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.

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.

Hans Keilson: The Death of the Adversary – Der Tod des Widersachers (1959) Literature and War Readalong November 2013

Death of the Adversary

I wish it hadn’t happened but it did. I couldn’t finish Hans Keilson’s novel The Death of the AdversaryDer Tod des Widersachers. Not because I ran out of time but because – frankly – I hated it. I hate parables and books that whiff of Kafka (and are not Kafka) and  . . . If  you want to write about Nazism and the rise of Hitler, why don’t you mention it. Why does Hitler have to be referred to as “B”? Why is it never stated that the narrator is Jewish . . . It’s obvious, of course, but the way this is handled is just annoying.  Ilse Aichinger does a similar thing in her novel Herod’s ChildrenDie grössere Hoffnung, but it never feels like mannerism, it’s powerful, expressive and chilling.

I’ve read about 2/3 of The Death of the Adversary and there were passages I thought masterful but they had nothing to do with Nazism and/or oppression but were mainly taken from either childhood or young adult memories. There is a story in which the narrator tells how he forged stamps. This was psychologically subtle. There are other instances in which we see that Keilson’s observations are the result of his being a psychiatrist.

The book’s central story tells how a young Jewish boy first learns about his adversary “B”, a man who slowly rises to political power. His power can be felt in the growing number of followers and how they accept his theories and apply his laws and rules, which first lead to exclusion of the Jews, and then to their persecution. I don’t see what is gained in calling Hitler “B”. Did he want to show the universality of evil? He wanted to show the banality of it, which becomes obvious when he sees the man. And the way he treats the adversary as a recurring motif, showing that he is  s much on the inside as on the outside  . . .  Most of the time, I agree, things are not black or white but I don’t want this concept applied to Hitler and Nazism.

There is also a parable-in-the-parable – the story of the elks and the wolves, which I found particularly ambiguous. Elks were living under the best conditions, however they were not striving but dying. Why? Because there were no wolves. In order to live they would have needed adversaries.

I almost always finish books because some stories need every single passage to become a whole. Given that The Death of the Adversary is not only a parable but a disjointed book – I wouldn’t really call it a novel -,  I’m pretty sure, the end wouldn’t have made me think differently. From what I’ve seen so far, Keilson might be a good writer but he’s not a novelist.

I know that I’m one of a very few who didn’t like this book. But I really didn’t and although I’m sure that Comedy in a Minor Key is different – I’m not going anywhere near Keilson’s fictional work  for a while.

Other (favorable) reviews

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Mel u (The Reading Life)


The Death of the Adversary was the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the Vietnamese novel The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu by Bao Ninh. Discussion starts on Monday 30 December, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong November 29 2013 Meets German Literature Month: Death of the Adversary – Der Tod des Widersachers by Hans Keilson

Death of the Adversary

This months readalong title Death of the Adversary aka Der Tod des Widersachers by Hans Keilson is also part of German Literature Month. Keilson was an interesting figure. A German/Dutch novelist and psychiatrist who is most famous for his WWII novels. Born in 1909 in Germany, Keilson, who was Jewish, emigrated in 1936 to the Netherlands where he stayed until his death in 2011. During the war he was part of the Dutch Resistance. In his work he tried to analyse and illustrate the psychological, political and cultural aftermath of WWII.

Here is the book blurb

1930s Germany; the shadow of Nazism looms. Pictures of the new dictator, ‘B.’, fill magazines and newspapers. Our hero is ten when his world begins to change dramatically. Suddenly, the other children won’t let him join in their games. Later, he is refused a job on a shop-floor. Later still, he hears youths boasting of an attack on a Jewish cemetery. Both hypnotised and horrified by his enemy, our hero chronicles the fear, anger and defiance of everyday life under tyranny.

Written while Hans Keilson was in hiding during World War II, this novel is a powerful account of what he outlived. Painful, trenchant and streaked with dark humour The Death of the Adversary is a rediscovered masterpiece.

And the first sentences

For days and weeks now I have thought of nothhing but death. Though I am normally a late riser, I get up early every morning now, calm and uplifted, after a night of drealess sleep. I feel all my powers string and ready within me, as they have not been for a long time. I welcome the day which brings me once again the thought of death.


The discussion starts on Friday, 29 November 2013.

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

Vasily Grossman: Everything Flows (1961) Literature and War Readalong October 2013

Everything Flows

Would you inform on people to save your own life? Sign papers knowing very well it will send people to the Gulag? Would you? If you are like me, you are unable to answer this question. You will hope that you wouldn’t but how can you be sure. It didn’t take a lot for people to be sent to the camps. Anything would make the state suspect subversiveness.Some were sent because others signed a paper, some were sent because they didn’t sign papers. According to the afterword Grossman did precisely that, he signed a paper which served to arrest a group of doctors. He must have felt guilty all of his life, resented his own weakness. Exploring why people would do such a thing, is one of the themes in Everything Flows. It’s not always out of fear or cowardice.

A friend of Ivan Grigoryevich is responsible that he is sent to the Gulag for thirty years. He is released after Stalin’s death in 1953. At first he visits his cousin Nikolay, in Moscow. Nikolay is a scientist who has made a remarkable career, due to some extent to his betrayal of others. When he sees Ivan again, he’s incapable of showing compassion of listening to Ivan’s story. All he does is talk about his own hardships. How very cynical. No deprivations endured outside can be compared with what those in the camps had to go through. These are poignant scenes, which show the selfishness and faulty thinking of so many, the struggle between a bad conscience and the aim to refuse any responsibility. Ivan then moves on to Leningrad where he hopes to meet a former lover. He meets Anna Sergeyevna instead and shares a room with her and her little son. Her husband has been sent to a camp. She blames herself for having taken part in the Terror famine of 1932-3.

The story of Ivan is the only coherent storyline. It is interrupted by stories of other people and many non-fiction parts – on the terror against the Ukrainians, on Lenin and Stalin, on their terror regimes, on the way the Soviet Union worked. This made me wonder often whether Everything Flows can really be called a novel. Where is the borderline? How much non-fiction elements can a book contain and still be called fiction? Grossman didn’t see the publication of Everything Flows and it is possible he would have altered it, still, according to the afterword, it’s finished the way it is. He would not have removed the nonfiction parts, although it seems obvious that they were added to the manuscript later.

Until WWII Grossman was loyal to the Soviet state but after having witnessed the war, having been in Stalingrad, that changed completely. From then on he was focussing in his work on writing about everything as truthfully as possible, on not embellishing and buying into the state’s way of distorting the truth. This cost him almost everything and I’m surprised he was never sent to the Gulag himself. One of his most traumatic experiences was when his novel Life and Fate was confiscated. What further contributed to his critical view of the Soviet state was Stalin’s antisemitism.

In his best parts Everything Flows is an amazing testimony of compassion and humanity. In other parts it is a masterful depiction of the human condition and an open criticism of totalitarianism. Some of the non-fiction parts were a bit heavy going, as I was not familiar with many of the names and with Soviet history in general. I think he rendered the atmosphere of being unfree and the paranoia very well.

I’d like to read a biography of Grossman. He served 1000 days during WWII, was present in Stalingrad and his The Hell of Treblinka was the first eyewitness account and was used during the Nuremberg trials. Has anyone read the Gerrard’s biography The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman or Grossman’s The Writer at War?

Other reviews

Andrew Blackman

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Silver Seasons (Silver Threads)


Everything Flows was the tenth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel Death of the Adversary aka Der Tod des Widersachers by German writer Hans Keilson. Discussion starts on Friday 29 November, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong October 28 2013: Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

Everything Flows

I’m very late in announcing this month’s readalong title. Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows isn’t a war novel per se. It’s a post war novel. I found it’s about time to have a look what state countries, which had participated in WWII, were left in after the war. Russia is decidedly one of the most interesting places when it comes to the post-war era and Grossman is famous for the way he captures this time. Like many other Russian authors Grossman’s novels were forbidden during the Soviet era. Everything Flows was written after his major work Life and Fate.  I have seen a few of his books reviewed on various blogs ( Silver Threads on Life and Fate –  A Work in Progress on Armenian Sketchbook –  Caravana de Recuerdos on Life and Fate) and the feedback was always more than favorable.

I’ll leave you with the b blurb and the first sentences.

Ivan Grigoryevich has been in the Gulag for thirty years. Released after Stalin’s death, he finds that the years of terror have imposed a collective moral slavery. He must struggle to find a place for himself in an unfamiliar world. Grossman tells the stories of those people entwined with Ivan’s fate: his cousin Nikolay, a scientist who never let his conscience interfere with his career, Pinegin, the informer who had Ivan sent to the camps and Anna

Here are the first sentences

The Khabarovsk express was due to arrive in Moscow by 9 a.m.. A young man in pyjamas scratched his shaggy head and looked out of the window into the half-light of the autumn morning. He yawned, turned to the people standing in the corridor with their soap boxes and towels and said, “Well, citizens, who’s last in line?”

I will be reading the German translation Alles fliesst. I have this idea that Russian works better translated into German.

Alles fliesst



The discussion starts on Monday, 28 October 2013.

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

Alexander Baron: There’s No Home (1950) Literature and War Readalong September 2013

There Is No Time

Alexander Baron was once known as the great British novelist of WWII, but since then he’s been somewhat forgotten. Three of his novels are “war novels”.  There’s No Home is one of them. For a novel about WWII it’s surprisingly peaceful and deals with a lesser known aspect of the war. When the allies invaded Sicily, and drove back the Germans to the Italian mainland, some of the troops were granted a few months of peace and quiet during which they lived among the Sicilian civilians.

There are different POV characters in the novel, but the main story focuses on Sgt Craddock. He’s the type of soldier liked by everyone, superiors and inferiors alike. He’s married with a little kid. Being away from home, first in combat and now in this eerie state of peace among the Sicilian civilians makes home seem like another world, a world far more foreign than Sicily. When he meets Graziella, falls in love with her and lives with her, almost as if they were husband and wife, only with far more openness and directness than he’s ever known with his wife, his own life in England moves farther and farther away.

The love story between Craddock and Graziella, is the only coherent story line, the rest is made of anecdotal episodes, either about civilian life or things that happen among the soldiers during the time in Sicily. The war and the fighting are far away, but eventually, they have to move on, go back to fighting and leave everything that has become dear to them.

It’s easy to see that Baron wrote from his own experience. Only someone who spent time in Italy, among Italians would be able to capture so many details, render such lifelike scenes. In the afterword we read that Baron was “adopted” by an Italian family while in Sicily, visited them often, ate with them. Most soldiers, not only those who had an Italian lover, formed close relationships with the population.

The book describes some of the absurdity of war, but it’s toned down. During this time of rest, the absurdity is felt the most in the treatment of deserters. It’s no coincidence that we have three deserters in this novel. A British, soldier, an Italian and a German one. Their treatment is very different.

I liked the way this book was written a great deal. It’s written in such a precise but effortless style, you barely notice you are reading, it felt much more like watching a movie. I appreciated that Baron chose a topic that may seem marginal to the war but that was interesting and rendered with great warmth. I suppose you could read his three war books like a trilogy, each showing another aspect of what Baron experienced during the war. After having read this novel on civilians and soldiers in repose, I’d like to read one of his other novels, From the City From the Plough, telling the story from the POV of an infantryman in combat.

Other reviews

You can find some quotes from the book on Danielle’s blog

Danielle (A Work in Progress)


There’s No Home was the ninth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the post-war novel Everything Flows  by Russian writer Vasily Grossman. Discussion starts on Monday 28 October, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.