Bao Ninh was born in Hanoi in 1952. During the Vietnam War he served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. Of the 500 who went to war with the brigade in 1969, he is one of 10 who survived. The Sorrow of War is Bao Ninh’s first novel.
The Americans lost about 60,000 men in this war. The Vietnamese lost three million. With the publication of this novel, the Vietnamese finally found a voice.
This truly powerful book touches and moves the body, mind and soul. More memorable than Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, it is a huge addition to our canon of world literature, a masterpiece that helps us understand war, its atrocities, its inevitability, its cowardice and its downright abuses and cruelties.
The novel’s protagonist, Kien, is a lone survivor of his brigade and a 10-year veteran of the war. When the book opens, he is part of an MIA (missing in action) body-collecting team in the jungle of screaming souls.
Bao Minh writes in the most individualistic style, moving to and fro over the 10 years of this horrific war. There is also a credible love story, Kien’s feelings for the beautiful gifted and loving Phuong, this love destroyed with pathos by war, loss and suffering. There is the loss of youth, family, life, tradition and love — all is encompassed in the real sorrow of war, in other words, the human story of war.
The story is structured as a series of reminiscences and flashbacks. Some stories are retold from a different and deeper perspective. For example, with the retelling of the rape scenes we understand more and more the utmost emptiness and depravity that subsumes the perpetrators, and the cruelty that they inflicted on their victims.
The writing process, too, redeems the narrator/protoganist/author. He explains the process repeatedly in a personal way to the reader — manuscript pages are unnumbered, the manuscript is in danger of being lost or discarded, and chance plays a part in the telling of the story itself. Kien looks back not just at his 10 years at war, but at his final days at school, his confused love for Phuong, his work with the MIA team after the war, the rapid dissolution of life itself fought out in the jungles and cities of Vietnam.
He bears witness, this is his attempt at a personal salvation. The protagonist, Kien, eventually confesses. But we are/were human.
There is a parallel story of lost love (Phuong and Kien) and the sorrowful story of war — both fierce but in a way the two forces are multiplied together here — love lost and the agony of war.
It recalls for me Caitlin Maude’s masculine and wild love poems Amhran Gra Vietnam (Love song of Vietnam): “But the sorrowful soldier faces made us laugh and we settled on a quiet place near the river”.
There was also a mute girl whom Kien loved on another level. She gathered the windswept pages of his manuscript; an injured woman-soldier whom he loved very briefly; an attempted seduction of him by one of “The green Coffee girls”; and Lanh, who at the age of 13 had pledged her love for Kien. But his life-long love for the wandering and uncertain Phuong was at another substantial and eternal level.
War appears to defeat the human capacity for love. Here there is no joy but truth, and truth sublimates suffering if anything does, even among the heaped-up corpses at Saigon airport after the American withdrawal.
This is a hauntingly powerful Vietnam War novel. It is also an anti-war novel. There had been much rape, bombing, killing, torching with Agent Orange, horrific destruction as it is recorded in Apocalypse Now. But it is not only an account of the horrors of war, it is about uncertainty, the search for identity and self-respect. It is a statement about honesty and the journey towards self-realisation, through love, loyalty, and post-traumatic shock. Love is lost, regained, lost again but overall there is an honesty and truth that the soul screams for acknowledgement and will always survive despite the cruelty and barbarism of men towards each other.
Translation by Frank Palmos. Original translation by Phan Thanh Hao. Winner of The Independent Foreign Fiction Award. English translation copyright Martin Secker & Warburg