“The Sorrow of War”
By Bao Ninh, translated into English by Phan Thanh Hao and edited by Frank Palmos (Pantheon, 233 pages, $21)
There’s a sequence from the 1974 Oscar-winning documentary “Hearts and Minds” that still haunts me. It involves a U.S. Army general, grinning as he says something about Vietnamese not feeling things the way Americans do.
And then the filmmakers, with perfect timing, cut to a weeping Vietnamese man whose family has just been wiped out by errant American bombs.
Bear that contradiction in mind as you read the following passages:
“The autumn was sad, prolonged by rain. Orders came for food rations to be sharply reduced. Hungry, suffering successive bouts of malaria, the troops became anemic and their bodies broke out in ulcers, showing through worn and torn clothing. They looked like lepers, not heroic forward scouts. Their faces looked moss-grown, hatched and sorrowful, without hope. It was a stinking life.”
“The ones who loved war were not the young men but the others like the politicians, middle-aged men with fat bellies and short legs. Not the ordinary people. The recent years of war had brought enough suffering and pain to last them a thousand years.”
“There had been no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music. That might have been tolerated, but not the disrespect shown them. The general population just didn’t care about them. Nor did their own authorities.”
And, finally, this:
“So many tragic moments, so much pain from long ago that I have told myself to forget, yet it is that easy to return to them. My memories of war are always close by, easily provoked at random moments in these days which are little but a succession of boring, predictable, stultifying weeks.”
Those could be the reminiscences of a whole generation of American boys who endured combat tours of Vietnam. Most American veterans, especially the ones who came under regular fire, can relate to the feelings behind those words.
But the passages don’t come from an American memoir. Instead, they’re from “The Sorrow of War” (Pantheon, 233 pages, $21) by Bao Ninh, novelist and North Vietnamese Army veteran.
Bao’s novel is a look at the other side of that long and bloody conflict known as the Vietnam War. It is the Vietnamese version of such American books as Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato,” Gus Hasford’s “The Short Timers,” Ron Kovic’s “Born on the Fourth of July” and Philip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War.”
Not surprisingly, it was a best-seller in Vietnam. In this country, it probably won’t be considered much more than a historic curiosity. And that is a shame, because even given the awkwardness of translation, Bao’s studied attempt to mix up time and place and the repeated references to a war that most of us would rather forget, this novel is a piece of the whole historical puzzle that should not be ignored.
Bao’s story concerns Kien, an infantry scout with the 27th Battalion. It opens with him doing remains-gathering detail in 1975 in a haunting place called the Jungle of Screaming Souls. It was there, six years earlier, that Kien’s battalion had been surrounded by American troops and nearly wiped out. (Bao himself is one of only 10 survivors of the real-life Glorious 27th Youth Brigade.)
As the book progresses, we discover several things about Kien, perhaps the major one being that he is suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Kien was 17 when he went off to war and his experiences included those endured by most boys in battle.
In his 10-years-plus of fighting, he loses his girl, he loses his friends and he loses his innocence. That his country wins a war in the process does little to end Kien’s own emotional torture.
We see all this happen in what seems to be a random order, as if Bao had written a series of recollections, tossed them in the air, and then bound them together in whatever way they hit the ground. But as hard as that is at times to follow, it serves a purpose: The twisted plot works as a ready metaphor for Kien’s mind.
Which is what you would expect of someone who carries the nickname “The Sorrowful One.” As Kien’s father tells him just before dying, “Sorrow is inconsolable. There will still be great sorrow, sorrow passed down to you. I leave you nothing but that sorrow…”
Like his father, a man who painted images of his own troubled psyche, giving fairies “long faces, with seaweed for hair and lemonadecolored skin,” Kien, a writer who struggles to put his war stories down on paper, does the same thing with words.
He does so as he takes us back through his life, losing, finding and losing again his childhood love, watching the last of his fellow scouts die on the day before the fall of Saigon, sitting decades later in his lonely room attempting to record the misery of his life. He struggles to do it so that people will remember, maybe learn from the process, and so that he can find some peace.
“And now, in his room, Kien seemed to see the end of his stream of life,” Bao writes. “Journey’s end. He seemed to hear someone calling softly to him: It is time. He closed his eyes, wanting to let himself slip away.
“But life would not let him go that easily.”
Typical. War seldom lets anyone go easily, no matter what side you’re on.
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