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A Stark Stunner


Spoiler Alert

A new regime takes over your country and soon after, goes to war against a vastly superior force. A number of young men, poorly equipped in every way, are sent to fight the war.

The war kills a lot of young people, but you survive, and are taken prisoner of war, lodged in a camp on a remote island. The camp is split into two groups – a majority of them loyal to the old regime in the country (lets call them the nationalists) and the rest loyal to the new Government (the loyalists). The former group wants to go back to a country near yours that's still controlled by the old regime, but you left an ageing mom and a pretty girlfriend behind when you went to war, so you choose to join the loyalists.

Your captors favor the other group – and for the loyalists, the hard grind of the camp is made harder still by the increased hostility of their captors, and the physical abuse they've to endure from the nationalists. Yet, somehow, you survive.

Finally, the war ends, and the captors hold a giant court of sorts, where you endure a tremendous amount of persuasion to the contrary and choose to go back to your country. A choice that only a few people made. A choice that saved a little bit of face for a nation already reeling from a humiliating defeat. You are all patriotic heroes.

You go back home, with the few others that wanted to. A few weeks into your stay, the Government labels all of you “shameless cowards” for not dying in the war, and inflicts varying degrees of punishment on the group. Death for some, job losses for some, slaps on the wrists for the lucky few.

End Spoiler

Makes no sense, you think? Well, it probably won't, until I tell you that the new regime was Communist. Then it all adds up just fine.

Narrated in the spare language of a soldier who taught himself English by reading bootlegged copies of the Bible, Ha Jin's War Trash is an outstanding work of fiction. Lacing together historical detail with a vivid imagination for what might have been, Jin constructs an evocative picture of life in a Chinese POW camp during the Korean War. Yu Yuan, the narrator is an educated young man, a junior officer who spends his time in the camp torn between an ideology he doesn't quite like and a family he loves a lot. His rudimentary knowledge of English gives him a window far beyond his grade into the events that unfold at the camp.

The camp splits into two groups: one loyal to the Communists, and the Nationalists that want to go to Taiwan. Hierarchies are established in both the groups – and it is sadly funny to watch the powerless “leaders” take themselves too seriously, as they make daily plans about nothing and argue endlessly about worthless transgressions. Riots are staged and quelled, and most of the time the planning of protests is an end in itself – a way for bored soldiers to feel purposeful.

Ha Jin's brilliant writing brings even the most mundane things to life: the unfolding of the friendship between a doctor treating him and Yuan is a great example of how his simple, ‘I'll-just-tell-you-what-happened' style works astonishingly well. It could've so easily become maudlin with a few extra words. Without any overt sentimentality, you go through virtually every emotion the characters feel. The simple joy of concocting a song from home-made instruments, or the incredible boredom of doing nothing day after day after day.

Through it all Yuan is always on the wall – trying to decide between the groups. The events in the camp are but a backdrop to the real drama in his mind as he agonizes over choices he should'nt have to make: His well-being or his family's survival? A secure financial future in a free country or a life with his mother and his fiancee?

This is one of those books that you don't want to end. Chandrahas Choudhury puts it so well, when he says,

[…]a wrenching experience associated with powerful novels: that of coming towards the close, the last few pages, after which our fortnight- or month-long involvement with a set of characters and an imagined world (no less real for being imagined) will abruptly come to an end. Surely this feeling is more painful than, say, the news of the death of a distant relative or acquaintance. To postpone closure, we try to read more slowly, linger over every sentence, close the book for a while and drift into our own thoughts.

If Professor Strunk ever wanted an example to illustrate what he meant when he wrote,

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

there is no better example than this book.

Here's my addition to the growing list of superlatives that critics have used to describe War Trash. Wow.

Here's an excerpt.