BY GERARD CHRETIENThe media has made sure that all of us are aware of the Vietnam conflict. Readers and movie goers the world over are now familiar with America’s suffering in Vietnam and the problems American veterans have endured as they attempted to adjust to civilian life. Although all life is irreplaceable, the fact remains that the United States lost fewer than a million men in the Vietnam conflict and their social institutions and infrastructure remained relatively intact. The Vietnamese, however, lost two million men and their culture, society, landscape and tradition were literally obliterated. Despite this destruction, their side of this horrendous story has seldom been told. Worse yet, when it is told, they are often portrayed in the most unattractive of all light.
Until only a few years ago, the Vietnamese were portrayed by the media as a faceless people with no identity; entities not worth caring about. The turning point came with the publication, in Dutch, of Duong Thu Huong’s Blind Paradise in 1994. This landmark book was followed by Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. War novels deal, superficially, with war. But underneath all the blood and horror and carnage lie far deeper social and human issues. The best novels of war, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, as well as Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, also deal with the makeup and morality of a culture or a society gone wrong. The protagonist of these books, whether real or fictional, often endures a harrowing personal struggle through both a public and private hell and usually undergoes some sort of redemption, even if that redemption results in death. Born in 1952, Bao Ninh served in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade during the Vietnam conflict.
Of the five hundred youths who went to war with this brigade in 1969, Bao Ninh was one of its ten survivors, so it is not unusual that war should be the subject of his first book, considering the impact it has had on his life. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the protagonist of The Sorrow of War, Kien, is the lone survivor of his brigade and a ten year veteran of the war. As the book opens he is serving as part of an MIA body collection team. It is through his memories that we slowly learn how the war has devastated his youth and the youth of his countrymen. In an attempt to purge himself of the demons of war and the hopelessness of the present, Kien writes, merging his memories of the past with his images of the present. For Kien, writing is the only way he can perform his last duty as a soldier, a duty he sees as being “to expose the realities of war and to tear aside conventional images.” In prose that ranges from the horrific to the poetic, Ninh relates memories and images of death and destruction, anguish and sorrow.
Yet, underneath all of this loss lies a bittersweet love story, the true story of Ninh and his childhood sweetheart who were parted forever by the war. It is Ninh’s personal recollections that make this book the saddest and most sorrowful story ever written. Nowhere has there ever been a more tragic tale of unnecessary loss and suffering and destruction. And there is no redemption. For all the suffering and loss endured at every level of Vietnamese life–the loss of youth, family, life, tradition and love–is all in vain. The future that Kien fought for as a youth never materializes, and, in the meantime, he loses all that was ever meaningful to him, all that he has ever held dear and close to his heart.
This is the real sorrow and loss and tragedy of war and it is a tragedy we all must share, no matter who or where we are. The Sorrow of War is a book that will change your life but it is also a book that will break your heart.Words/ Pages : 672 / 24