The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: North Vietnam: the soldier's tale: The 1994 Independent Foreign Fiction Award has gone to a remarkable novel by an ex-soldier, Bao Ninh

In this extract from 'The Sorrow of War', the two central characters, the soldier Kien and his girlfriend Phuong, travel from Hanoi towards the front.

War] War] The sea roared out the message in the small hours of 5 August 1965. A small storm began far out across the Tonkin Gulf and the group looked on as distant forked lightning seemed to signal the start of the war. Nearby the other students in tents around the fire also began to wake up and slowly, realising something new was upon them, began to gather round the fire and talk over the news.

Kien and Phuong slipped out of the campfire circle to a quiet spot where they couldn't be heard or seen. They embraced urgently. The realisation they would certainly soon be parted and their world would soon be changed heightened the desperation. They whispered innocent, passionate vows to each other, promising never to waver in their love.

And they spoke of death.

When they returned to camp it was to an unruly scene; the wind had whipped up and the distant storm had quickly found them. Blankets rolled off along the shore, sand blew in sprays and tents broke from their pegs, and just as the howling wind died down the heavens opened and the short-lived seaside vacation was washed out.

That's how the war started, with a storm. For Kien the storm continued for nearly 11 years, and even after the war his mental skies were clouded for another ten. Now, 20 years later, he let the pictures flow back across his mental screens. He pictured himself and Phuong on the goods train, heading for Vinh. It was a crazy adventure. Kien was now a different man from then; Phuong was perhaps not so much changed.

Their goods train had not stopped at Phu Ly, as they expected. It turned a little east and rushed on towards Vinh, on the coast, blowing long, sorrowful whistles as it gathered speed in the night. Phu Ly, Nam Dinh, Ninh Binh, all flashed by and were left behind to the north. Everything seemed to be going well.

'Good for us,' said Phuong, pleased the escapade was being prolonged. Her sense of adventure was heightened with every mile and she cuddled up to Kien, whispering to him, 'The further we go, the more I'm lost, the better it is. We'll see what war's like.'

Now, it seems like fiction, some imagined story on the fringe of his war memories. But it was real enough.

The train howled on through the night, never stopping at stations. Once, on a straight run through some grain fields, it stopped for a few minutes. Several men furtively climbed aboard and the train started off again.

As the newcomers moved in, everyone moved along and space became tighter and tighter. Who were they? Soldiers? Merchants doing quick deals? Highway thieves? More smoke, more stink.

One of them imitated a station master shouting after their train speeding through his small station: 'Doonnnngg Giiaooooooo-whosh]' Phuong laughed softly. 'How far to the killing fields?' she asked.

'So, you can't sleep either?' Kien

replied.

'Sleepy, but can't sleep.'

'Tomorrow.'

'What if there's no tomorrow?'

And so their intimate nonsenses had continued for the next hour, a period of delirious romantic joy in extraordinary circumstances. . .

They clutched together in furious embrace on the floor of the rough goods car, surrounded by unseen but close, shadowy figures, snoring and smoking and murmuring. Yet they were a world apart and Phuong stretched herself invitingly against him time and time again as if lying on a soft bed in a first-class sleeping-car. Kien's passion would rise and he would move in close, only to withdraw at the last moment . . . She urged him on. 'Come on, darling. Are you afraid?' Kien was about to respond, he recalled now. What would it have been? Finally, their pure spirits joining in true love in those strange conditions?

A strange, whistling sound came to them from above, then other sounds, like the howling of engines high in the air. 'Planes] Bombers]' someone shouted and the mob in the car began scrambling in the dark.

Jet planes had found the train. High above, in the very early morning, they were circling, then diving.

Kien was slow to react. He was still dazed by the activity as he heard orders being shouted: 'Stop the train. Alert, alert]' As the train was slowing, terror reigned. The compartment door was jerked open with a crash and men in panic began jumping from the braking but still moving car, hitting the tracks and sleepers with sickening thuds. Kien was standing up close to the door trying to get his bearings when the first direct attack came. 'Kien] Kien]' he heard a girl call. It must have been Phuong, but it came from a different corner of the car, and he couldn't see anyone in the dark. The planes dived again, strafing with increasing accuracy as flares lit the scene.

Blinded, he turned inward and saw in the blinding light the incredible sight of Phuong, lying prone on the floor, fighting a big man on top of her. She was struggling desperately, her hair flowing, her clothes being ripped from her, her mouth covered by a massive, brutal hand as he settled over her in a rhythm.

A blast hit Kien and he was flung from the car onto the rail embankment and he rolled roughly, striking metal with such force that he fainted. When he came to his chest was burning, blood had begun seeping into his mouth, bringing a salty taste, and he felt sick. He looked at the train, with cars broken but basically intact, and heard a whistle. With some urgency the engine began puffing away and the cars one by one clanged as the slack was taken up and began moving slowly on.

Kien jumped up and opened a compartment door. But Phuong was not there. Nor was she in the next, or the next. In panic, he jumped onto the steps of an escort locomotive, fearing he would otherwise be left behind. Two mechanics, wearing overalls smeared with oil, looked over at him with sympathy. Their faces were smeared with coal-dust and oil, their eyes shone chalk-white through these strange masks. One of them picked up a shovel and began stoking the furnace. The older man, the engineer, pulled on a cord and a screaming hoot was emitted. Kien sat there hardly taking any of this in. He began to fall sideways, into a faint. The young stoker supported him, wiping blood from Kien's chin with the inside of his glove. Kien looked at the blood on the glove disbelievingly.

'Cheer up, son,' the old engineer told him. 'This is kid stuff. The first whistle in the war. Nothing to it.'

As the fog lifted Kien seemed also to regain his faculties. He suddenly remembered what he thought he had seen in the compartment, and what could still be happening there. He was to remember that as his first war wound, not the blood from his injuries now staining the glove.

It was that moment, when Phuong was violently taken from him, that the bloodshed truly began and his life entered into bloody suffering and failure. And he would understand true sacrifice; friends who would die to save others.

The Sorrow of War is translated by Frank Palmos, based on a version by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao, and published by Secker & Warburg ( pounds 8.99). Copies can be ordered direct from the publishers on a credit card line: 0933 410511.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory