My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the second time I have read The Sorrow of War (1991) by Hoàng Ấu Phương (pen name Bảo Ninh). In the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City I dined for lunch at La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant of sorts. One of the usual vendors came by carrying a stack of books. Having a beer at midday, I rummaged among the black market books.
I came across an English translation of The Sorrow of War (1993) and opened it up. I began reading. Reading more as the woman placed her load on the table. What I read was sadness entire. What I read was beautiful. What I read was poetry and music. I purchased the black market copy for roughly $2 usd, and found a few of the pages out of order or missing. I finished the book any way. So after a year, (purchasing a valid copy this time from Amazon.com) I wanted to return to this story of innocent love and savage loss in times before, during, and after the Vietnam War.
Although The Sorrow of War is fiction, along the lines of A Farewell to Arms or All Quiet on the Western Front, it is a story of war told by a soldier. Bảo Ninh served the North with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade, and of over five hundred soldiers who went to war in 1969, Bảo is one of only ten who survived.
The Sorrow of War tells of a young man, age 17, named Kien from Hanoi who falls in love with Phuong, a childhood sweetheart, and how war ultimately corrupts their love.
The novel is fragmented and pieced together. By the end of the novel the reader is told that Kien left the manuscript to a mute woman and vanished. A neighbor, a fellow soldier that remembers Kien, gets the pages and pieces the book back together and publishes the fragments as best he can. The story does jump around from postwar, prewar, and during war times, but the leaps and bounds only flow smoothly in to each other and helps shape the story of Kien and Phuong all the more.
Twenty years after the war, Kien sets out to write a novel. “Kien seems to write only to rid himself of his devils… He continues his quest for perfection, crossing out, erasing, crossing out again, editing, tearing up some pages, then tearing up and destroying all. Then he starts over again, making out each syllable like a learner trying to spell a new word” (pg. 49).
Kien’s story unfolds the horrors of a soul that has seen so much war:
“That autumn was sad, prolonged by rain. Orders came for food rations to be sharply reduced. Hungry, suffering successive bouts of malaria, the troops became anemic and their bodies broke in ulcers, showing through worn and torn clothing. They looked like lepers, not heroic forward scouts. Their faces looked moss-grown, hatched and sorrowful, without hope. It was a stinking life” (pg. 16).
“The uprush of so many souls penetrated Kien’s mind, ate into his consciousness, becoming a dark shadow overhanging his own soul. Over a long period, over many, many graves, the souls of the beloved dead silently and gloomily dragged the sorrow of war into his life” (pg. 25).
“But 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. War was also a world without romance” (pg. 31).
“No. The ones who loved war were not the young men but the others like the 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” (pg. 75).
“The sorrow of war inside a soldier’s heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk. It was a sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past. The sorrow of the battlefield could not normally be pinpointed to one particular event, or even one person. If you focused on any one event it would soon become a tearing pain” (pg. 94).
And there a several graphic scenes, like the one to follow, in this novel, a true novel of sorrow. The scene takes place on April 30, 1975, Victory Day, at Tan Son Nhat Airport near Saigon:
“Enraged, he grabbed the corpse by one leg and dragged her across the floor and down the stairs. Her skull thudded down the steps like a heavy ball. When he reached the concrete floor at the bottom of the stairs, he braced himself, lifted the dead girl, and threw her out into the sunshine next to the another pile of dead southern commandos. The body bounced up, her arms spread wide, and her mouth opened as if she was about to cry out. Her head dropped back with another thud on the concrete. The lout walked away jauntily, swinging his arms as if her were a hero” (pg. 102).
But there are also beautiful scenes that break one’s heart when set next to the grief of war.
This next scene reminds me a great deal about Vietnam; and when modernity finally comes to Vietnam and there are no more power outages, scenes like this will surely be missed:
“On summer evenings when there were power blackouts and it was too hot inside, everyone came to sit out in front, near the only water tap servicing the whole three-story building.
“The tap trickled, as drop by drop every story was told. Nothing remained secret. People said that Mrs. Thuy, the teacher widowed since her twenties, who was about to retire and become a grandmother, had suddenly fallen in love with Mr. Tu, the bookseller living on the corner of the same street. The two old people had tried to hide their love but had failed. It was true love, something that can’t be easily hidden” (pg. 60-61).
The Sorrow of War is a tale of sorrow, lost loves, lost friends, and should be read knowing that not every book has a happy ending. A strong recommend.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers