Literature and War Readalong December 30 2013: The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu by Bao Ninh

The Sorrow of War

We’ve all seen movies or read books on the war in Vietnam from an American perspective. Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu is told from the other side. The author was a North Vietnamese soldier and the book is based on his experiences.  The majority of the books we’ve read this year were set far away from the frontline. With this last novel of this year’s readalong, we return to the territory of the soldier.

Here’s the blurb

Kien’s job is to search the Jungle of Screaming Souls for corpses. He knows the area well – this was where, in the dry season of 1969, his battalion was obliterated by American napalm and helicopter gunfire. Kien was one of only ten survivors. This book is his attempt to understand the eleven years of his life he gave to a senseless war.

And the first sentences

On the banks of the Ya Crong Poco, on the northern flank of the 3B battlefield in the Central Highlands, the Missing In Action body-collecting team awaits the dry season of 1976.

The mountains an jungles ae water-soaked and dull. Wet trees. Quiet jungles. All day and all night the water steams. A sea of greenish vapour over the jungle’s carpet of rotting leaves.


The discussion starts on Monday, 3o December 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

22 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong December 30 2013: The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu by Bao Ninh

  1. This looks like a fascinating book, Caroline! Especially because it is from a North Vietnamese perspective. Hope you enjoy reading it. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

    When I saw the accents / tones over the English transliteration of the original title, I felt that Vietnamese is probably more complex than Chinese. I am wondering how many tones it has.

    • I’m wary since the Keilson experience. Still, I hope it will be good.
      I have no idea how many tones, I only know that there might be similar words with different accents meaning something completely different.

      • I hope this one is better than Keilson’s book, Caroline.
        Similar words having different meanings – that is one of the challenges of learning an East Asian language. I remember when I learnt Chinese, I discovered that the same word, when pronounced with different accents, used to mean ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ 🙂 Those accents were so hard to remember.

          • I wouldn’t say that I can speak Chinese well now. Even when I was at my most fluent, I could only have simple conversations with taxi drivers and shop assistants. I couldn’t handle more complex things than that and definitely not social conversations. But it was fun to learn – so many accents and so different from other languages. When I called someone on the phone and spoke in Chinese and the other person understood it for the first time, I was so thrilled 🙂 It was so hard to reach there.

            • I can imagine. I can also imagine that you forget it quickly when you don’t use it anymore. I could have used Chinese when I was in Hong Kong. I always thought they spoke English but they don’t anymore.
              I’m really impressed. 🙂

              • Thanks Caroline. Now I can only say ‘Ni hao’ fluently 🙂 It is wonderful to know that you know Chinese too. Is there any language you don’t know? 🙂 You are such an amazing linguist and polyglot!

                • Sorry, no, I don’t know Chinese but I learned some Ashanti Twi at the university and it’s a tone language. the same word spoke differently can mean many different things. 🙂 But I’ve forgotten everything. I never used it.

                  • Fascinating to know that, Caroline! I haven’t heard of Ashanti Twi and so searched for it on Wikipedia. It looks quite interesting and complex. The tones here seem to be more harder, because they look deceptively simple. Chinese has rise and fall and fall-rise and rise-fall tones, but in Ashanti Twi it looks like the pitch for each of the tones is different and I think this is more harder to spot for the untrained ear of a non-native speaker. So amazing that you learnt it in university!

                    • It’s extremely difficult to hear the differences, yes. We just learned basics and I wasn’t very good at it. That would need a stay in the country.

  2. I’m going to have to sit this one out because I have a busy, busy December. But I’ll pop in to read everyone’s thoughts. Are you planning on doing another round of war readalongs next year? I hope so, and I’ll try to participate more often! 😉

  3. Indeed this book is told from a perspective that we in the West are not very familiar with. I am really looking forward to reading your commentary on this one.

  4. Hi, Caroline,
    Now that all I have left to do is to grade 24 exams, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t try to get a hold of a copy of this sooner. It’s not available on Kindle or Nook, but there is a copy in a library that is in a fun place to visit. I’m hoping Ken and I can get there right after Christmas, and if we do, I’ll pick it up. I really want to read it. Barnes and Noble and Amazon have been so bad over the holiday season, I don’t trust them to send me a copy anywhere near on time.
    I do wish you a very merry Christmas!

    • A merry Christmas to you as well, Judith.
      I’m in the middle of the book and although it’s not flawless. I like it a great deal. It’s like a company piece to Tim O’Brien’s. But so different in tone.

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