I’ve been engaged in an intermittent program of “reading Vietnam,” that is reading about what the Vietnamese call “the American war.” The first book I read from/about the Vietnamese side is Bao Ninh‘s The Sorrow of War. It is similar to Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War in chronicling a patriotic young suburban volunteer at the start of the American war in Vietnam, who loses much in the jungle(-fighting). (The Vietnamese had been fighting the French and Japanese and French before that but author Bao Ninh and his novel’s protagonist, Kien, who shares the same decade-long military service had not been involved in those earlier wars against aliens.) Although, like Caputo, Kien was quickly disillusioned (even before the fighting even began in both instances). Caputo went over the edge in less than a year, whereas Kien survived on the edge for ten. The ratio of the number of comrades killed is also in the ten-to-one range: Bao was one of ten survivors of the 500-member Glorious 27th Youth Brigade.
Caputo (and Michael Herr, whose book Dispatches was published in 1977, the same year as A Rumor of War, and Larry Heinemann, whose novel Close Quarters was published in 1975, and Tim O’Brien’s novels) and the most-acclaimed American movies with Vietnam war settings (“Apocalypse Now,” the second half of “Full-Metal Jacket,” the first part of “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”, “Casualties of War,” “Platoon,” “The Deer-Hunter,” “and the undeservedly obscure but great “Go Tell the Spartans”) portray atmospheres of continuous danger from any direction that led to feverish hallucinations (aided in the case of many American front-line military personnel by mind-altering drugs) and the indifference of commanders to realities, particularly of sending men to their deaths without any clear military objective (the biggest example of this is defending the Khe Sanh base that is central in Dispatches and scaled down as a model for “Go Tell the Spartans”).
What is most interesting to American readers of The Sorrow of War is that the same hallucination-generating continuous danger and perceived callousness about commanders was experienced by the “winning side.” The taste of “victory” for the few survivors of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade was ashes. Survivor guilt was at least as intense, especially for those who spent years in combat. Memories of mangled comrades and near-death experiences flood back as uncontrollably for Kien as for Paco in Heinemann’s Paco’s Story (which is mostly addressed to Paco’s ghosts).
Caputo went back (as a journalist) and witnessed the US evacuation of Saigon (leaving most of its employees behind). Bao returns to the area in which he fought to recover remains immediately after the North Vietnamese final victory (domination of the south). Kien knows where to find many bodies. Exhuming and distributing remains is not cathartic in the least for him. Only writing about his experiences purges them and stills the ghosts who/that haunt him. And the writing is the book, starting in the present with the “MIA-Remains-Gathering Team” and recalling combat experiences in the same area, the Jungle of Screaming Souls.. Between the fractured temporal sequence and writing about writing the book (in fact the structure is even one more level more constructed!), Bao’s book is as postmodernist of any of the books by the former enemy American soldier/writers. At the same time it is an old-fashioned work of “witnessing”: “There is no escape, no savior to help him. He alone must meet this writing challenge, his last duty as a soldier.”
Two of the most important narratives that seem complete (and unpleasant enough) early in the book are continued (with more horrific aftermaths to report) later in the book. This may be considered authorial daring, but also might be judged as withholding crucial information in understanding Kien’s war experiences (while reading; at the end, the reader can easily understand the sequence that was not provided in chronological order within the book). I think that this stop-and-go structure is what has made some readers view the book as “incoherent.” The flood of bad memories and what is labeled “post-traumatic stress” here is not an order narrative of A then B then C, so that I think the invasion of involuntary memories is psychological realistic. (I have had a PTS diagnosis myself, though not for Vietnam, a place I have never been.) It is also no more orderly than the battles and hit-and-run “engagements” of the war Bao recalled and wrote about were.
The Sorrow of War was published in Vietnamese in 1991 and initially banned. I’m not sure what it means for a book to become a “best-seller” there and then, but the ban was lifted, and the book was rendered (into sometimes unimaginative and close-to-redundant English) in 1993. In 1994 it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Award.
There is a love story, indeed the original title Than phan tinh yeu means “Destiny of Love.” Anyone who has read this far in the review will rightly suspect that there is considerable trauma, sense of loss, and bitterness in it. Do I need to add that it does not glorify General Giap or Ho Chi Minh? (Neither is mentioned.) And that it does not demonize the Americans, frightening as their size and superiority in armament and air support was? There is one veteran who becomes a successful businessman after the war, but Kien and everyone he knew in or before the conflict is worse off after the Pyhrric “victory” than they were before (most of them dead):
“My life seems little different from that of a sampan pushed upstream towards the past. The future lied to us, there long ago in the past. There is no new life, no new era, nor it is hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite. The hope is contained in the beautiful prewar past.”
Even if, as Proust wrote, the only true paradises are lost ones available only in memory, it’s easy to see that the book displeased the Vietnamese cultural autocrats! This is not the way that heroic communist martyrs are supposed to be portrayed (to inspire future ones) If there was any mistaking the retrospective valuation Vietnamese soldiers made, Kien/Bao continued:
“From my life before soldiering there remains sadly little. That wonderful period has been heartlessly extinguished…. The aura of hope in those early postwar days swiftly faded. Those who survived continue to live. But that will has gone, that burning will which was once Vietnam’s salvation. Where is the reward of enlightenment due to us, for attaining our sacred war goals? Our history-making efforts for the great generations have been to no avail. What’s so different here and now from the vulgar and cruel life we all experienced during the war?”
Reaching for an analogous representation, Kien is even more affectless and fatalistic than Paco of Paco’s Story with its heavy dose of pain at the ingratitude physically and psychologically damaged American Vietnam-war veterans experience/d. Kien also similarly notes that , “there had been no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music. That might have been tolerated, but not the disrespect from them. The general population just didn’t care about them. Nor did their own authorities.”
The closest analog that comes to my mind is the Japanese soldier in desperate straits in Burma when Japan surrendered in 1945 in Ichikawa Kon’s “Burmese Harp” and “Fires on the Plain” (,which contributes it being fairly far forward in my mental storage case).
I’m not sure that The Sorrow of War is a great novel (many novels classed “great” are difficult to read, so that is no obstacle—reading The Sorrow of War is considerably easier than reading some of the great Faulkner novels, for instance). I can’t compare it to other Vietnamese novels [one book leads to others and this one led me to Duong Thu Huong ‘s Novel Without a Name and Paradise of the Blind], but it can hold its own among the American Vietnam War classics (mentioned earlier) and has great value as an account from the “winning” side (winning with more than two million casualties, a poisoned physical environment, and bombed-out infrastructure). Although unmistakably rooted in some nonwestern cultural beliefs, the vision of insurgency/counterinsurgency struggle for those on the ground fighting it is very similar to the literature written by the other side (the US combatants’).
I have quoted explicit value judgments that show Bao’s position, but may provide a false sense that the book is analytic. Mostly, he shows rather than tells, and what he shows is very… telling! And what he was telling about was a very chaotic and terrifying time away from home, though “home” was suburban Hanoi rather than suburban Chicago.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray