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
Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence