The book “The Sorrow of War” by Bao Ninh is a striking Vietnam war novel, which depicts North Vietnam before the war, the period during the war and (most poignantly) the post war period. There is no doubt that it is completely autobiographical story. The writer served in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade during the Vietnam war. Bao Ninh was among the five hundred boys who went to war in 1969 and the one out of only ten survivors. The fact that the fight was fought on the Vietnamese soil explains those damages for the country and nation.
Ninh saw the ruin and decay of the Vietnamese society after the war. This terrible experience influenced his whole life and became a push to write a novel about war. “The Sorrow of War” is structured as a sequence of reminiscences, jumping backwards and forwards in time between the events most marked in the memory. The Vietnamese lost two million people and their landscape, culture, traditions and society were literally erased by the conflict. From this book the readers can learn about all the sufferings of the Vietnamese during and after the war.
The Sorrow of War” conveys not just the immediate fears of the war, but also the emotional harm it brings and the dislocation of lives it causes. The protagonist is a ten year veteran Kien, who fought for the North Vietnamese Army. The man writes the stories of his life: the war, his untraditional childhood and his love with Phuong. Throughout the book it seems as if it has no plot, just a novel full of love and war stories. Kien creates this collection of memories in attempt to escape to sorrows of war. The decadence of Vietnam, terrific memories of death and war make it impossible to forget.
The book opens just after the war, Kien is a part of an MIA body collection team. Revisiting of the locations of battles awakes emotional ghost for Kien, “a parade of horrific memories”. Through his reminiscences of the last ten years we see how the war has wasted his life and that of his countrymen. It is painful for Kien to observe the horrible results of the fight, which have destroyed Vietnam with all its traditions, peaceful sceneries and people who wanted to have a happy feature. Their Motherland is covered with blood, pain and disaster. People are disillusioned and it seems that nothing will rise from the ashes.
Kien believes that writing about those years of war and depicting of its consequences is the only way to purge them. Sitting in his destroyed Hanoi room, drinking day after day, Kien writes about his enlistment into the army, his escape from the American patrol in 1968, battle in Saigon’s fall in 1975, and the decadence of the country after battles and bombings “to expose the realities of war and to tear aside conventional images”. The man describes his war experience to cope with the hopeless present which he had sacrificed his youth fighting for.
In his stories Kien describes his difficulty to adapt to the peacetime to watch what has the war done to the Vietnamese society. He depicts how the war has changed his world. It is really difficult for this man to live a normal life after war because of many reasons. He sees that people he once knew were not alive anymore. The war had a great effect on those who stayed alive and on the whole country. Kien had frozen images about his friends, family and relatives before the war. These reminiscences have no connections with a completely new world. When the war ends, Kien returns home to find that his struggle has been in vain.
Moreover it brought obscenity, devastation and economic dislocation for his country. Kien cannot resort to criticism. His Motherland has been invaded over and over again. “If war came they would fight, and fight courageously. But that didn’t mean they loved fighting. ” The people are victims, who must obey the will of their leaders. The novel is written in Joycean style through flashbacks of a pastoral-innocent youth with his family in Hanoi and his childhood love. It describes how the relationship developed as the war broke out how the North Vietnamese fought and won it.
But the most impressive is Kien’s disillusionment, the disintegration of his family, and the devastation of the North. The Sorrow of War is not an ideological novel. It censures brutality, suffering and criticizes Vietnamese propaganda, including three big Don’ts: no sex, love or marriage. The emphasis is on Vietnamese people, soldiers and the constant conflicts between them. The cruelest rapes are committed by Vietnamese men against Vietnamese women. The credible love story about protagonist Kien and his beloved Phuong is the most memorable one.
They were childhood friends. They were very close and it seemed that nothing could happen between them. Years passed and Phuong developed into a beautiful woman. These two knew they would one day be married to each other. But war ruined all their plans. Kien idealistically signed up for the war. He witnessed and committed all sorts of horrible deeds that enabled person to survive a terrible war. Young Phuong was to do things a pretty woman is forced to do to bear wartime. It becomes clear that in Vietnam purity and innocence exist only to be contaminated.
The morality of the society is ruined, the norms are broken and the situation will hardly be restored. It will influence the future generations and it will take a lot of time and efforts to cope with this immorality. The sorrow and pain after war is too great for lovers to reunite. It is impossible to forget the atrocities of war and come back to the time when they were young, naive and innocent. It is painful not to be with one another, but it hurts even more to be together. Though they lived their separate lives, Kien knew that there were two women in his life he ever loved: Phuong before the war and Phuong after the war.
The more pitiful story of unnecessary loss and sufferings is depicted by the author of this novel. But what is the most sorrowful in the book that all the loss and sufferings underwent at all the levels of Vietnamese life – from the loss of family, youth, life, traditions and love – is in vain. The happy future that Kien had fought for will never materialize and moreover the man has lost all that was ever meaningful for him. This is the real sorrow that is shared by all the Vietnamese people, weather victor or foe. The truly powerful novel by Bao Ninh touches and moves the body, mind and soul.
All the sufferings, disasters and losses which have ruined their society are encompassed in the real sorrow of war, in other words, the human story of war. There is also a touchable love story, which is destroyed and would never be revived. These stories of a Vietnamese soldier give the real view of the pain and brutality of war. The constant memories of mangled and killed comrades will never let the soldier Kien to live a normal, full life. All he sees during the war is death, violence and hatred. Everything he sees after the war is devastation, pain and grief. Kien understands that his dream of happy, bright future will never come true.
The Kien’s life story is not a single one. It is a story and tragedy of the million Vietnamese people, who disillusioned with the war and a political system, which supported it. It is the story of the destroyed society which was irreversibly destroyed. The Americans lost about 60,000 men in this war. The Vietnamese lost three million and their culture, traditions and belief in happy society. And only God knows how many souls and loves were ruined and how many people perished because they could not repress excruciating pain and reminiscences, which were their “rewards” for their courage and bravery on the war.