The Reading Room

The Sorrow of War

Review of Bao Ninh’s ‘The Sorrow of War’…

bahIn the world of literature and cinematography there can be little room left for the Vietnam War. It has been glorified and vilified more than any other conflict since World War Two, but seldom have we, in the West, asked for, or sought out, a view from the other side.

The other side was, of course, the North Vietnamese army of which Bao Ninh, the author of this book, served as a soldier during the war. So this book serves as a most useful foil against much of the chest-thumping bravado we, the reader and movie goer have been subjected to. A novel it may be, but it is based on the author’s own experiences serving in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade and those very real experiences give this book the legitimacy so many others simply cannot claim. When the brigade went to war in 1969 Bao Ninh was one of only ten survivors of the five hundred who had set out at the beginning, and that horrendous fact shaped the context of the book, namely a retrospective of trying to make sense of the eleven years service his central character, Kien, has given.

The book, which was first published in 1991 under the title, ‘The Destiny of Love’ quickly stirred attention in the government as it broke with Hanoi’s state sponsored ruling on only talking about the war in glorified terms. What is immediately apparent from the novel is that the North Vietnamese soldiers felt anything but glorious. Just as any US veteran would talk of the rain and subsequent mud, the damp shivers and insect bites, so was, be it discreetly, the ‘enemy’. It is easy to forget that these soldiers famed for living in underground tunnels and building ingenious booby traps were also young men yearning to return to their towns and villages. At the beginning of the book we read of the desperate bid by one soldier, called Can, who, so desperate to escape the battalion and make his way home that he chooses a perilous and ultimately deadly route back. When his body is discovered he is treated as though he were also the enemy, which, in the regime’s eyes, he was.

Ninh squares Can’s story and misery by ending with a letter his mother wrote to him, not knowing her son was already dead. The central character in the story, Kien reads the letter in the full knowledge that Can is now a ‘rotting corpse’. The letter stirs deeply held emotions in Kien, and for the reader, brings the war back to a human level so often overlooked by those who seek to glorify an unforgivable period in our history. His mother is frail and talks of the other villagers who pray for his safe return: “The whole hamlet shares my joy at having received your letter and I write back immediately with the hope that the kind military post officers will take pity on me and deliver it to you as quickly as possible. I might already have died, but thanks to you and your letter I now continue to live and hope my dear son. ….Oh, my son, since receiving word of your brother’s death from his unit, and then having his commemoration ceremony in the village, and getting the patriotic certificate, my dear son, I have worked night and day in the rice field, ploughing land and transplanting. And I pray always to Heaven and the ancestors, your late father and brother , to bless you in that distant battlefield, praying you and your comrades will return safely”

Kien cries silently for a comrade now treated as a traitor. The misunderstanding of the homesick, war-ravaged Can weaves a fabric throughout the book. Kien’s job is to search the battleground known as the ‘Jungle of Screaming Souls’ for North Vietnamese corpses. Unburied dead are believed to haunt the jungles with their souls screaming, according to Vietnamese tradition and Kien’s MIA team toil in the monsoon season watching their commander blow his own brains out whilst engaging in battle against the Americans and South Vietnamese.

The book jumps from the past to the present and back again. After the war, Kien becomes a writer who looks for comfort in his writing. Kien is Bao Ninh and vice versa, his condemnation of the country’s leaders is strong and unapologetic. The book is littered with memorable lines which tell you why the ruling Communist Party banned it for a number of years. “In all my time as a soldier I’ve yet to see anything honourable”

Indeed.

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