He was one of the victorious North Vietnamese soldiers who took Saigon for the Communist forces 20 years ago.
Now, in a war novel, Bao Ninh provides a rare glimpse of what it was like for the faceless enemy soldiers.
“The Sorrow of War,” published in English in the United States early this year, offers a brutal and emotionally draining depiction of the war in the jungle and the bitter reentry into society of one of its soldiers. It also fills a gap in the much-chronicled Vietnam War story by showing how veterans in Vietnam have suffered in ways similar to their American counterparts.
The novel was as controversial in Vietnam when it was published in 1991 as Robert S. McNamara’s war confessional, “In Retrospect,” is in the United States today. The book forced the Vietnamese to confront a side of the war they rarely discuss, and although the novel won a literature prize here, it was roundly criticized by veterans. Its author has not published since.
“Not many good novels or stories have been written after the war,” said Nguyen Ngoc Hung, who volunteered to join the North Vietnamese army 18 days after Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, and is now the director of a foreign-language school in Hanoi. “Writers went to the fighting zone and lived with guerrillas. I gather it was an instruction: write only about the heroic efforts and minimize the cruel effects of the war. Or write about the horrible enemy.
“It was not until the Bao Ninh book came out that people knew about the horrors,” said Hung, who is helping a group of American veterans build a park north of Hanoi. “He gave an accurate picture of what really happened there. I can read each line and see faces of friends.”
Yet, many veterans who saw themselves in “The Sorrow of War” reacted negatively to the book. On first reading, even Hung bristled. “I became very angry at Bao Ninh,” he said. “Why did Bao Ninh write about the war so everyone could see its naked face?”
The author, who was interviewed recently with the help of a translator in his small, damp apartment in a suburb of Hanoi, said he did not intend to stir things up. “I wanted to write a novel about the war time and about the war generation, my generation,” said Bao Ninh. “This was my youth.” Bao Ninh (pronounced bow-ning) is a pseudonym; it is actually the name of his father’s home village in Quang Tri province.
In the novel, the main character is motivated to write when he sees the frenzied activity of Vietnam preparing for another war, this one the invasion of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
“When will my heart be free of the tight grip of war?” Bao Ninh writes. “Whether pleasant or ugly memories, they are there to stay for 10, 20 years, perhaps for ever.”
“But my soul is still in turmoil,” he continues. “The past years out here imprison me.”
Writing, he says in the book, is his “last duty as a soldier.”
Bao Ninh signed up at 17, joining the 27th Youth Brigade, famous because only 10 soldiers of the original 500 in the unit survived the war, which ended in 1975. He was one of the soldiers who attacked Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon on the day the former capital of South Vietnam fell.
Nearly 2,000 copies of the book were printed in Vietnam, but many more were photocopied and sold in sidewalk book stalls. About 70,000 copies have been sold in England.
But Bao Ninh, 43, does not appear to have become wealthy. He lives with his wife and 13-year-old son in the same building he has lived in since he returned from the war. A wall in the living room is lined with books in Vietnamese and in English, although the author does not speak English. The room is drafty, the walls mildewed. For many years, he said, he was supported by his wife, who is a schoolteacher.
His novel, which was published here only after he agreed to change its name to “The Sorrow of Love,” tells the story of a young soldier named Kien, who appears to be based on the author.
“We are alike in that I was a soldier who experienced the war and so is Kien,” Bao Ninh said. The story is told in a series of flashbacks as Kien tries to capture his war experiences on paper.
“Only the generals like to talk about victory and defeats,” Bao Ninh said. “The common soldiers don’t like to talk about such things. I do not feel so happy or so proud about the war; the victory of war, somehow, personally, I do not feel that. I think I’ve lost my youth.”
It is this sense of loss and disillusionment with life after the war that made the novel so controversial in Vietnam, where authors had written strictly about the heroic deeds of war, about the collective struggle of the peasants toppling a giant army and its superior technology. Bao Ninh’s war is much more graphic, realistic and depressing.
“Those who survived continued to live,” he says in the book. “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?”
Variations of those questions are being asked by disenchanted veterans who spent not one or two years in battle, but, as Bao Ninh laments, their entire youth.
The numbers are overwhelming. Among figures released last month, Vietnam said that 1.1 million soldiers who fought for North Vietnam or the Vietcong died between 1954 and 1975 in wars against France, the United States and South Vietnam. Two million civilians died during the same period, while 600,000 soldiers were wounded and 300,000 were listed as missing in action.
Even though “The Sorrow of War” was approved by government censors, it hasn’t unleashed a tide of critical literature about the war. Bao Ninh said he had not been able to publish his second novel, about an American missionary who disappears during the war, because he was told “the time is not right.”
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