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Bao Ninh’s convention shattering novel of war, The Sorrow of War, (1991/1994) opens at war’s end.  Kien is in the Central Highlands of Vietnam with the Missing in Action Body Collecting Team.  The rainy season is upon them, “a sea of greenish vapor over the jungle’s carpet of rotting leaves.”  Pulling into the Jungle of Screaming Souls the Russian Zil truck lurches off the muddy jungle road.  The driver falls asleep at the wheel.  Kien climbs into his hammock, stretched between cab and tailgate inside the canopy, over the bodies they have collected, stacked like cord-wood  That’s how it begins and it does not end for 215 pages of, as the English title has it, The Sorrow of War.

“War was a world with no home, no roof, no comforts.  A miserable journey, of endless drifting.  War was a world without real men, without real women. Without feeling.”

The time looking for MIA remains is the staging place for memories.  Kien had been here before “at the end of the dry season of 1969, [when] his Battalion 27 was surrounded and almost totally wiped out. Ten men survived from the Unlucky Battalion, after fierce, horrible, barbarous fighting,”  when his Battalion Commander blew his own brains out and “Americans attacked with sub-machine guns, sending bullets buzzing like deadly bees around him.”

Because the souls of the dead were never buried and prayed over, in Vietnamese tradition, they wander the jungle howling and screaming, “here when it is dark, trees and plants moan in awful harmony.  When the ghostly music begins it unhinges the soul.”

Kien remembers other days, before the 1969 battle and the death of one friend after another.   He remembers a fire-fight with Saigon commandos when he walked into oncoming rounds and came out alive, three others dead.  He is nominated for officer school and turns it down, preferring to “die with the regular troops … the friendly, simple, peasant fighters who were the ones to bear the catastrophic consequences of this war, yet [who] never had any say in deciding the course of the war.”  The war that “seemed endless, desperate, and leading nowhere.”

Thus the soldier-author raises his voice against the unmentionable suffering, the patriotic stoicism and against the Hanoi commissars who never pulled a trigger yet did do the deciding.  Bao Ninh’s novel was on the proscribed list for many years in Vietnam, handed around in mimeographed copies pressing up against the hand of official silence.

Bao Ninh was a Vietnamese from the north.  At the age of seventeen he went to war, as they told each other, ‘until he died or the war was over.’  He served ten years in almost continual fighting, unlike the one year tours of American soldiers. When the war as over, he returned to a post-war school for veterans.  After some time he presented his graduation thesis which became the genesis of the novel.  Professors at the school collected funds to have it mimeographed and it began life as a clandestine work, passed hand to hand, breaking the upbeat narrative of war and victory being told by the government.

Imperceptibly scenes are shifted backward in time, and then forward, still with the MIA collecting time as the base.  Kien recalls Hanh, from pre-war years. “Men would quiver with lust when she walked by.”  She calls him to her room, and he fails, too young and too shy. He remembers Phuong, “his childhood sweetheart,” and returns to her again and again — at first with sweet memories, their first embrace–  and later, much later –as if the writing of it cannot be borne– the trauma that forced them apart, on a train taking them to the front, strafed and bombed by the Americans.

Then, unexpectedly, we find ourselves in Hanoi, long after the war. We learn that Kien, whom we have known, in the third person, as a soldier,  is now Kien, in the first person, a writer.  He is trying to write himself out of his despair and to fulfill his “obligation, his duty as a writer. … He had the burden of his generation, a debt to repay before dying…It would be tragic and unjust…to be buried deep in the wet earth, carrying with him the history of this generation.”

It was necessary to write about the war, to touch the readers’ hearts, to move them with words of love and sorrow, to bring to life the electric moments, to let them, in the reading and the telling, feel they were there, in the past, with the author.

And Kien the author becomes Kien the soldier again — at the fall of Saigon in a brutal stairwell fight.  He tells a female ARVN soldier to give herself up, only to hear her shoot to death his squad-mate, because he didn’t disarm her. He races back, firing repeatedly, then collapses, ‘shaking and retching.  In ten long years of fighting, since his first day at the front, he had never felt as bad.’

The shifting of time and place is usually clear; we follow.  We double back on a place encountered earlier and find more about the body that fell, or the emotions beneath  what had at first seemed a passing event.  But confusion grows as well.  One scene segues to another without ‘literary’ necessity.  At one point I leafed back through the pages and made a time-line with ‘jump forward five years,’  and a few pages later ‘jump back seven.’  ‘Hanoi. Now.’  ‘Tet 1968.’  I had need of a rational, reader’s linkage to the sequence of a life though I could see how a narrative non-sequence, like PTSD itself, was rising from the writer, trying to deal with memory and emotion as it came and follow where it might go.

He doesn’t pull away from describing the emotional injuries of war, either. A man named Can is acting strangely.  “You occasionally found such traumatized misfits in the army.  Their chaotic minds, their troubled speech, revealed how cruelly they were twisted and tortured by war. They collapsed both spiritually and physically.”  Or later, about himself, after watching an American war movie:

…once again I’m ready to jump in and mix it in the fiery scene of blood, mad killing and brutality that warps soul and personality. The thirst for killing, the cruelty, the animal psychology, the evil desperation.  I sit dizzied, shocked by the barbarous excitement of reliving close combat with bayonets and rifle-butts.  My heart beats rapidly as I stare at the dark corners of the room where the ghost soldiers emerge, shredded with gaping wounds.”

And if that’s not enough, there is plenty of straight-ahead anti-war feeling. Can, says:

“In all my time as a soldier I’ve yet to see anything honorable.”
“We have so many of those damned idiots up there in the north enjoying the profits of war, but it’s the sons of  peasants who have to leave home, leaving a helpless old mother…
or the narrator himself:
“The ones who loved war were not the young men, but the others, like politicians, middle aged men with fat bellies and short legs.  Not the ordinary people.  The recent years of war had brought enough suffering and pain to last them a thousand years.”

Desertion was rife ” …as though soldiers were being vomited out, emptying the insides of whole platoons.”

Even at war’s end

…some said they had been fighting for thirty years, if you included the Japanese and the French.  He had been fighting for eleven years.  War had been their whole world.  So many lives, so many fates.  The end of the fighting was like a deflation of the entire landscape, with fields, mountains and rivers collapsing in on themselves…

the war is not over. This passage occurs about half way through the book.  There are many memories yet to traverse.  We learn that the book we are reading was begun as another war began — the Chinese threatening the northern borders in support of their ally Pol Pot in Cambodia.  Something moved in Kien, ‘taking him from turmoil to peace … he started writing his first novel.”

The return from war, so often noted in American war novels, as unhappy, antagonistic or degrading, was no better for the Vietnamese in Bao Ninh’s canvas:

There had been no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music.  That might have been tolerated but not the disrespect shown them.  The general population  just didn’t care about them.  Nor did the authorities…At every station the loudspeakers blared, blasting the ears of the wounded, the sick, the blind, the mutilated, the white-eyed, grey-lipped, malarial troops.  Into their ears poured an endless stream of the most ironic teachings, urging them to ignore the spirit of reconciliation, to beware the ‘bullets’ covered with sugar, to ignore the warmth and passions among the remnants of this fallen, luxurious south.

It is interesting that the original title of The Sorrow of War was something like The Fate of Love  (Thân phận của tình yêu).  And that the original title of Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name, with which Sorrow is often paired, was The Understanding of Love (Thân phận của tình yêu)  Though ‘the sorrow of war’ casts a wide and encompassing image appropriate to the novel, the ‘fate of love’ is central to Bao Ninh’s telling.

The author Kien begins writing to escape “the infinite present” following the war, the drinking and despair.

There is no new life, no new era, nor is it hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite.  The hope is contained in the beautiful pre-war past… The little trust and will to live that remains stems not from my illusions but from the power of my recall.

Phuong, Phuong and always Phuong, pure and loving in the past, distant and untouchable now in the present. Their once ‘forever’ love shattered beyond repair, though Kien tries through the pages of his memory.  Not a story of love that redeems, but of love that seems true, in a time of war.

The author, the “I” who has appeared one hundred pages into the novel,  does not present us, in the end, with the work we watch him laboring over.  He disappears, drinking and depressed.  A mute girl — the second of the novel– gathers the scattered pages together and keeps them in the attic of the apartment building he departed from. Another “I” appears –a man in the neighborhood who, by chance gets the manuscript from the mute girl.

At first I tried to rearrange the manuscript pages into chronological order, to make the manuscript read like the sort of a book I was familiar with.  But it was useless.  There was no chronological order at all.  Any page seemed like the first page, any page could have been the last.

And with the magic of a great story teller this second “I” discovers affinities with the authorial “I.”

Each of us carried in his heart a separate war which in many ways was totally different, despite our common cause.    We had different memories of the people we’d known and of the war itself… But we also shared a common sorrow, the immense sorrow of war.  It was a sublime sorrow, more sublime than happiness, and beyond suffering.  It was thanks to our sorrow that we were able to escape the war, escape the continual killing and fighting, the terrible conditions of battle and the unhappiness of men in fierce and violent theaters of war.

Sorrow of War does what the best novels of war have done:  look, without flinching, at what war is, not only in the fighting itself, but in the trauma that follows, to soldier and civilian alike. It is not anti-war in the sense that Kien, or Bao Ninh, thought the war was foolish or un-necessary.  Theirs was the land being invaded.  But as he begins to write, his intention being to write a post-war novel, “his pen disobeyed him.  Each page revived one story of death after another … re-stoking his horrible furnace of war memories.”  This is the truth and the sorrow of one who has been there, and so, becomes one more witness to add to others.  With enough such Sorrows the too easy willingness to mobilize with others to repeat the same may one day fade away.

Blurbs on the cover compare Sorrow to All Quiet on the Western Front.  Too easy and not right. Yes, both tell in detail what a soldier feels. Two years in the trenches are different than ten years in the jungle.  Germans are more familiar to Americans than are Vietnamese.  Most striking  on reading, is that All Quiet is a linear progression of scenes in the war.  If there is time for a drink it slots in between hours in the trenches.  It starts at A and ends at B.  Sorrow is a novel both modern and cinematic, with jump cuts, and multiple time frames, but reflective of the wounded mind producing it, sliding from memory to memory as one leads to another, and as the mind allows. They might be grouped on a bookshelf together, they speak to the same empathetic muscle in us, but they importantly different despite their common mother.

The language is never as surprising and lyrical as Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without A Name, but startling, fresh images appear throughout:

“At this moment the city was so calm that one could practically hear the clouds blow over the rooftops.  He thought of them as part of his life being blown away in wispy sections, leaving vast open areas of complete emptiness, as in his own life. “

and from above: “…as though soldiers were being vomited out, emptying the insides of whole platoons.”

She asked him to stay the night and he silently agreed.  The short summer night softly enfolded them and all that was heard was the sound of a nightbird calling from the edge of the forest and the distant rippling of the hamlet’s slow stream.

The translation was done in two steps.  A Mrs. Phan Thanh Hao wrote a “raw” draft into English.  Frank Palmos, an Australian whose war autobiography Ridding the Devils Phan had translated from English into Vietnamese, took her raw version and turned it into the finished version we are reading. Though many into-English translators use native informants, and indeed some don’t know the native language at all, to work from another full translation seems especially difficult.  Bao Ninh himself insisted that the translation be done by some one who knew war.  Palmos fit the bill, both as an Australian war correspondent in the same war, and as a writer. After agreeing to take on the job Palmos spent time not only with Phan’s first draft, but going to Vietnam many times.  He says in an interview he went up and down the country, checking paragraph by paragraph the names of villages, battles, roads.  He had trusted bi-lingual Vietnamese to help him work through difficulties. By the time he submitted the final draft, he says, he had gone through 77 versions.

For his efforts the book was named by the Society of Authors as one of the top 50 translated books in the 20th century.

I am without competence to agree or disagree with their judgment; there are many fine translations to choose from.  I will say, however, that had I been an editor I would have asked about a number of things. Some perhaps come up due to being ‘separated by a common language’ as Shaw’s quip has it.

Words such as ‘mates,’ ‘blokes,’ ‘demobbed’ (demobilized), I did ‘beastly’ things, or ‘bloody hilarious’ coming from Vietnamese mouths seem very strongly ‘marked’ as belonging to a specific culture and time to my American ear.  Perhaps to Aussie or Brit ears they are not, though I’m not sure ‘pal,’ or ‘buddy’ would have sounded any better.  ‘You’re talking garbage,’ is similarly marked with a contemporary, if also American, ring. Referring to someone as having  “a wise multi-faceted intelligence’ seems an odd thing for a Vietnamese soldier-writer to say. There must be a Hanoi way to say this.

For Kien the writer to recall  “…crossing Hamburger Hill in 1972” seems extremely odd.   This was Ap Bia Mountain [Đồi A Bia] to the Vietnamese.  A western reader might like to know it was the famous Hamburger Hill for American and NVA forces but to have a North Vietnamese soldier refer to it as such stopped me completely.  Translation is nothing if not months of making difficult choices, and Palmos took on a job more difficult than most.  High praise is due, particularly because of the importance of the book.  But I don’t see any good choice in such a case but to use the frowned-upon interpolation method; e.g.  “…crossing Ap Bia Mountain in 1972, known to the Americans as Hamburger Hill…”

At one point in the novel Palmos has one man say to another, “Hello fighter,” which strikes me as the way to approach these problems.  What are the literal terms of friendship and soldiering among the Vietnamese?  Can they be turned into plausible English?  ‘Sandal man,’ ‘volunteer,’ ‘Hanoi man’, ‘liberator,’  ‘comrade,’ something that is understandable but keeps us in the jungle with men who are, in fact, strange to us, who speak –if even when speaking of sex– in ways different than ourselves.

Kien’s squad is a scouting unit; why not ‘scout?’ In many translations from the Spanish, native words are retained, such as compañero, or comadre. Even in novels written in English, Orwell’s Burmese Days, comes to mind, untranslated words find a place, understood in context: paso, ingyi,  mali, mahseer, chokras. Why couldn’t this be done with Vietnamese? We’d soon accept can bo (officer) and binh nhi (private) or ban (friend.) Better, it seems to me, than ‘bloke.’  

I was particularly struck that in neither The Sorrows of War, nor Novel Without a Name, did I run across the Vietnamese equivalent of the American ‘gook,’ ‘slope,’ ‘squint-eye.’  There are a few references to Americans being big, hairy or well muscled,  but not much more.  It’s hard to believe the soldiers didn’t have some choice words, if only generic like ‘devils,’ or ‘little dicks,’ as soldiers will do. But, neither Sorrows, nor Novel concern itself much with the Americans, as such. One soldier quips that ‘President Johnson’s on holiday, he won’t attack tonight,’ but there is not one extended passage of hand-to-hand fighting bringing Americans up close and ugly.  Two horrific acts against women are done by Vietnamese soldiers, one by Americans.  There are no excoriations of the invaders, or the killers or murderers.  The bombing of the supply train that tears Kien and Phuong apart acknowledges the American planes and bombs but is entirely concerned with what is happening on the ground to the young couple and other, not very nice, Vietnamese.

As companions to any of the many fine American novels of the Vietnam war, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrows of War, and Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name stand with all, and above many.  Human suffering is not a monopoly ennobling one nation over another. It is shared by all, profoundly, and widely.  These two novels ensure that we now know what once it was convenient not to know. It doesn’t take deep scholarship to understand the lessons.

In an interview with a US Vietnam vet in 1998, Bao Ninh closed with this: “The NVA were not robots.  We were human beings. That is what you must tell people.  We were human beings.”

And from the novel, “What remained was sorrow, the immense sorrow, the sorrow of having survived.  The sorrow of war.”