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War Trash, Ha Jin (2004)

A mock-memoir written in first person, narrated by a Chinese veteran of the Korean War. Yu Yuan was a mild-mannered, slightly intellectual officer in the Red Army. Captured shortly after his deployment, he spends the war in various American prison camps, and here tells the story of the depredations he witnessed and experienced while incarcerated, sometimes at the hands of his captors but just as often as a result of the paranoia and misapplied zealousness of his own comrades.

That’s all well and good, but unfortunately the novel is a textbook example of the imitative fallacy. Ha Jin is too successful in his effort to create a authentically timid, awkward, stilted, fussy, frightened character to serve as his narrator. As a result, the writing here is crushingly dull. I fully believe that Yu Yuan would express himself this dully — “Often tired of news articles, I craved a good book, a long novel or biography. This mental deprivation was more painful to me than hunger.” — but the fact of the voice’s believability doesn’t make it any less boring.

There are other issues. Of particular interest to me, since it’s a problem I have struggled with myself, are Ha Jin’s attempts to integrate documentary information into the fabric of his fiction. By and large, War Trash is very successful in this regard, thanks to the vehicle of the first-person narrator who personally witnessed all the events recounted. Sometimes, though, Yu Yuan’s descriptions and accounts smell suspiciously of the library. A small example. Describing a prisoner who makes musical instruments, Yu Yuan mentions “an erhu, a two-stringed Chinese violin,” and immediately the narrative spell is broken, because Yu Yuan would no more say that than I would say “baseball, an American team sport.”

Fascinating subject, dramatic events, compelling characters, boring book.

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