I first heard of this book in a comment at the bottom of an article on the Guardian books website. Opinionated, witty and weird, these reader discussions can often say more about the people writing the comments than the literature they are debating. However, every now and then someone adds something that really makes you think.
In this case, the topic was books about the Vietnam War. Journalist Mark Hooper had posted his top ten but, as the first commenter remarked, had neglected to include any books by Vietnamese authors. Hooped responded to say that the article was about Vietnam books that claim to be ‘the best book on the Vietnam War you’ll ever read’. He had of course read The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, but the book jacket only said sober things like ‘a classic’ and ‘a triumph’ and so it didn’t qualify for the list.
I hadn’t read The Sorrow of War so I decided to give it a go. Given Hooper’s comments, I was surprised when my edition arrived to find the cover sporting a quote from the Independent saying that the novel ‘takes its place alongside the greatest war novel of the century, All Quiet on the Western Front‘ – surely by default that meant it was claiming to be the best Vietnam War book you’ll ever read?
I wondered briefly about popping up to the books department to try and track down this Mark Hooper and ask him what he thought he was playing at. But the article was more than four years old and besides I still had nearly 100 books to get through before the end of the year. I decided I’d better get on with the reading.
Drawing on Bao Ninh’s own horrific experiences during the conflict (he was one of only 10 survivors out of a brigade of 500), the novel tells the story of Kien, a war veteran struggling to piece his life together after 11 brutal years on the front line. Haunted by the memories of what he has seen and thoughts of his teenage life before the war, Kien wanders through the city of Hanoi and a society he no longer recognises. But until he finds a way to express and work through his experiences, peace will remain another world.
Ninh’s writing is exceptional. Blowing apart clinical descriptions of battle procedure with violent blasts of extreme experience, he captures the mixture of detachment and horror that characterises Kien’s mental state. The episodes he recounts – among them the violent rape and murder or three young girls by US troops and the drowning of a wounded man in a flooding ditch – are among the most graphic and shocking I’ve come across but they are never gratuitous and, even after more than 10 years of embedded reporting from the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are startlingly fresh. Working with the eerie descriptions of phantoms and monsters that mark the protagonist and his terrified comrades’ ‘drift over the edge from logic’ after months in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, they capture ‘how cruelly [the young soldiers] were twisted and tortured by war’.
For all its anger and violence, however, the novel contains striking moments of beauty. The most bewitching of these involve Phuong, Kien’s childhood sweetheart, who, like him, is irrevocably altered by the conflict. Wistful and raw, these evocations of first love break in upon the narrative like rays of sunshine through the jungle canopy, making their surroundings seem all the more dark and threatening.
The chronology of the novel is complex, with the storyline shifting ground repeatedly so that the past and present all seem to inhabit a sort of formless now, reflecting Kien’s imprisonment in his vivid memories. In the hands of another writer, this might be frustrating, but in Ninh’s it is extraordinary, particularly in the final third, where the way events spiral in on Kien’s most painful recollection draws the book to a devastating close.
If we needed an argument for the importance of translation, it is here in this subtle, gripping, angry and tender depiction of the personal consequences of war. Striding across the arbitrary fronts of race and nationality, Bao Ninh speaks to the heart of human loss and longing. In a world where western journalists write lists of novels that tell only one side of this bitter story, his work should be read much more.
The Sorrow of War (Than Phan Cua Tinh Yeu) by Bao Ninh, English version by Frank Palmos from translation by Phan Thanh Hao (Minerva, 1994)