The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (Riverhead Books)





Although it's commonly accepted that truth is stranger than fiction, passionate readers quickly learn that fiction provides truths that cannot be found in volumes of fact and nowhere is this more obvious than in fiction about war. Military history is usually written with impeccable research and superb scholarship, but to learn what war truly is, it's necessary to turn to All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Landsman by Peter Charles Melman or A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Giles Courtemanche. These are all novels that convey what war is for the people within it, the visceral, stinking carnage and terror and waste of combatants and noncombatants alike.

Bookshelves bulge with military histories of the Vietnam War. They are books that contain numbers, statistics, reports, and background information, but they do not contain the war itself. For that, readers need to pick up Bao Ninh's slender and frequently overlooked novel, The Sorrow of War.

This is a book with emotional and literary weight that is belied by its slightly more than two hundred and fifty pages. Even the most voracious bibliovore will discover that reading it takes time. Entering a war is not easy and staying within it is at times unbearable, but while Bao Ninh quickly makes that apparent, his literary skill keeps his readers enmeshed in the horror that he depicts so well.

Kien is a survivor, one of the few soldiers from his battalion who has lived to see American troops leave his country in defeat. After fighting for the entire ten years that the United States brought its power to bear against Vietnam, he is ready to return to Hanoi and live the life he has dreamed of for the past decade. The girl he loves is waiting for him, he has a home to return to, the war has left him neither crippled nor mutilated. He, along with other returning soldiers, have "wildly passionate ideas of how they would launch into their new civilian peacetime lives."

But his girlfriend has changed in their ten years of separation, and Kien finds "there are no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music...The general population just didn't care about them." It's time to move on, the war is over-- but within Kien it is still terribly alive.

He is haunted by memories so vivid and so real that the only way to distance himself from them is to write them down, to pin them to a page and make them stories. They return to him in scenes of cinematic force, with no chronological order, and that is the way he tells about these experiences that come back to life and engulf him once more. He drinks, he writes, he remembers.

"Broken bodies, bodies blown apart, bodies vaporized," this has been Kien's landscape for ten years. He learns that disregarding death is the only way to survive war; now he has to learn to look, body by body, at the way he saw people die. And his readers look with him, in haunted jungles, in blood-soaked mud, in an encounter with a woman who must be killed, in the midst of bombing where " the air cracked like broken glass."

By the end of this book, the numbers cited by military histories have been given a dreadful resonance. During the ten years of Kien's war, five million Vietnamese soldiers were killed. Bao Ninh is one of ten survivors from a battalion of five hundred men.