The Sorrow of War, a short novel by Bao Ninh published in the early 90’s remains one of the most outstanding pieces of writing from a Vietnamese perspective on the war in Vietnam. A classic in its writing style, the essence of the novel is about the act of writing as much as it’s about the war. Bao Ninh has created a masterpiece that should be considered amongst great war novels, perhaps great novels generally such as ‘The Heart of Darkness’, ‘The Outsider’ and of course ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ that many critics have cited.
Epic in every way, the novel tells the story of a teenager who enters the Vietnam War that claimed over 58,000 U.S. combats’ lives and over 6 million Vietnamese. It is this devastation that Ninh writes about so fluidly.
‘The Sorrow of War’ is without doubt timeless. Perhaps it is one of the greatest war novels ever written. Imagine the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ and increase its effect, say by a factor of a thousand – perhaps more – this is the power of Ninh’s writing.
Highly acclaimed in the West when first published, perhaps not so widely read, Ninh was bestowed with praise. Upon publication in Vietnam, Ninh suffered at the hands of the authorities who are only now beginning to see the merit of the work. The book was recently released in Vietnam under the title of ‘The Destiny of Love’ but despite this imposition, the novel was widely read by the Vietnamese public and has become a marker for expressing personal experiences other than those meted out by the authorities – where the humanity of a soldier and true suffering of civilians has been written with courage and honesty.
‘The Sorrow of War’ should be essential reading for every child in schools throughout the world, and should form part of the curriculum, namely history – illustrating without compromise the effects of war and its ultimate futility.
In one of the lesser horrific scenes in the book, Ninh delves into the humanity of the Vietnamese soldiers. This scene appears towards the beginning of the book:
Here, when it is dark, trees and plants moan in awful harmony. When the ghostly music begins it unhinges the soul and the entire wood looks the same no matter where you are standing. Not a place for the timid. Living here one could go mad or be frightened to death. Which was why in the rainy season of 1974, when the regiment was sent back to this area, Kien and his scout squad established an alter and prayed before it in secret, honouring and recalling the wandering souls from Battalion 27 still in the Jungle of Screaming Souls.
From there on it gets darker – using a non-linear structure which comes naturally to Ninh, he tells us how the scout squad when hungry hunt down an Orang-utan – only when they go to prepare her for cooking, they see her smiling face which is peaceful and motherly – but they are hungry and they eat her nevertheless. For this deed, the entire squad is punished, it seems by nature – none but Kien, the ‘hero’ of the book survives; most of the squad are shot dead in battle, a few go mad and run off into the jungle.
Toward the end of the book, when the final battles occur – Kien witnesses the carnage of hand to hand combat. In a scene we see a beautiful young girl strewn across some steps leading to an official looking building – as Kien encounters her, he notices her beauty but soon realises that she is dead – her legs a set wide apart; clearly she has been raped. But the rape is not over – a group of soldiers rush past and drag the body down the steps and continue to rape her.
Profound, shocking and beautifully written, ultimately the book is about lost love and perhaps impossible love – teenage sweethearts torn apart because of the war; Kien and Phuong’s innocence too is quickly lost. Meeting again after many battles, neither is able to stay with the other. Guilt, memories of a pure and innocent lost love, and the demise of both Kien’s and Phuong’s humanity do not allow the two to be lovers or to be together again.