Bao Ninh: The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu (1991) Literature and War Readalong December 2013

The Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu is the first (North) Vietnamese novel I’ve read. It is based on Ninh’s own experiences during the Vietnam war. We are used to read about the war in Vietnam from an US perspective and I was really curious to see how it would be treated by a North Vietnamese writer. I had a few expectations but none were met. The book was so much better than I had expected. It’s one of a very few war novels I’d say I really loved and if I had read it earlier this year, it would have made the Best of List. Reading this, you may possibly think it’s a perfect novel but it isn’t. It’s flawed but so intense, emotional, lyrical, tragic  and beautiful that I can easily forgive its shortcomings.

The Sorrow of War reminded me a lot of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The two books would make great companion reads. Both approach the story in a non-linear way and narrate episodes rather than a chronological story. Both books have strong metafictional aspects, but The Sorrow of War goes even one step further. We have a narrator who is at the same time a writer and a narrator who had similar experiences and finds the writer’s manuscript. When he talks about that manuscript he addresses the element that I have called “shortcomings” earlier and reading that one doubts whether it’s a real shortcoming or an effect that Bao Ninh wanted to achieve. Nevertheless, the book jumps back and forth in time and there are a lot of repetitions. Every time a scene is repeated a new element is added but it’s still often difficult to know who is telling something and when.

Where Tim O Brien’s and Bao Ninh’s novel differ completely is the tone. The Sorrows of War is much gentler, full of palpable sorrow and lyrical passages in which Kien, the writer-narrator, evokes beautiful moments. Kien has spent far over ten years at war and is a survivor. More than one platoon he’s been part of was wiped out. At the beginning of the book, in 1976, he’s part of a Missing-in-Action body collecting team. Somewhat later, after the war, we see him battle his demons; alcoholism, despair, nightmares, depression. He’s seen the worst. The depravity and cruelty of people and soldiers. One of the worst things happened at the very beginning of the war and is related to the love of Kien’s life, Phuong. The Sorrow of War is also a love story, the story of two people whose love was shattered by war. To read why and how and slowly discover the details is harrowing.

In the best passages of the book Kien renders episodes in which the kindness of people or the beauty of nature are contrasted with the ugliness of the battlefields. Another element I liked and which makes this very different from any of the US accounts I’ve read is the belief in ghosts and spirits. The violence with which the soldiers die turns many into ghosts. There is one part of the forest that the people have come to call the Jungle of the Screaming Souls. One of the drivers of the MIA body collecting team tells Kien that every time he drives by that battlefield a ghost joins him and wants to talk to him. What is interesting is that nobody doubts that there are ghosts. They are not scared because dead people try to talk to them but because they can feel the pain those ghosts had to endure before they died. The whole area is like one giant graveyard where all the souls are screaming and mourning constantly. Eerie.

Another element that makes this book so outstanding is that neither the Americans nor the South Vietnamese are ever demonized. Every person in this book is simply a human, thrown into this awful conflict for no better reason than politics.

At the end, Kien has written his book and leaves. Nobody knows where he has gone. He’s lost so much, there was no returning to the life as it had been before and now he’s lost as well.

I don’t know how typical of Vietnamese literature this is, but I’m determined to find out. If there are more writers like Bao Ninh I’d like to read them.


The Sorrow of War was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The first book in 2014 is the American Civil War novel The Black Flower by Howard Bahr. Discussion starts on Friday 31 January, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

35 thoughts on “Bao Ninh: The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu (1991) Literature and War Readalong December 2013

  1. I’m a fan of Tim O’Brien’s stories The Things They Carried which makes me think that I’d enjoy this novel as well. Like you, I’ve not read any novels from Vietnamese authors, so thank you for this post.

    Happy New Year to you and the kitties! 🙂

    • Happy New Year to you and Reggie as well. 🙂
      It’s not as polished as Tim O Brien’s book but it has such beautiful passages, the tone is very mournful. I liked it a great deal. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.
      I suppose Vietnamese literature is quite rich.

  2. Excellent review. I understood better what I read from your analysis. I’m glad you liked it since it was one I suggested. The following is what I wrote after finishing the book.

    What a Christmas gift from Caroline. LOL “The Sorrow of War” was actually one of my favorites from this year’s readalong, but boy what a downer. Here are a few of my thoughts:

    1. I am not a nonlinear fan, but I tolerated it in this novel. It was a bit lame to justify it by having the papers mixed up.
    2. I have read a lot of Vietnam War novels, but this is the first from the North Vietnamese point of view. It gave me a new perspective on what the enemy went through. I am not a rabid American and have always taught the Vietnam War as a mistake so I was open to the tale. I already admired the perseverance of the “enemy”. The book does highlight the incredible suffering the soldiers went through and you can’t help but feel sympathetic. I was a bit surprised that NVA soldiers wanted out just as American soldiers did and they also used drugs (canina flowers). I was really surprised that the NVA soldiers were not welcomed back when the war ended
    3. There are a lot of ghosts and dreams in the novel. In describing the first battle (in the book), Bao Ninh says “… numerous souls of ghosts and devils were born in that deadly defeat. They were still loose, wandering in every corner and bush in the jungle, drifting along the stream, refusing to depart for the other world.”
    4. There are some key women’s “roles” in this book. That is rare in a American Vietnam War novel. Phoung and Hien come off better than Kien in my opinion. The story of the naked dead girl at the airport was especially powerful.
    5. His combat vignettes are good and offered some welcome action to the story. “The machine gun eagerly ate up the cartridges and spat the copper shells aside, blazing deadly fire at the stream of insane men rushing into their sight making themselves targets of flesh.” Good stuff. One glitch was the translation of their weapons as “submachine guns”. I do not think that was a common NVA firearm. I think the translator should have said AK-47.
    6. “What remained was sorrow, the immense sorrow, the sorrow of having survived. The sorrow of war.” I have run across that sentiment a lot in my reading.
    7. The survivors owed their comrades who had sacrificed. I feel the NVA soldiers could feel this way more than American soldiers. Kien certainly had a lot of comrades who sacrificed their lives!
    8. Reflecting on the victory: “Justice may have won, but cruelty, death, and inhuman violence have also won.” I admire the fact that the novel is not propagandistic. I wonder how it was received in Vietnam, especially by the government.
    9. “Losses can be made good, damage can be repaired , and wounds will heal in time. But the psychological scars of war will remain forever.” So true. However, you have to admit that Kien’s experiences were extreme.
    10. I did not like Kien. He was a wimp in his personal life and the way he treated Phoung was aggravating. If the book is autobiographical, Bao Ninh deserves a lot of credit for being open about his faults.

    The most memorable part of the book for me was the rail station scene. This is because my father flew fighter-bombers in the war and might have taken part in such a raid. I don’t feel bad about that, it was a war and he was doing his job. However, I had naturally not focused on who was on the receiving end.

    The book has been compared to “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. I think this book is better. Possibly because I could not tell what was bull shit as easily as I could discern it in O’Brien’s book. I felt the metafiction vibe was not as strong as in O’Brien’s book which is a good thing. It is certainly a good companion to that book.

    Thanks for hosting the readalong again. Looking forward to next year’s. I hope to be able to find all of the books this time around.

    As to your query about Vietnamese novels, start with “The Other Side of Heaven” edited by Wayne Karlin, etc. It is a collection of excerpts from American and Vietnamese writers. Here are some you might want to look into:

    An Insignificant Family by Da Ngan – life of a woman writer and guerrilla warrior
    Behind the Red Mist by Ha Anh Thai – short stories by the most important post-war writer
    Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai – a ten year old girl is affected by the fall of Saigon
    Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong – young man in the NVA army

    Let me know if you are going to read any of them, I might want to join.

    • I’m so glad we feel the same. I was a bit worried the nonlinear structure would put you off but it’s not important after a while. I just read it like vignettes and they were all so very well done, very emotional.
      I liked Tim O?BRien but I think this one is just as good. I would wish more people wpuld read it.
      The drug use was surprising, true, and the fact that there were so many strong female characters. I can’t say I disliked Kien. I didn’t really get a feeling for him and never knew when we were reading the narrator nd when it was Kien.
      To answer point 8 – It was forbidden in Vietnam as it’s really not pro-Communist. On the contraray I’d say.
      I’m glad this year’s readalong had such a strong end. Thanks for the suggestion. Funny that we end with one of your suggestions and start with another. 🙂
      Thank you so much for the reading suggestions. I have two of Duong Thu Huong’s novels but I’m not sure which ones as they are in French. I’d be interested in the last three. I’ll see if I can get them and which one I have and the we can see, if we want to do a tandem read.

  3. All I read about the Vietnam War are the writings by Vietnamese leaders Giap, Ho Chi Minh, Le Duan as well as academic works by progressive intellectuals in the west with Uncle Ho’s Prison Diaries as the only literary work relatively related to the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation against French and US imperialist aggression. I think this is a great novel that I am looking forward to reading soon. Thanks for this write-up. Happy New Year!

    • I’d be interested to hear your thoughts should you read it. I find it really great and wish it would be read more widely. Those prisond diaries sound interesting. I’ll have to have a look.
      Happy New Year to you as well.

  4. Indeed it sounds like a very different book from a very different different perspective.Though I do have not read much fiction, i have read a lot of non fiction including first hand accounts of the war from the American, French (From the first Indochina war) and the South Vietnamese perspective. AS you allude to, there are few from the point of view of the North.

    Something different like this, on a subject that is so integral in terms of twentieth century history should be widely read.

  5. I’m really sorry I didn’t read this one–I loved Tim O’Brien’s book and suspect I would have really enjoyed this one as well–I just ran out of time and felt so overwhelmed at the end of the year. I’ll add this to my reading list however–my library owns it so I can easily get it. As always I’m hoping to get all the new list read and have the Bahr book ready to go! Happy New Year Caroline–hope you have had a relaxing and happy holiday season! 🙂

    • I think you’d have liked this, but it’s better you try it one day when you feel like it and have enough time. I thought that overall it was mournful but very beautiful still.
      I’ll be starting the Bahr soon. I think it should be very good. Happy New Year to you too. And I hope you had a great time as well. Or still do, should you still be off until next week. I hope so. 🙂

  6. Beautiful review, Caroline! Glad to know that you liked Bao Ninh’s book so much and the last book of the year turned out to be a superhit 🙂 I haven’t read a book by a Vietnamese author yet. I would like to read this one. The metafictional structure of the book is interesting. I am also happy to know that Bao Ninh’s prose is very beautiful. I also enjoyed reading Kevin’s post-length comment 🙂 What he said about the strong women characters in the book was quite interesting. I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. I am hoping to participate in the Literature and War Readalong for some of the months this year. I am really excited about it 🙂 Hope your year has got off to a good start and you are enjoying the first days of the new year.

    • Thank you, Vishy. The year did start very well, thank you.
      I’m gald that the last readalong title was so good. i had hopes but wasn’t sure. Or rather I was anxious it would be too bleak. It’s not uplifting but there was so much to like.
      Kevin and I don’t always agree but here we eally did both like it. I didn’t even realize how many female charcaters there were but it’s true. The Vietnamese fought the war in an entirely different way. To large extents, obviuosly because it took place in thero home country. I’d be very interested to hear what you think of it.
      I hope you can join for some titles next year.

    • Anna, I’m sure you will like it. It’s very special. Tim O’Brien is better strcutured but there really are a lot of similarities. This moved me more, it was more emotional. I’d be so interested to hear what you think of it. It’s quite short (220 pages)

  7. I don’t read much war literature, but I have made a pact with myself to read Tim O’Brien’s book. And if that goes over well, I can see this one would make an excellent companion. Lovely review, Caroline – I felt I had a clear understanding of what the novel was like by the end of it.

    • Thanks, Litlove. I think you’d like this one. It’s sadder than Tim O’Brien but not as gruesome. The Things They Carried is masterful but it’s a tough read. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, that’s for sure.

  8. Only by reading your review I can tell that Vietnam is not much different than the rest of Asia. The Screaming Soul is similar to many Indonesian ghoat story and we belive ghodt exist.

    the enemy is not totally evil is liked so many Japanese stories…it’s the US movie industry that keeps dividing evil and good without gray line.

    You know, I miss reading your review! I am planning to do mord blog reading now…try to manage my time better 🙂

    • I didn’t get such a lot of time to read reviews either. Don’t worry. 🙂
      I found that part of the book, about the ghost so appealing and really thozght the same. It’s typically Asian. It makes sense to me too. So many violent deaths . . . There must be many souls who get lost between here and there.

  9. I am a little late commenting as I’ve only recently finished the Sorrow of War. This also became one of my books of 2013 even though I only came to it as the year was drawing to a close. I must admit that when my copy arrived in the first post after Christmas (27th December) I put it on one side for a day or two. I expected it to be grim and harrowing and really not the sort of thing you’d want to read over the Christmas break but I was wrong. The overwhelming feeling from the book is one of great sadness – the title is apt. There are horrific scenes and you feel compassion for everyone caught up in the horror. Like Caroline I liked the matter of fact acceptation that the jungle will be full of ghosts given the number of people who died there

    The episodic nature of the narrative seemed to me to suit the subject matter where the narrator would remember scenes but not necessarily in chronological order. I felt immensely sorry for Kien, battling with his demons, especially as the novel gradually unfolds the background of what happened to Phoung.

    I kept thinking about those who survived WW1 and how similar their experiences were of not being able to fit back into civilian society and how hollow the victory must have seemed. We haven’t learned much have we?

    I also want to read more written from the Vietnamese point of view. Thanks Kevin for the suggestions of further reading. And thanks Caroline for choosing this important and moving book.

    • You’re welcome, Caroline. I’m so glad you liked it as well. This was one of the titles I was really not sure about and like you I put it aside over the holidays but it wasn’t grim or gruesome, just sad and very honest.
      At first I found it very repetitive but there was always a little bit added and especially Phoung’s story was only understandable after he added the last bit. The way he approahce dthat was very moving in the end.
      I never wondered how it was for the Vietnamese to go on but it must have been even wrose as everything always reminded them. I think there is a huge difference whether your own country is invaded and devastated on top of everything else.
      I found Novel Without a Name among my books and hope to read it this year. Other than that I don’t think I know any other Vietnamese writer but this book made their literature look very promising. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  10. You find the most interesting books, Caroline. As an American, I am very interested to get the perspective of someone from North Vietnam. It will also be interesting to compare it to The Things They Carried, which I intend to read soon. Great review.

  11. An amazing book and the most humble man you will ever meet. I bought a pirate copy of this book in Hanoi in 1996 and read it while travelling in the North of Vietnam, I bought The Sorrow of War and also Dương Thu Hương’s Paradise of the Blind, which I also recommend, for the same reasons you mention, to have another perspective, a Vietnamese one and a women writer.

    Then a couple of years ago Bao Ninh came here to Aix en Provence with a group of South Asia writers. The others talked about their books and their ambitions and Bao Ninh said he wasn’t a writer, he was a simple man who had an experience and he needed to write about it. Oh, he was the most interesting and humble of them all and everything he said proved him to be the great writer he is, one who observes humanity and is able to make the reader experience it.

    • Thanks for your comment. How interesting. I can imagine him so well.
      Duong Thu Houng is quite famous in France. That’s where I bought her books. I’ll be reading her this year, I’m sure.
      It’s strange that I actually found Te Sorrow of War so beautiful but I guess that comes from Ninhs compassion.

  12. Pingback: Literature and War Readalong May 29 2015: Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Duong Thu Huong | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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