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It is what it is...
on September 29, 2005
To say nothing else, this is an interesting book. From a humanitarian standpoint, it is on par with Frank Elkin's diary, "The Heart of a Man," that his widow published after his A-4 was shot down off Oriskany in 1966. That novel is the only other work I have read that compares in what it may accomplish for the reader from an emotional understanding of the immense toll of the Vietnam War.
Yet, The Sorrow of War is different. First published in 1991, the book was a best seller in Vietnam - even though the communist party banned it. In reading the novel, the reason eventually becomes subtly obvious as the glorious struggle is painted in more realistic colors.
The author, Bao Ninh, was born in Hanoi in 1952, and he was one of only ten survivors of the 27th Youth Brigade during the conflict. In 1994, his work received the Independent Foreign fiction award. His fictional story unfolds in the Central Highlands where his main character, Kien, after years at war, is working in a Missing In Action Remains-Gathering Team. After that opening, there are no chapters, there is no coherent timeline, and there is no reference to much of anything but the simplest of human emotions.
At first, The Sorrow of War is strangely un-engaging. Honestly, I considered putting the book down several times early on in my reading. However, Bao Ninh does have something worth saying that is not explicitly spelled out in any of the pages as we aimlessly follow Kien in his memory of the war.
This book is not an easy read. The timeline shifts and changes without warning, and it is up to the reader to get into the head of a man who is severely damaged by the war and its apparent total destruction of his life. But, it is worth the effort.
Kien, a young man from a suburb of Hanoi when American jets first start to hammer Hanoi, eventually fights through the entire conflict to the gates of Saigon in 1975. Along the way, he loses everything - all his friends, his family and the love of his life - which has obviously obsessed and crippled him. In fact, the story is really a love story of sorts within a whirlwind of catastrophic memories of combat. The searing pain that he experiences in that regard seems to cauterize his substantial wounds.
The Sorrow of War is not a political statement or an assessment of right or wrong, who won or lost and why. There is not a single reference or mention of Ho Chi Minh, or any other national leader or commander in the entire book. In fact, Bao Ninh even seems to regard the enemy in a light that is completely dispassionate... almost strikingly familiar. He practically sees the enemy not unlike himself... as he sees all his friends... caught up in a struggle much bigger than sense can explain. It is as though no shred of personal regard for anything remains in this shell of a man.
There is no doubt that the communist party would not look with favor on what Bao Ninh has to say. Although the character Kien is committed to doing his part by joining the war, there is the over-riding fear that he has to go or face punishment. Eventually, he becomes a hardened warrior, accepting of whatever fate comes his way because he does not have any realistic hope of survival. He loses everything - even himself in the process.
Likewise, portrayals of the North Vietnamese Army are not much different than the robotic statements of indoctrination that many have come to associate with communist re-education. In ways, Bao Ninh paints the picture that the whole tragic effort was simply not what the common person was led to believe. Very few of those people are left... except in the memory of Kien, and almost no one enjoys a better life than what existed before the war. Few seem to even be awake in the eyes of man that are fixed in surreal memories of his former life.
In the end, The Sorrow of War is not your typical war novel. In many ways it is different than any other book I have ever read; however, "brilliant" is too complex a word to describe this work. Perhaps it is because the author, Bao Ninh, is from such a foreign culture or because his main character is so damaged, writing being the only way he can cope with life after the war. Consequently, Kien's memories, visions and timelines are jumbled. Additionally, there is no judgment of anything to the point of being almost absent of hatred, which strangely leaves one feeling un-invested in the characters in an equal manner. It is almost as though one is simply observing the main character's thoughts and consequently understanding completely.
The Sorrow of War is not a novel that will allow the reader to get in the head of the enemy to understand anything about the greater Vietnam War. Instead, the book offers something of an account of human suffering from the view of a young grunt caught in a protracted conflict. I cannot recommend this novel to anyone who cannot divorce himself from an appeal to humanity because the book is almost too matter of fact for that. It is just not that simple. Basically, the title says it all, and it is up to the reader to try to figure out what Bao Ninh is saying. I will probably have to read the book a second time to do that myself; however, that should not be too difficult because by the end, I found the Sorrow of War difficult to put down.
John Jay De Bellis