash
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So here we are again with one of these Booksluts ‘Full Frontal’ Challenge books. My word, when I signed up for this challenge and was blithely going through the lists of award winners for the different prizes, I had really forgotten how freakin’ harrowing literary fiction can be. This is a prime example of that – War Trash is super-intense. This book won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction in 2005, but was also a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. Pretty hot shit.
And it’s no surprise really. This book kind of epitomises, to me, everything that fiction is capable of being – characters that really make you care about what happens to them, a broadening of your senses, creation of an empathy with characters who might be outside your realm of experience. The trick seems to be in Ha Jin’s writing – amazingly clear, emotive but not over the top, human as all get out. To be honest, I thought that I had picked up a memoir rather than a fictional book when I first started reading it, the details were so intricate and realistic (at least to my eyes – I’ve never been to that region of the world, and apart from one university paper and some reading, don’t know much about China at all, really. And I’ve certainly never been a prisoner of war, thank goodness). The story is basically a young man’s struggle to return to China after fighting in the Korean War as a member of the People’s Volunteer Army. He’s captured after his platoon is systematically destroyed by the better equipped Allied forces, which were led by the United States. I have to say that although I’ve already used the words ‘harrowing’ and ‘intense’ in this entry once so far, I may have recourse to use them again, ’cause that’s pretty much the best descriptions of this book, especially of Yu Yuan (the main character’s) time in the POW camp. This camp was ostensibly run by the United Nations forces, but on the inside was controlled by the Nationalist army defectors, who wanted to go to Taiwan. Man, you know what, I don’t think that this is the kind of book that you can have a ‘favourite’ part of, but I just totally loved the idea that Yu Yuan didn’t give two craps about who was in charge; he just wanted to go home, look after his Mum and marry his girl, you know? Human, like I say. As long as his Mum was happy and everyone had enough to eat and someone to take care of them, that was the main thing to him. He says a couple of times during the episode, particularly when the Nationalist faction are trying to coerce him into going to Taiwan rather than going back to China that he doesn’t want to wander around Taiwan, being all safe and getting on with his life when his Mum has noone to take care of her and his fiance will wonder what became of him. I loved that.
There are some amazingly descriptive passages, and some really telling (I guess, kind of humanist) ideas in this book. You strike these ideas quite a lot in books either about the actual experience of war, like the actual fighting of it, or the periferal experience (like, living through wartime). Probably the book that I would most equate War Trash to is Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec, which I loved hard, but you can also find the same sorts of ideas in almost anything about war from a regular person’s perspective, from The Diary of Anne Frank to The Motorcycyle Diaries. Just the ideas of the deprivation of fighting forces,whether they’re a guerilla fighting force like the Bielski band, or the cut off remanants of a People’s Volunteer Army platoon, as well as the way that people change when they’re faced with that deprivation. Those were some of the most interesting passages for me.
Would I recommend this book? That is answered with a resounding Hells Yes, I would. I mean, it’s a bit (harrowing? intense?) for the more squeemish amongst you, but I guess at this point, if you are long time readers of this blog, then I should really credit my cublings with stronger stomachs. Go on, read it.