Book Review: The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

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The Sorrow of War, Riverhead Books, 1993

After reading The Lotus Eaters (read my review here), it seemed fitting to read something about the Vietnam War from a North Vietnam perspective. The Sorrow of War was written by Bao Ninh, who served as a teenager for North Vietnam. While the book is fictional, it’s easy to imagine that it’s based on a lot of Bao Ninh’s personal experiences.

Blurbs for the novel compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front and I understand that impulse but it’s not quite accurate. Yes, it’s a novel offering a perspective from “the other side” but other than that it bears little resemblance to Remarque’s novel. Actually, it reminded me more of Remarque’s sequel, The Road Back, which I read earlier this year. The Sorrow of War details the experience of a young man named Kien during the war and in the years after it. Kien joins up as a teenager, fresh out of school and parted from his childhood sweetheart, Phuong.

The novel moves around a lot in time and place. It jumps from Kien’s earliest days in the army to his experience post-war, recovering bodies, to his tortured days following the end of the war. It’s a chaos that takes some getting used to and I never really felt grounded. This bothered me at first and I was left wondering whether or not to blame translation issues, but by the end of the novel I realized it was a deliberate technique. Kien’s life is chaos. War has thrown everything he experienced, everything he knows, everything about himself, into chaos. Even when the war is over, he is haunted by it; he can never forget it. Everyone he sees and everywhere he goes, he is reminded of it. This story is a tragic one.

As such, there’s really no plot here. Toward the end of the novel, a key scene between Kien and Phuong is slowly revealed that tells a lot about how Kien has been shaped and this section is where I would say there is the most character development. But it’s certainly not a traditional novel in any sense. It’s a beaten-down tale of a beaten-down life from a perspective that North American audiences have not heard enough.

From  critical point of view, I can’t say this book is particularly well-written. It’s hard to follow and it feels like the author is writing for a specific audience, of which I am not a part. However, it is truly compelling. It’s heart-breaking, and tragic, and important and the sections where that really comes across trump the confusing ones.

Those were the days when all of us were young, very pure, and very sincere.

*This edition of The Sorrow of War was translated from Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hao

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