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
Saturday 04 June 1994
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
'Sleepy, but can't sleep.'
'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.
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