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.