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.


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

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



Truth be told, I find it is easier to understand neuron science than music theory. That’s to say, you are going to read a review of classical music by a very amateur listener. My music career ended tragically short at eight years old when my piano teacher, who, I kid you not, was a pedophile, ended up in jail for drinking and beating his wife. Though handicapped with knowledge in music, I couldn’t resign to the fact that there is one kind of arts I couldn’t understand at all. Besides, a friend of mine, a classical composer himself, enthusiastically encourages me to pursue the studying of classical music. So here I am, rambling to you about music, specifically about Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni.

Of all the genres in which Mozart worked, and he wrote in virtually all kind of genre of his day, his operas are usually celebrated as his greatest achievements. I think what makes his operas outstanding among his contemporaries’ is his psychologically complex characters, his ability to synthesize and transcend the boundaries of the comic and the serious, and the layers of meanings in his works (The only other person who was able to accomplish these in arts is of course William Shakespeare; no wonder his fame surpassed that of his more learned contemporaries such as Marlowe and Kyd). Regarding these features in Mozart’s operas, one may find Don Giovanni a good example of Mozart’s aesthetics.

Watching Don Giovanni is a well-worth three-hour of both learning and entertainment. If you have heard of the notorious libertine Don Juan or perhaps harbor the thought of becoming a lady-killer like him, the opera will give you insights. But in case you haven’t heard of Don Juan/Don Giovanni, basically he is a Casanova, and the opera is about his reckless conquest of women, including killing one old man on his way, and how the women revenge him. The legend of Don Juan and Casanova emerged in a time when Europe started casting doubts on the orderly, predetermined universe that governed the Western beliefs for centuries. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, scientific discoveries—especially by Newton, the Industrial Revolutions, the rise of political liberalism, etc. all contributed to the shaking belief. A century latter in Germany, Frederick Nietzsche would announce the death of God, which is probably Nietzsche’s death as well. But any way, Don Giovanni is the product of such a tumultuous period when people wonder what happens if one just throws away all conventions and moralities and follow their passion now that the world is not predestined, and no one will be punished in the afterlife. In other words, let’s all abandon the rational dull Apollonian lifestyle (the product of the Age of Enlightenment) and seek pleasure like the wild self-indulgent god of wine, Dionysus.

Despite the lengthy context above, I guarantee you the opera is funny and captivating on its own right. Mozart constantly juxtaposes the comic and the serious; sometimes lightness and gravity coexist within one scene. At the beginning of the opera, Don Giovanni slays the father of one of his women—Donna Anna, a woman who has just fought off his sexual advances. Nevertheless, immediately following the grave music of this scene is the playful vocal of Don Giovanni and Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, when Don Giovanni approaches a lady lamenting the abandonment of her lover. The lady, who sings in demanding vocal line, full of large leaps and covering a wide range, turns out to be one of Don Giovanni’s women, Donna Elvira. The next scene is one of the most comic scenes when Leporello explains to Donna Elvira she is just one among the hundreds of Don Giovanni’s women, so she shouldn’t be upset and demand Don Giovanni’s loyalty. Leporello shows her the numbers of Don Giovanni’s amorous conquests by nationalities: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1003 in Spain. He will praise a fair girl for her kindness, a dark one constancy, and a white-haired one sweetness; he will call a tall one stately and the tiny one dainty. In winter he prefers plump girls, in summer slim. He courts the elderly for the sake of adding them to the list, but his most favorites are the virgins.

Mariusz Kwiecien (center) in the title role of Mozart's "Don Giovanni."   Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on October 3, 2011.
Mariusz Kwiecien (center) in the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on October 3, 2011.

Bawdy, right? It is exactly this bawdiness that Beethoven criticized Mozart, saying Mozart had wasted his talent on the naughty sex operas. Also in this scene, Leporello’s playful voice emerges out of a heroic background music perhaps to bring out the irony of the situation: the sorrow of Donna Elvira contrasts with the indifference and cheerfulness of Leporello.

If you have heard of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, then you may find the opera extra-interesting because the master-servant couple Don Giovanni and Leporello resembles Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Leporello is clumsy, gluttonous, practical, and coward just like Sancho Panza, while Don Giovanni, in certain regards, resembles Don Quixote because both are adventurers and idealists. And it is this clashing of the opposite personalities of Don Giovanni and Leporello that adds humor to the opera. Music in Don Giovanni bubbles with energy because of sudden changes from slow to fast, from soft to loud, from major to minor within a single movement with preference for major mode. Under the influence of the Classical style, the opera’s harmony is simpler, and the melody more singable and less melismatic with more cadence breaking up the melody into segments and short phrases. And unlike the Baroque music which emphasizes the display of affectation, emotion in Don Giovanni is kept in balance; the opera unites emotion and elegance.

Youtube has several good performance of Don Giovanni in full, for example:

If you are a student of UT Dallas, the opera is also available at UTD library: DVD 213 and DVD233. So enjoy!

Form as Content: E. E. Cummings’ “The Sky Was”

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 6.49.52 PM E. Cummings’ talents as a poet and as a painter comes together in this visual poem, in which he artfully integrates typography and words to create a mixed-media artwork of text and image on paper. The subject matter of the poem, which describes an outdoor scene throughout the day and the deeper content, which is the conflict between the beautiful sky and the pollution below are inseparable from the poet’s arrangement of syllables, words, and syntax.

On first reading, the poet seems to describe a simple outdoor scene by various similes. The opening comparison of the sky with candy makes readers perceive the sky not only with sight, but also with taste and touch: “the sky was candy.” Cummings stresses the similarity of the sky to food by continuing to use food images: “edible,” “lemons,” and “chocolates.” The sky is as touchable, inviting, and pleasant as candies and chocolates. It is also bright and lively: “luminous” and “spry.” Cummings uses different shades and colors to portray the scene: “luminous,” “pinks,” yellow of “lemons,” “greens,” brown of “chocolates,” and “violets.” Without the punctuation and visual arrangement of the text, the poem’s meaning seems to be straightforward: “the sky was candy luminous edible spry pink shy lemons greens cool chocolates under, a locomotive sprouting violets.”

Nevertheless, examining each word and its arrangement on paper reveals more about Cummings’ intention to connect content and form. The words aided by the typography create hidden meanings for the poem. In the first stanza, moving from “pinks shy,” to “lemons,” to “green cool,” and to “chocolates,” the poet describes the sky through different times of the day. In the early morning, the sun rises gradually as if it were shy of the new day. The sky is now glimmering with pink as the sun is half-revealed behind the clouds. In the afternoon, the sky is at its highest bright and perhaps as vivid as the color of “lemons,” and the temperature is as pungent as lemons’ taste. Lemons may also provoke juiciness, which can be a suggestion of sweat and thirst relief. In the late afternoon, the brightness of the sky is reduced to a more muted color, “green,” and the temperature becomes “cool.” In the evening, the sky turns darker, like the dark brown of “chocolates.” This process of assigning colors to the sky at different times of the day is like a painting process by a painter who experiments with colors: he paints the scene perceptively instead of mimetically.

Cummings’ careful visual placement of the words perhaps mirrors the swift transition of time within a day. If readers draw lines bordering the end of each line, these diagonal lines will converge at four points (see the figure below). These four points may represent the four different periods as described above: the early morning, the afternoon, the late afternoon, and the evening. In painting, diagonal lines always evoke tension and dramatic feeling, while horizontal and vertical lines generate a static and stable feeling. As a painter, Cummings is well-aware of these rules. The diagonal lines derived from the word arrangement could indicate a rapid passing of time and a drastic change of scenery within one day.

the sky was

The last stanza completes the picture. Cummings places the words in this stanza differently than he does in the previous one. He dissects words more thoroughly: syllables of each word spread more line. His words, instead of jumping a sharp distance between lines, tail along each other; thus, the second stanza seems to be bordered by curvy lines instead of linear ones. The result is an image that suggests smoke emitting up into the sky (see the above figure). Together, the forms of the two stanzas may be seen as a threat of pollution. The colorful and tasty sky is threatened by smoke and dirt from the train; an idyllic nature is endangered by pollution from machines and industrialization. The period at the end of the first stanza, the only period in the poem, resolutely separates the two scenes, emphasizing a dialectic between the tranquil sky above and the ominous pollution below. By articulating the content of the poem with typography, Cummings is able to use only a few words to deliver his ideas. With its sparseness, “The sky was” retains an abstract quality. The artists’ perfect comingling of text and image and the fusion of form and content allow the multiplicity of interpretive possibilities.

Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and Nabokov’s Lolita

Good poets borrow, great poets steal.

“Annabel Lee” is the last complete poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Like many of his poems such as “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” and “To One in Paradise,” “Annabel Lee” explores the theme of the death of a beautiful young woman, which Poe claims is “unquestionably the most poetic topic in the world.” In the poem, the speaker fell in love with Annabel Lee when they were children. He asserts that their love was so strong and intense that even the angels envied them and caused Annabel Lee’s death. He loves her intensely even after her death, feeling her soul and his mingle. Every night, he dreams of her and her bright eyes, as he lies down by her sepulcher by the sea. The poem was written in 1849 and was not published until shortly after Poe’s death that same year.

One century later, Vladimir Nabokov created one of the most controversial masterpieces of the twentieth century, Lolita (1955), which accounts the story a man loving a child-girl. The protagonist and unreliable narrator, a thirty-seven-year-old French literature professor called Humbert Humbert (or H.H.) is obsessed with the twelve-year-old Dolores Haze whom he privately nicknames Lolita. He is sexually involved with her after becoming her stepfather. Like “Annabel Lee,” Lolita touches on the subject of passion and obsession for a young child and the suffering of the male lover. Indeed, Nabokov intentionally borrowed and reused details, images, and phrases in “Annabel Lee.” His borrowing and alternation of Poe’s poem shows his talent of varying literary materials and merging them into his own creation. Lolita and “Annabel Lee” also offer insights into artists’ process of borrowing and creation in art.

Chapter One of Lolita already evokes several details and images from Poe’s poem. Humbert Humbert’s contemplation about Lolita’s name is an evocation of Poe’s Annabel Lee: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta” (Nabokov 9). The middle syllable of “Lo-lee-ta” alludes to the name Annabel Lee. In the next paragraph, Humbert describes his love for Lolita: “had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea” (Nabokov 9). Though Nabokov alters Poe’s “kingdom by the sea” to “princedom by the sea” (Nabokov 9), this description echoes the first two lines of the second stanza of Poe’s poem: “I was a child and she was a child,/ In this kingdom by the sea” (lines 7-8). The second-to last sentence of this chapter is a reverberation of the phrases “winged-seraphs” and the verb “envy” from the poem: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied” (Nabokov 9). This sentence is a pastiche of two passages of the poem: “the winged seraphs of Heaven” (line 11) and “The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,/ went envying her and me” (lines 21–2). Both H.H. and the speaker in “Annabel Lee” accuse the seraphs of envying their love.


The clearest parallel to Poe’s “Annabel Lee” in Lolita is Humbert Humbert’s account of his childhood and his first love in Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and Chapter Four. Before becoming obsessed with Lolita in his adulthood, Humber, as a child, grew up in his father’s luxurious hotel on the Riviera and fell in love with a girl who lived nearby named Annabel Leigh; they were both thirteen at this point. They were about to consummate their love at seaside but were interrupted by two swimmers whom H.H. called “ribald sea monsters” (Nabokov 53). Annabel Leigh died four months later of typhus. Humbert claims that her death thwarted him of romantic relationship until he reincarnates her in Lolita twenty four year later:

I also know that the shock of Annabel’s death consolidated the frustration of that nightmare summer, made of it a permanent obstacle to any further romance throughout the cold years of my youth. The spiritual and the physical has been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after her death I felt her thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met, we had had the same dreams. We compared notes. We found strange affinities. (Nabokov 14)

Like Humbert who “felt her thoughts floating through mine” (Nabokov 14) and who “found strange affinities” (Nabokov 14) with his first love, the narrator in “Annabel Lee” senses an inseparable spiritual connection with his lover after her death:

Our love it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who were older than we—

Of many far wiser than we—

And neither the angels in Heaven above

Nor the demons down under the sea

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; (line 27-33)

“The matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today” (Nabokov 14) parallel “those who were older than we” (line 28) and “many far wiser than we” (line 29) in Poe’s poem. They are the people who judge the love of H.H. and the narrator in the poem. Humbert’s frustration, obsession with his first love after her death, and his sense of superiority to his peers mirror the narrator’s feelings in Poe’s poem.

In addition to the above chapters, “Annabel Lee” echoes throughout the novel as well. Humbert calls Annabel Leigh and Lolita “my darling” or “my bride” many times, resonating with Poe’s phrase: “my darling—my darling—my life and my bride” (line 39). He calls his trip to the seaside with Lolita “the search for a Kingdom by the Sea” (Nabokov 167). Nabokov originally even titled the novel The Kingdom by the Sea. Nabokov’s choice of subject matter, a man in love with a young child who died premature, is both a tribute and a parody to Poe’s “most poetic topic in the world.” Humbert’s mother died when he was three; his aunt who took after him died after his sixteen birthday; his first love Annabel Leigh died when he was thirteen; and Lolita died giving birth to a stillborn girl at the age of seventeen. Poe himself suffered the loss of his beloved women: his mother, his foster mother, and his wife.

Poe conjures up a fantastical kingdom by the sea where two people are in love and are envied by angels on Heaven. The poem is perhaps Poe’s attempt to rationalize the loss of his woman. Nabokov borrows the subject matter of the poem and creates an intricate novel that challenges any moral interpretation. He forces readers to sympathize with Humbert, though his act is repugnant. He tricks readers, lures them by his excellent command of the English language, appealing them to their sense of beauty. Despite any moral interpretation of the novel, Lolita after all is captivating from H.H.’s psychology to Nabokov’s language. Ultimately, the novel successfully portrays an aesthetic values: the escaping and fragile nature of beauty. Beauty is not reduced to category of good and evil. Beauty perhaps lies on the border of good and evil, of prettiness and sublimity, of the meso and the meta. Nabokov lived a golden aristocratic childhood in Russia, but the emergence of Communism robbed him of his privilege and forced him into a life of exile. Besides being a writer, Nabokov also made serious contributions to the study of butterflies, creatures he considered the epitome of beauty. As a chess composer, Nabokov also invented Lolita as a chess problem, a puzzle, a morally difficult situation. Through Lolita, readers see the attempt of Nabokov the aesthete, Nabokov the exile, Nabokov the lepidopterist, and Nabokov the chess composer, to capture the fragility of beauty.

Butterflies in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

yellow, little will kerling DSC_0235

At five years old, when I was still living with my grandparents in the Vietnamese countryside, I and other kids often skipped afternoon naps to play in paddle fields. We chased after locusts, dragonflies, green beetles, and mantis, any kind of bugs that we thought might be of interest to my cousin’s fighting cock. Once during the chase, we found ourselves in the middle of a burial ground. There were many butterflies around us. My cousin, the eldest among us, told us that when people died, their souls turned into butterflies and watched their living relatives every day. Upon hearing that, we fled out of the burial ground as fast as we could. I had troubles bringing myself to sleep for a few nights after that; I kept imagining my relative-butterflies watch me during sleep.

Now coming across the butterfly image in closeness with death in O’Brien’s writing, I can’t help but relating the Vietnamese popular belief that souls transform into butterflies after death with O’Brien’s image. In “Field Trip” and “The Man I Killed,” butterflies always appear along with death: they are at the field of Kiowa’s death in “Field Trip” and near the Vietnamese soldier’s corpse in “The Man I Killed.” If O’Brien knows that every Vietnamese kid grows up listening to stories about Trung sisters, Tran Hung Dao, and Le Loi, is it possible that the butterfly-death association is his recognition of the country’s folk tale?

In “Field Trip,” Tim visited the site of Kiowa’s death with his daughter. He described the field: “No ghosts—just a flat, grassy field. The place was at peace. There were yellow butterflies.” A few paragraphs after that, he describes the field with butterflies again: “There were birds and butterflies, the soft rustlings of rural-anywhere.” More images of butterflies appear in “The Man I Killed.” He mentions butterflies three times, always near the corpse: “there was a butterfly on his chin”; “The butterfly was making its way along the young man’s forehead”; and “The body lay almost entirely in shade… The butterfly was gone.” The appearance of butterfly, first and foremost, helps depict the serenity of the rural scene. It is a realistic description, perhaps from the author’s observation himself, because butterflies are abundant in Vietnam paddle fields, especially in the vast land in Quang Ngai. In “The Man I Killed,” the butterfly image also emphasizes the delicacy of the dead man. Besides those significance of the butterfly image, I would like to suggest that it reinforces a theme (a metafictional message perhaps) in the collection: through storytelling, the dead do not die: “They’re all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.” As the dead return to the world in form of butterflies in Vietnamese folk tale, Tim’s dead comrades return to the world in his fiction.

The dead continuing to live may be perhaps an important theme in the collection. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” for instance, Mitchell Sanders tells Tim the story of a six-man patrol going into a mountain for a reconnoitering mission and getting crazy after hearing all kinds of sounds up there. They must spend a week in the mountain and detect any movement of the enemy. After a few days, they get panic and napalm the mountain because they keep hearing all kinds of sounds – “a radio,” “crazyass gook concert,” “chimes, “xylophones,” “chamber music,” “mam-san soprano,” “gook opera,” “the Haiphong Boys Choir,” and talking: “The rock—it’s talking. And the fog, too, and the grass and the goddamn mongooses. Everything talks. The trees talk politics, the moneys talk religion. The whole country. Vietnam. The place talks. It talks.” Mitchell Sanders’s mysterious and ghostlike story perhaps underscores the theme of the undying dead. The theme is so important that O’Brien dedicates the last story of the collection, “The Lives of the Dead,” to Tim’s classmate, Linda, who had died long time ago. It is my suggestion that the butterfly image, though very subtle, enriches a significant theme of the novel: through fiction, Tim the protagonist and the author, resurrects the dead and pays tribute to the past.