The Sorrow of War (1990) is the fictional memoir of a young North Vietnamese man during and after the – from his point of view – American War. The author, Bào Ninh was actually born in 1952, but his protagonist Kien is 17 in 1965, so four years older, when the war starts and he goes straight from school to the North Vietnam Army. In the novel Kien is a famous novelist, 40 years old, writing The Destiny of Love, a story of the war which keeps getting mixed up with his own recollections of the war years, 1965-75, and the years since.
According to Wikipedia, in 1990 Bào Ninh published a roneoed version (who remembers Gestetners?) of this novel with the title The Destiny of Love after completing a creative writing course. “Soon afterwards Phan Thanh Hao translated it into English and took the manuscript to the British publishers Secker & Warburg. Geoffrey Mulligan, an editor there, commissioned Frank Palmos, an Australian journalist who had reported on the Vietnam War and written about it in his book Ridding the Devils (1990), to write an English version based on the raw translation.” This probably explains why The Sorrow of War sounds as though it were written in English by someone familiar with the war from the US point of view, as we are, rather than just translated.
I’m three years younger than Kien. I went up to university from my country high school in 1969 and was straight away involved in politics. Conscription had been introduced by the Liberal government to build up the army to help the Americans stop the supposed spread of Communism through South-East Asia. In 1971 I would have to register for ‘the ballot’, the lottery that chose 20 year olds to enlist, or face two years jail. As it happens I had no intention of killing the old men of the Liberal party’s enemies, or in helping them relive the glory days of World War II (in which of course very few of them had actually fought).
The first term of 1970 was spent in planning for the Moratorium on May 8. On the day, I marched down Swanston Street at the head of the Melb Uni contingent, bearing the pole for one end of our banner, to join up with the thousands already gathered in the Treasury Gardens. Then we marched out of the gardens and down Bourke Street to the GPO, 100,000 people shoulder to shoulder across the street. From where we were, outside Myers you could see marchers back up the hill all the way to Spring Street.
After the Moratorium was the Socialist Scholar’s conference in Sydney, then a fiery July 4 demo, the second Moratorium in September, which I attended in Brisbane having by then started truck driving, and an afternoon in the cells under the old Magistrates Court for ‘publishing a document’ to incite a breach of the National Service Act – ie. handing out pamphlets. By the end of 1971 I had been served a warrant regarding my failure to register and so moved to Queensland to live, to be out of the way. In December 1972 Labor was elected and the National Service laws were repealed. It was all over, for me anyway. For Kien it was never over.
These ‘war years’ of mine are only a fraction of the ten years Kien loses in the NVA, and then he must spend ten years more, reclaiming and losing again his first and only love Phuong, compulsively writing out the horrors he cannot forget, living with the spirits of the dead and, when this story starts, beginning the post-war years by collecting and bagging the bodies of the MIA’s in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, the battleground where he of all the 27th Battalion, was the only survivor.
Briefly, the novel is framed as a novel being written and then discarded, with the scattered pages recovered, out of order, and given to an editor. A standard writing school trope and hopefully now out of fashion again. But the result is a discontinuous narrative, with Kien fighting; Kien and Phuong graduating from high school, Kien too ‘honourable’ to follow up Phuong’s advances; rapes and battles and massacres; Phuong following Kien to the front; Kien and Phuong trying to live together, and failing, after Kien’s ten year absence.
If Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front remains the preeminent anti-war novel by a soldier on the losing side of WWI, then The Sorrow of War reminds us that winning is no great shakes either for the soldiers doing the actual fighting. But the real clue to reading this book is the ‘battle’ over the titles. It is clear Western readers at least are most interested in the war, but that the author is in fact more concerned with Kien’s failure to love and protect Phuong. The Sorrow of War is a love story that breaks your heart over and over and over again.
This is a stunning book. The only Vietnam War book I have read, or will read probably. I’m only sorry I was unable to get hold of a paper copy to give you some examples of Ninh’s writing
Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, originally self-published as The Destiny of Love in Vietnamese in 1990. English version, Frank Palmos, Secker & Warburg, London, 1993. Audio version, Trantor, 2015, read by James Langton (no mention in the audio credits of Palmos or any translator)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers discussed The Sorrow of War a couple of years ago (here) and specifically the problem of English language counterfeit copies. This discussion takes a very interesting turn when Frank Palmos, now an Indonesia and Vietnam specialist at UWA (LinkedIn) joins in, at the time and again today (26/08/2017).