The Sorrow of War
trans. Phan Thanh Hao
Riverhead Books, 1993, pg 233
If you are coming to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War after seeing his interviews in Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War, as I did, you may have the impression that you are picking up a war novel. It certainly is that, but it is also something more: an exploration of the toll war takes years after. Ninh’s comments during the documentary made it clear he had doubts about the wisdom of the heavy losses the Vietnamese suffered during the war. Reading the novel, it’s clear he has been unconvinced for a long time. Published 15 years after the end of the war, it is a raw book that has no illusions about patriotism or heroism.
The Sorrow of War is three novels: a story of war; the struggle to survive PTSD; and the aftermath of war. Each is interrelated, obviously, but in each he gives you different registers that show a narrator who has survived not only years of war and a post war that only reminds him of war, but who is completely damaged. Structurally, Ninh has written the novel as a series of unconnected episodes, moving between the war, his days as a relatively happy youth, and the nightmare of the war. The narrative arc for much of the book isn’t that important. Instead the glimpses of the war and his PTSD laced nightmares are woven throughout. The narrator is giving you impressions of a dazed mind. Much of it is quite clear, but in a very narrow view as if his mind is hyper attuned to precise details. In survivors accounts you often see an attention to the immediate detail as the intensity of the experience sharpens their memory. This pervades much of the book and gives it an impressionistic feel, as if we are watching a mind attempting to process what has happened.
When, the narrative is pieced together, The Sorrow of War has the typical arc of innocence, to experience, to dissolution. The innocence is not one of heightened patriotism. The novel follows Kein, a reluctant soldier, naive to its horrors, but at the same time indifferent. What little excitement he has, is quickly lost when the war starts after the Gulf of Tonkin. He spends years in the war, loosing all his comrades in devastating battle after another. It is a savage war that has no quarter, even when he liberates the Saigon airport in 1975 one of his friends dies pointlessly at the hand of a civilian. For Kein, though, the war is not over. He is part of a MIA and graves registration team that goes through the country looking for the dead and missing. Even after the war, the war hasn’t ended, and highlights the complete devastation that the war left. It is from this nearly 15 year long immersion into killing comes the compulsion to drink and write. In general, the arc works well, except for one small issue I’ll come to latter.
The story arc I’ve pieced together is not linear at all. Moreover, Ninh frames the story in several layers of narrator. There is the author of the fragmentary war stories. Maybe it was someone like Kien, perhaps it is meant to be autobiographical. The unknown author, the one who has created the Kien stories lives in an apartment with a mute woman and writes and drinks. Then he disappears, leaving his novel scattered over the apartment. Here we get a new narrator. He doesn’t know where the Kien narrator has gone. He pieces the novel together. The pages are unnumbered and each page seems independent of the other, he says, which gives the book its fragmentary structure. It is a mostly successful literary device. Given the already fragmentary nature of the book and its continual sense of the futility, to have the author disappear, one more casualty of the war, only seems fitting. The final narrator also provides a closure on the war without having to resolve anything. Did the Kien narrator die? Is war so traumatic there are no survivors? It certainly eliminates any kind of heroic uplift.
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?
Is Ninh’s approach successful? I ask because although the first 2/3 of the novel is fragmentary, impressionistic, the last 1/3 is a pulsing narrative that follows Kien and his girlfriend as war breaks out. It is the longest sustained writing of the book and it is horrific, detailing an American bombing of a troop train, and his grilfriend’s rape at the hands of some train workers. It could be easy to dismiss this as laziness on the part of Ninh: an author who couldn’t sustain the full novel. However, Ninh is a better writer than that. He has used different registers to suggest a mind unable to focus on a coherent narrative. Kien can describe specific traumatic events, but he has no overarching sense of story. Why else does the organizing narrator say he had a hard time putting the book together? A war that long and brutal with that many dead is too difficult to make sense of. This is something Hemingway even picked up on in The Soldiers home 70 years before. Personal experience needs to be welded to a larger narrative or it fragments, as it does for Kien.
The Sorrow of War is a successful novel. The only element that seems a little much is the rape. Kien’s reaction to it, definitely complicates the man, but it has, given its placement in the book, the effect of dropping something as traumatic into the middle of the story without really exploring it. That aside, Ninh has constructed a solid novel of war and aftermath that is as brutal, dark, and hopeless as any of the classics of the genre.