READING this haunting book on the war in Vietnam, I thought of the country's literary masterpiece: Kim Van Kieu by the poet Nguyen Du, a vast narrative love poem written 200 years ago about the tragic life of Kieu, a young girl from a distinguished Mandarin family who suffers dreadful setbacks, is sold into prostitution, is betrayed by her lover, attempts suicide, is rescued, becomes a concubine and eventually ends up as a holy recluse, a sort of Buddhist nun.
The story of Kieu is cloyingly sentimental, which is why the Vietnamese love it. I knew a Scotsman who memorised weepy chunks as a way of winning favours from the young peasant girls of the Mekong delta who had ended up in Saigon's brothels. (They would cry on his shoulder and slip off their bar stools as he recited his lines.) But the poem's real power lies in the character of the beautiful Kieu - tough, strong-willed, a fighter, loving and trusting (perhaps too trusting), and kind. She represents all Vietnamese: a victim and a survivor.
Kien, the narrator and anti-hero of Bao Ninh's novel, is a bit like Kieu. He lasts the war but he is a broken man. His friends are dead. The beautiful Phuong, his teenage love, has become a whore. He wanders through the peace, dazed, drunken, alone, haunted by the past. At the end of the novel he is coming to terms with himself and you see the faint stirrings of the fortitude which carried him through the conflict. It is a novel of despair, but it is also a novel of hope.
You can understand the enthusiasm for this book in Vietnam. It is free of propaganda and politics. It does not romanticise the war, and yet the author looks back to those 'caring days, when we knew what we were living and fighting for and why we needed to suffer and sacrifice'.
What the book does is tell us how the youth of North Vietnam, who were despatched south in their thousands, were as frightened and as vulnerable as the American conscripts on the other side. They grew up rapidly or they died. They also had their fair share of sadistic killers and rapists.
Until Sorrow of War was published there in 1990, the only war literature from Hanoi consisted of stirring memoirs, patriotic poems, tear-jerking love stories or brave tales of slaughter, sacrifice or derring-do. On the other side, in the US, we had battle cries, buddy stories, the odd romance and painful tales of readjustment, with the Vietnamese, where they entered the story, depicted as sub-human gooks, ginks or merely initials (VC, NVA). In different ways, each side has been giving us the same stereotype.
The Sorrow of War soars above all this. The descriptive writing alone - in particular, a US bombing raid on Thanh Hoa railway station near the Demilitarised Zone, and a trek through jungle to sanctuary in Cambodia - puts it in a special category. The novel encompasses so many strands. On one level it is a love story. On another it is about a writer, a burnt-out case, finding his way. It is also about camaraderie and lost innocence and class conflict. It moves backwards and forwards in time, and in and out of despair, dragging you down as the hero-loner leads you through his private hell in the highlands of central Vietnam or pulling you up when his spirits rise. It is a fine war novel and a marvellous book.
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