In my desperation to avoid writing an essay in a foreign language late at night, I thought I’d write this review instead. Having read most of this in a doctor’s waiting room this morning, I feel that it’s fresh enough in my mind to justify this. Or not. I just really don’t want to write that essay.
Kien is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is writing a novel, based on his experiences of the war – but he is still haunted by these events, making it hard for him to concentrate. As he continues to write it down, past and present collide, along with reality and fiction. Everything is mixed up, and soon the most important story he must tell is his love story – the story of Kien and Phuong.
That plot description doesn’t do this book justice. It starts with a graphic and detailed account of skirmishes in the jungle of Vietnam during the war, and then slowly, the present Kien is revealed. The novel switches between past and present with no warning – indeed, the two collide in the same paragraph on occasion. By not using chapters, Ninh has created almost one long short story. But it’s much more than that, and the novel revels in its fractured narrative. Indeed, as he says at the end, you could scatter each incident on the floor, then pick them up again and read them, and it would still make just as much sense. It’s not just a gimmick – by meshing together the history of Kien, there is a great sense of his life as a whole, and not just one small part.
Kien is clearly based on Ninh’s own experiences of fighting during the Vietnam War, and it is beautifully evoked. There is no glory here – the tragedy of war is what this novel focuses on. When we see them fighting in the war, the characters are all young – mostly older teenagers – and while Ninh doesn’t focus on this fact for too long, he doesn’t have to. There is enough inherent tragedy in this for the reader to understand his point. For a ‘war novel’, though, there is ironically very little war in it. Well, that’s not completely true. There’s a lot of war – but that’s not the point of the novel, I don’t think. Again and again, the characters shine as the main attraction of this novel – Kien in particular. What I found more interesting than the war sections were his attempts to reintegrate into society after the war. He locks himself in a bare apartment, and has to write because of some compulsion to do so. Again, there’s clearly some kind of autobiographical element at work here, but it only serves to strengthen the novel. That, and it doesn’t feel like some of those autobiographical novels that tend to get a bit self-indulgent.
It is interesting that the second half of the novel, while still concerned with the war, actually develops into a moving, tragic love story. Kien and his lover, Phuong, seem destined to be apart for all time, and the fact that they keep meeting by chance as the years go on only serves to highlight the fact that they can never be together. One has to wonder for whom Ninh himself is pining. Still, I’m not sure I got a ‘pining’ feeling from the two. To a large extent, they had both resigned themselves to the fact that they were never going to be together, and did their best to move on. Very pragmatic. On a side note, it is interesting that the original Vietnamese title of the novel is loosely translated as The Destiny of Love, perhaps showing us Ninh’s original intention with his work.
The Sorrow of War is truly an excellent novel. I don’t care if you read it just because it’s written by a Vietnamese writer, or because you think you’ll get to hear the other side of the story. You won’t, by the way – the American Army barely feature in the whole thing, and the war is usually referred to as a civil war. This is truly a brilliant character study, and the backdrop of the Vietnamese War, and the fact that it is in translation might give some people the wrong impression. Bảo Ninh has written a universal novel of memory, history, love and loss.