Rebecca Johnson's Reviews > War Trash

War Trash by Ha Jin
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's review
Dec 08, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: flower-st-book-club
Read from March 25 to April 14, 2011

This book is one of those that is best appreciated after it's finished. The whole is more than the sum of the parts, and I found myself thinking about the book for several days after I finished it, which is a sure sign that it's a good one. Here are my thoughts, with no particular organization:

I thought it was an interesting choice by the author to write such a sympathetic character as the narrator of a pseudo-memoir. If this character is truly fictitious, then the author has all the freedom in the world to inject flaws as he goes, but instead he has created the bias one usually finds in real memoirs, whereby the narrator naturally presents him/herself in a positive light. The main character here is easy to root for as he continues to be bounced among the horrible situations in which he finds himself, apparently at the whim of whichever totally corrupt official he happens upon. He just keeps his head down and hopes to make it through alive.

Many have commented on the pedantic, episodic writing style. Indeed, there were episodes that didn't even have any apparent relevance to the overall storyline, such as the chapters about Blackie later in the book. I guess you could argue that being attached to a dog gives the narrator more emotional depth and likability, but he was pretty much already there before these episodes, in my opinion. I mean, the poor guy wants nothing more than to live through the war so he can get home to his mom and his fiancee.

I also think the somewhat cold and robotic writing style was a descriptor in and of itself of the necessary emotional numbing I would assume is a coping mechanism employed by war prisoners. I also wonder if the author was deliberately trying to emote as little as possible in a nod to Asian cultures that discourage outward displays of emotion, and so they learn to glean emotional cue from much more subtle displays.

The style reminded me Haruki Murakami, whose books have been translated into English. Ha Jin, however, writes in English, so I don't know if it is a function of translation (either after the fact or in the author's brain as he's writing in a non-native tongue) or not.

Finally, I think the obvious gimmick in war books is to focus on the brutality and total horror of it all; we all know by now that war is terrible, so it is easy to glaze over when you are reading about the atrocities (I have been on a war genre kick lately, so I'm not as shocked as I was when I started). I appreciate Ha Jin's minimalist approach of employing the more challenging whimper rather than the easy bang.

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Rebecca Johnson Halfway through. Still waiting for my mind to be blown, as promised in the reviews.

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