Hard-hitting, deeply earnest and unabashedly brutal, Bao Ninh’s 1994-published The Sorrow of War is a North Vietnamese war classic that remains essential reading for visitors to Vietnam today. Even if you don’t have a particular interest in the war years, it seems almost disrespectful to not read it if you are travelling to Vietnam.
Bao Ninh’s looping narrative, which circles in and around itself as it gradually unfurls, is frustrating at first. The point of view switches from first to third person, and it is not always clear what the timeline is—it’s certainly not linear. But the novel seems cleverly reflective of the post-war mind of protagonist Kien, who has survived horrible attack after horrible attack during the war, and then experiences more horror collecting dead bodies during the years directly afterwards. Now he's writing his experiences down to exorcise his demons. As Kien writes himself, “It is a dangerous spin he is in, flying off at a tangent, away from the traditional descriptive writing styles, where everything is orderly.”
It wouldn’t have been diagnosed then, but it’s a clear case of post-traumatic stress disorder—possibly for the author as well, one suspects. Kien writes, “From now on life may be always dark, full of suffering, with brief moments of happiness. Living somewhere between a dream world and reality, on the knife-edge between the two.” (For more on that in modern American warfare and PTSD, don’t miss the haunting short story collection Redeployment.)
It’s as if Bao Ninh gradually fills in a painting, and as a reader if you can let go of an attachment to the plot, the overall picture at the end is astonishing, and worth pursuing. The introduction says that Bao Ninh himself was born in Hanoi in 1952 and served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. Of the 500 who served with the brigade in 1969, he was one of 10 who survived. The novel is thus at least partly autobiographical, and indeed the Communist Party of Vietnam banned the book. (Wiki says counterfeit copies outsold real ones, which isn't surprising.)
At its simplest, The Sorrow of War explores Kien’s pre-war life as a school student, his relationship with his high school sweetheart, then their lives during the war and then the aftermath. There's no romanticism of war here; just horror, and sadness about the pointlessness of it all.
Interspersed across the narrative are potted histories of families and individuals whose lives were upended by the war. Tram driver Huynh, for instance, had three sons killed in the war. His wife became paralysed after she heard about the third son’s death; “now the old couple lived miserably, in silence.” Or there’s Sinh, whose “hair had all fallen out, revealing a darkening scalp, dry as old timber. His nose had flattened, and his cheeks had collapsed, revealing his teeth and eye-sockets.” The stories are different but the results are consistent: living hell, even for those who survived the war.
As the author of The Sympathizer (another essential Vietnam read) writes in a New York Times opinion piece, “For most Americans and the world, 'Vietnam' means the 'Vietnam War,' and the Vietnam War means the American war, with novels written by American men about American soldiers. While their experiences are important, they are hardly representative of the Vietnam War, much less Vietnam.” As well, as he also writes, The Sorrow of War is not just a Vietnam War classic, it is a war classic, period.
For travellers to Vietnam, The Sorrow of War is an essential counterbalance to the propaganda about the war that continues to be pumped out at most museums you’ll visit across the country. It’s a reminder that the war devastated the quiet lives of so many Vietnamese people, even on the “winning” side.
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