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BOOK REVIEW / Deadly bees among the peanut plants: Geoff Dyer on a magnificent Vietnamese story of love and death, The Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh's first novel, The Sorrow of War (Secker pounds 8.99), vaults over all the American fiction that came out of the Vietnam war to take its place alongside the greatest war novel of the century, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. And this is to understate its qualities for, unlike All Quiet, it is a novel about much more than war. A book about writing, about lost youth, it is also a beautiful, agonising love story. How many writers have succeeded, as Ninh does, in making the reader fall in love with their heroine?

The publicity material makes much of the fact that after a plethora of American films and books, here, at last, is the view from the other side, from North Vietnam. It has become such a commonplace to berate films focusing solely on the American experience (notably the first two instalments of the recently completed Oliver Stone trilogy) that we have come to believe that the Vietnamese soldier's experience of the war was fundamentally different from an American's. Ideologically, of course, this was true but in another sense this argument is a form of liberal orientalism. For what Ninh's novel emphasises is that, at the sharp end, the Vietnamese infantrymen's war was no different, in essentials, from that of the grunts. Ninh's soldiers get high, try to stay alive, sacrifice their lives for their buddies, avenge their dead.

The psychologically scarred veteran unable to adjust to an America indifferent to or shamed by his return is a staple of US films. On their victorious return to Hanoi, Ninh's protagonist Kien and his comrades find a population that 'just didn't care about them'. In a bar full of drunken vets Kien encounters a 'tough' in a leather jacket. 'Victory, shit]' he goads. 'The victory we got was a victory for morons' - and beats him to a pulp.

The war is still raging in his head long after the liberation. In an extraordinary passage he lies on his bed like Willard (Martin Sheen) and hears the rotors of attacking helicopters. 'But the whumpwhump-whump continues without the attack, and the helicopter images dissolve, and I see in its place a ceiling fan.' A coincidence? Or is the 'US war movie' he is watching on television actually Apocalypse Now? A similar echo occurs during one idyllic evening on a beach in 1965. Kien is with his girlfriend Phuong who is strumming a guitar. As the news of America's entry into the war reaches them she begins singing 'The winds they are a-changing . . .'

If some elements in the translation - 'Motherfucker]' - make the Vietnamese soldiers' experience conform more closely to a familiar, distinctly American mould than was intended, other turns of phrase - 'bugger', 'mate', 'bloke' - recall the characteristic idiom of Tommies in the trenches of Flanders. This slightly jarring fusion has the useful effect of reminding us that, climate and terrain aside, the soldier's experience of war has changed very little since Remarque.

But climate and terrain cannot be so easily set aside, of course, and Ninh here has a massive edge on American writers who, in Vietnam, are dealing with a landscape wholly alien to their own fictive topography. Ninh renders the Jungle of Screaming Souls and Crocodile Lake with the kind of mythic intimacy that is bound to recall Marquez. Atrocious, stinking and corpse-strewn, the killing fields are also occasionally Edenic, as bullets buzz by 'like deadly bees' and troops step 'through peanut plants, eggplant, thyme and oregano'. This strain blossoms into lyricism in the remembered afternoons - 'with the cicadas singing and the flame trees in full flower' - from his pre- war teenage life with Phuong.

Independent, beautiful, rebellious and fearless, Phuong is warned by Kien's father that 'these are perilous times for free spirits. Your beauty will one day cost you dear'. Their love survives 10 years of war, but by then this twisted prophecy has become a sordid truth. Kien never recovers from the war or from the memory of the youth and happiness it wrenched from him and Phuong. Fulfilling 'his last adventure as a soldier' he dredges a novel out of himself, filling page after drunken page with memories and ghosts, excoriating the past. One assumes - wrongly perhaps - that in this respect he is an autobiographical projection of Ninh himself who was one of only ten who survived from the 500-strong Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. Of those ten, six have since killed themselves. Whatever the autobiographical connection there is nothing indulgent or modishly self-referential about this preoccupation with the struggle to relive the war in words.

The American vet Tim O'Brien also dwells on the transition from soldier to writer - from grunt to Granta, as it were - in his collection of stories The Things They Carried, but his musings seem professorial by comparison. Ninh's book is stained by the labour of its composition, drenched in the sorrow of its title: 'a sublime sorrow, more sublime than happiness, and beyond suffering. It was thanks to our sorrow that we were able to escape the war, escape the continual killing and fighting.'

I say Ninh's book, but it purports to be Kien's. The narrator came upon the abandoned pile of manuscript pages by accident and 'became immersed in each sequence, each page . . . The close-up fighting, the small details of the soldiers' lives. The image of former colleagues appearing for just a moment, yet so clearly. The flow of the story continually changed. From beginning to end the novel consisted of blocks of images. A certain cluster of events, then disruptions, some event wiped off the page . . . Many would say this was a disruption of the plot . . . They'd say this style proved the writer's inherent weakness . . .'

I doubt it; The Sorrow of War is a magnificent achievement.

'Smoking rosa canina Kien would immerse himself in a world of mythical and wonderful dreams which in ordinary moments his soul could never penetrate. In these luxurious dreams the imagined air was so clean, the sky so high, the clouds and sunshine so beautiful, approaching the perfection of his childhood dreams. And in those dreams the beautiful sky would project pictures of his own lovely Hanoi. The West Lake on a summer afternoon, the scarlet flame trees around the lake. Once in his dream-picture he had felt the waves lapping the side of his tiny sampan and looking up he had seen Phuong, youthful, innocently beautiful, her hair flying in the Hanoi breeze.

. . . The lethargy brought on by rosa canina spread from Kien's scout platoon huts through the entire regiment. It wasn't long before the Political Commissar ordered the units to stop smoking rosa canina, declaring it a banned substance. The Commissar then ordered troops to track down all the plants and cut all the blooms, then uproot all the trees throughout the Screaming Souls area to ensure they'd grow no more.

Along with the gambling and smoking of canina went all sorts of rumours and prophecies. Perhaps because the soldiers in their hallucinations had seen too many hairy monsters with wings and mammals with reptilian tails, or imagined they had smelled the stench of their own blood. They imagined the monstrous animals plunging about bleeding in the dark caves and hollows under the base of Ascension Pass on the other side of the valley from the jungle. Many said they saw groups of headless black American soldiers carrying lanterns aloft, walking through in Indian file.'

(Photograph omitted)