The Sorrow of War: A Novel of Truth

The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. Bao Ninh. Women’s Publishing House. 324 pp.

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Thirty-five years after the war, the government continues to arouse national pride by touting victory in the so-called “American War,” leaving the war’s devastating effects out of the school curriculum. The Sorrow of War (1991; English translation 1994) by Bao Ninh, a former North soldier himself, offers the world an authentic insight: despite the destructive power of the war, the sorrow of war in each soldier’s heart saves his humanity during and after wartime:

It was thanks to our sorrow that we had been able to escape the war, escape the non-stop killing and fighting, the unhappy atmosphere of the fighters, the gun-users, in their fierce and violent haunts. It was thanks to our sorrow that we’d been able to walk again on the respective roads of our lives, our lives might not be very happy, and they might very well be sinful. But now we were living the most beautiful life we could have hope for, because it was a life of peace (323).

The novel was banned upon its first publication in Vietnam, probably because it openly criticizes propaganda, refusing to tag along with the heroism and patriotism of the contemporary literary circle. According to Bao Ninh, a mute woman in the novel, even represents “a feeling of oppression in Vietnam, and the oppression of the people of Vietnam.”1 The novel still has not gained as much reputation nationally as it does internationally.

Kien, the protagonist, is the sole survivor of his platoon from the Vietnam War. When the book opens one year after the war, Kien is on mission to collect the dead bodies of soldiers in the jungle of the Screaming Souls. Memories of the war return to haunt him and cripple his hopes of a normal life in present. Kien propels himself to write a war novel, for only by writing about the past can he find peace in his soul; to him, “the future had lain back in the far-away past” (59). Meanwhile, Phuong, Kien’s childhood sweetheart, now a prostitute, abandons him for another man. Though Phuong and Kien still love each other so much, the fortunes of war prevent them from coming together. Falling deeper in despair, Kien devotes himself to writing and heavy drinking. In drunkenness, he meets a mute woman at the same apartment building to seek inspiration. When the hope for Phuong’s return dashes, Kien burns his manuscript one night. The mute woman, who often secretly watches Kien working, prevents him from doing so. He disappears from the building that night, leaving his manuscript for the mute woman.

The novel has the power to lure readers into the jungles of souls and devils, to make them cry their heart out, and to laugh until their eyes brim with tears again. The real life experiences of the author, skillful manipulation of narrative, descriptive language, and use of symbol make The Sorrow of War one of the most poignant war novels of all time.

Bao Ninh’s experience as one of ten survivors from his brigade of five hundred men in the Vietnam War contributes to the novel’s success. The novel can be called a semi-autobiography, for Bao Ninh and Kien, in many ways, are alike: North soldiers, few survivors in their platoon, drunkards, and writers. But it may be easy to miss that Phuong is also Bao Ninh, as he confessed, “I am also Phuong.”2 (note that the author’s real name is Hoang Au Phuong). Phuong is a part of the author because both are artists whose talents are suppressed by the times. In the novel, Bao Ninh and Phuong are referred to as “out-of-time” artists.

Bao Ninh has managed to handle masterfully three narratives in his novel: a war story, a post wartime story, and a love story; it is about love during and after war, and how war ruins love. The novel starts in medias res when Kien is at MIA Remains-Gathering team. At this time, he neither suffers from the aftermath of war nor is he aware of how his life will: “Maybe from now on life will always be like this: dark, full of suffering, yet with moments of happiness. And maybe somewhere between dreaming or being awake, on the sheer cliff between the two is where he’ll pass the rest of his life” (55). Bao Ninh artfully leads us from one point of suspense to the next. We keep wondering how Kien’s life will turn out in present. What fortunes of war that haunts him until today. What prevents Kien and Phuong from reuniting? Will Kien finish his novel? Will Phuong come back? Readers follow Kien until the final pages in pursuit of the answers.

Flexibly changing points of view, Bao Ninh demands full attention from readers. The novel is divided into two parts based on viewpoints: the first seven chapters are in a third-person and the final one is in first. The first part is narrated from the limited point of view of Kien. At the end of the novel, a self-conscious unnamed narrator suddenly appears and claims to have Kien’s manuscript from the mute woman. Reading the manuscript, the narrator senses a strong connection with Kien since they both share “the immense sorrow of war” (323). This appearance is so quick that the New York Times criticized it as a failure3. Nevertheless, in the interview with IB World Magazine, Bao Ninh said the abruptness was deliberate: “The novel’s ending is intentionally abrupt to reflect the abrupt ending of the war. This war had lasted for a long time. And at times it seemed like the war would never end. But when it went away, it was so sudden. It made our ‘victory’ so surreal.”4 Switch to the first-person also extends Kien’s circumstance to that of other Vietnamese veterans, as the narrator concludes: “Both he and I, like the other ordinary soldiers of the American-Vietnamese war, had shared one fate. We’d shared all the vicissitudes, the defeats and victories, the happiness and suffering, the losses and gains” (323).

The novel also uses stream-of-consciousness – a technique that has made James Joyce and William Faulkner famous. Kien’s thoughts jump freely from past to present, which best conveys his mental crisis. The series of events isn’t chronicled linearly, but goes back and forth with his memories. Readers gradually sense soldiers’ sentiments, cruel and moving stories in war, and the failure of veterans to lead a normal life.

In this novel, Bao Ninh has painted a picture of words. Our visual, auditory, and olfactory senses work to the limit. We encounter a vastly gloomy scene here and there: “the immense green flow of water is still bathing the two riverbanks” (5); “quietly mixing with the sound of the stream is the desperate complaint of the deep forest far away” (6). The author notices the smallest movement of nature: “the wet wind sighs” (6), “hear the clouds blow along the sky” (83). Sometimes, our hair stands on end: “trees and plants moan in harmony their ghostly music” (9). The poetic imagery transmits sorrow to readers: “The sorrow of war inside a soldier’s heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love” (116).

Creating symbolic personages, Bao Ninh reflects his thoughts on the fate of artistic values of his time and partly predicts his novel’s future. Kien’s father and Phuong signify “out-of-time” artists. To them, art must be for art’s sake, not for any political purpose. They refuse to join the crowd that is blinded by propaganda and heartily embraces fighting for freedom. Contemporaries of the father label him “a suspicious discontented fellow” and “a rightist deviationist” (160). His paintings depict diabolical portraits, all in yellow: “man, woman, old, young people joined to one another in a file of withered puppets, wandering aimlessly amid unreal areas, gradually losing way, out of this world without looking back” (161). The paintings (clash head-on with propaganda) signal the grievous future of the nation. Before death, he burns all of the paintings he had drawn for years, indicating his discontent with society. Later on, Kien, disillusioned after the war, also burns his manuscript. Phuong, a gifted pianist and singer, after being raped, recklessly enters war to challenge Death and comes back as a prostitute in peacetime. These artists are depressed by time, and finally ruined by their own depression.

All these elements have successfully combined in a single novel, serving as a ground for the themes of the novel to stand out. Through Kien’s anecdotes, the author imprinted on us the cruelty of the war which is also the novel’s first theme. In war, human nature is in danger; soldiers have no choice but to kill people to save their own lives. Even an individual need like love becomes communal: the whole platoon shares three women. War begets violence. Rape is a common occurrence: seven South soldiers rape three North women, ten Americans rape a Vietnamese woman, and a Vietnamese man rapes Phuong. Even when the war is over, its impacts don’t spare society. Veterans are “crushed by the most terrible memories and ruined by them” (200), then bitterly realize their life has lain in the distant past. They get blind drunk to pass through day. One veteran, Vuong, a former brave and skillful driver, at first hopes to continue his job, but finally finds himself vomiting behind the wheel and desires to crash into passers-by. Veterans are all disillusioned in peacetime and surrender the war’s aftermath.

Though he recounts endless atrocities and cruelties, what Bao Ninh wants to tell readers is that human goodness can still emerge amidst the darkness. The soldiers enlisted in the army when they were young; the war means little to them. When realizing its meaninglessness, they react forcefully and fiercely. Kien spares the lives of seven South soldiers; Can, Kien’s comrade, deserts to reunite with his mother. Just like any other humans, they appreciate life. They die not for the heroism or idealism of any leader, but simply, “in order to save the life of one’s friend” (246). The soldiers’ goodness shines most brightly as we encounter a pleasant scene: Kien’s platoon resorts to the hallucinogenic rosa canina flower to forget “one’s ordinary soldier life,” “hunger and suffering,” “death,” and “tomorrow” (16). In the rosa canina smoke, they dream of lovers, food and drink, and home; the war dissolves under illusions of happiness. After years of unwilling killing and shooting, they hold a hatred of war at heart. Thus, they welcome the Victory Day with apathy and sarcasm. Instead of celebrating or singing, they sleep. Then they don’t soar in happiness but sink into bewilderment, “half crying and half laughing,” and “yelling and sobbing as if they were insane” (134). After loss of youth, love, and life, here comes a bitter peace, as a soldier told Kien: “Peace? Damn it, peace is only a kind of tree growing out of our fallen comrades-in-arms’ blood and muscles” (52).

I picked up The Sorrow of War expecting to see a truthful picture of the Vietnam War, unmarred by the propaganda of the government, but I gained more than that. Closing the book, I understand why my grandfather, a former driver on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, never talked about his war experience except once, when he scolded my little brother for his hobby: collecting toy guns. Time hasn’t healed my grandfather’s pain and grief of the bygone war. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh deserves a better nationwide reputation. This book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn about a painful period of Vietnamese history and then to lead a different life in modern times.


1, 2 “Special Feature – Bao Ninh Interview.” IB World Magazine. September 2009. Newspaper on-line. Available from http://www.ibo.org

3 Burns, Erik. “In Short: Fiction.” The New York Times. March 05, 1995. Newspaper on-line. Available from http://www.nytimes.com

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