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The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

The Sorrow of War (1991)

by Bao Ninh

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
7631018,088 (3.89)64
  1. 20
    The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (ateolf, chrisharpe)
    chrisharpe: A similar account, from the enemy perspective.
  2. 10
    Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (rebeccanyc)
    rebeccanyc: Whether American or Vietnamese, the experience of the Vietnam/American war was shared, and these two books explore the experience of fighting and remembering from differing perspectives.
  3. 10
    Novel without a Name by Dương Thu Hương (DavidLaw)
    DavidLaw: The Vietnam War from the Vietnamese point of view. The horrors of war are exposed while the more pleasant times of pre-war Vietnam are presented in flashback form. The Vietnamese spirit in the face of unrelenting horror, starvation and exhaustion make clear why victory in this war was unattainable for America (as indeed, the French learned previously at Dien Bien Phu). Like Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War, there is no glory in war, only in the spirit of the individual. That is something that Novel Without a Name shares with some of the finest of American novels dealing with the Vietnam War.… (more)

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» See also 64 mentions

English (9)  Dutch (1)  All languages (10)
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Painful to read; I could only read a few pages a day. But absorbing and revealing. I was there. This perspective was enlightening. After all, we were the enemy. ( )
  Joelwb | Oct 16, 2016 |
In The Sorrow of War Bảo Ninh tells the brutal, often tragically poignant story of a North Vietnamese soldier during the Vietnam War. In modern media, one often sees the effect the Vietnam War had on American soldiers and indeed on the American psyche but rarely does one see the Vietnamese side, and even rarer, the North Vietnamese side.

This story is told in a series of flashbacks as the main character, Kien, tries to come to terms with the brutal decade-long war that has ravaged his home and his mind. Autobiographical in nature, as Bảo Ninh (like Kien) was one of ten survivors from his unit, and this portrays the psychological effects war has on its victims. At the same time, this is also a poignant love story as Kien and his sweetheart Phuong deal with their emotions surrounded by the ever-present spectre of war.

In short then, this is a powerful novel, akin to All Quiet on the Western Front not only for showing once more the horrors of war but also for giving a valuable perspective on the Vietnam War itself. ( )
  xuebi | May 30, 2014 |
I read this in preparation of my own visit to Vietnam, and it did a lot to help me prepare for the kind of people I would meet: charming, intelligent, friendly, and with a healthy sense of the ironic. Yes, it's about the war, but also so much more than that. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Mar 21, 2014 |
During the Viet Nam War, Bao Ninh served in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade of the North Vietnamese Army, and of the five hundred members who went to war in 1969, he is one of ten that survived. This author knows the pain of war, the hopelessness of war, The Sorrow of War. Yet, I found this a difficult book to become overly connected to. The writing is beautiful and the emotion runs deep, but is elusive. It’s non-linear style required my concentrated attention, but that also had a disconnecting effect. The basic story is about Kien who now that the war is over, is responsible for the retrieval and identification of the fallen but comes across more as a series of reflections or flashbacks about the horrors that he experienced during the war.

As if through a veil we are given glimpses of a survivor’s guilt as we learn of the events that Kien lived through. At times very dark and bleak, but at others you get a glimpse of the black humor that helped these soldiers hold it together. And through it all runs the remoteness and distance that enables a person to go on when the terror and violence seem never ending.

The Sorrow of War was an uncomfortable read yet this book does a good job of pointing out that soldiers everywhere share these feelings regardless of politics, religion or race. As this short and powerful book ably points out no one survives a war intact. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Jul 18, 2013 |
It is 1975 and the American War has been won as this tragic and stunning novel begins, yet Kien, a veteran of ten years of fighting, is still in the Vietnamese army, in the Missing In Action Remains-Gathering Team, and the team is on the edge of the Jungle of Screaming Souls, an area he knows well, because it was the site of vicious fighting in 1969 from which only ten members of his battalion survived. Here soldiers see ghosts, of Vietnamese and Americans, of animals and humans, souls that have not yet found the peace of death. And the Jungle of Screaming Souls is in a way a metaphor for the rest of this book, whose Vietnamese title means "My Destiny of Love," as Kien relentlessly searches his memories, of war and love, to try to understand the past, the present, and maybe the future.

The book moves somewhat haphazardly between Kien's life in the present as a writer trying to write a novel about the war and his life, his life during the war in the midst of horrifying fighting, and his life before the war, especially his love for his neighbor and schoolmate, the beautiful Phuong. And yet, there is a method to the haphazardness, because as the book (both Ninh's and Kien's) progresses Kien delves deeper into his memories and reveals more of the trauma he and Phuong experienced at the beginning of the war. It is as if he is spiraling deeper and deeper into his own soul and memories. What Ninh is doing grows on the reader as the book goes on.

Clearly, this book exists on several levels. Without a doubt, as all the blurbs on my copy say, it is an indictment of the horror (and sorrow) of war, and war scenes are rendered in great and disturbing detail. According to Wikipedia, Ninh was a member of something called the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade: of the 500 young men and women originally in it, only ten survived, and of these I read elsewhere (sorry, forget where) six committed suicide. At points, Ninh's writing about Kien's postwar experiences sound exactly like what we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome. What does it mean to kill? What does it mean to survive when others die, even sacrifice themselves? In the way it describes the nitty gritty of war and how soldiers cope, it is a counterpart to the also brilliant Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes.

At the same time, it is a portrait of life in Hanoi, both pre- and postwar, and an illustration of the differences, found around the world, between city dwellers and country dwellers who find themselves thrown together. It is a story about the role of art in various forms: music and painting, as well as writing. It is in a way a coming-of-age story, as Kien reflects on his and Phuong's parents, although a coming-of-age by fire. And it is a tale of young love and of innocence shattered.

But maybe most of all, it is a novel about memory - what we remember, how we remember it, how with effort (in Kien's case through writing and, perhaps, alcohol; with others, perhaps, through therapy) we can access the very things that disturb us the most and that we keep hidden even from ourselves. And the novel explores the meaning of the past. At one point, early in the book, Kien muses:

"My life seems little different from that of a sampan pushed upstream towards the past. The future lied to us, there long ago in the past. There is no new life, no new era, nor is it hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite. The hope is contained in the beautiful prewar past." p. 47

Ninh's book was controversial, and was was published in English long before being widely available in Vietnam. Ninh worked with a translator and an Australian author/translator/war correspondent (who is listed as "editor") to produce the English version (per Wikipedia). Here's an example of what might have annoyed the censors, although much is more subtle than this:

After 1975, all that had quieted. The wind of war had stopped. The branches of conflict had stopped rustling. As we had won, Kien thought, then that meant justice had won; that had been some consolation. Or had it? Think carefully; look at your own existence. Look carefully now at the peace we have, painful, bitter, and sad. And look at who won the war.

To win, martyrs had sacrificed their lives in order that others might survive. Not a new phenomenon, true. But for those still living to know that the kindest, most worthy people have all fallen away, or even been tortured, humiliated before being killed, or buried and wiped away by the machinery of war, then this beautiful landscape of calm and peace is an appalling paradox. Justice may have won, but cruelty, death, and inhuman violence have also won."
p. 193

I haven't really touched on Phuong's story, but it's an important component of the novel, as is her own wartime trauma and response. It is seen through Kien's eyes, but he gradually comes to understand her better, although he is still heartbroken about her leaving him.

This is a disturbing and eye-opening, yet beautiful book.
9 vote rebeccanyc | May 19, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Excellent novel as soldier become writer tries to fulfill his obligations to his generation and write about their history while he mourns and tries to recreate the love he felt before the war. Wide in sweep, terrible in its sorrow of war....

“The ones who loved war were not the young men, but the others, like politician, middle aged men with fat bellies and short legs. Not the ordinary people. The recent years of war had brought enough suffering and pain to last them a thousand years.”

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bao Ninhprimary authorall editionscalculated
Palmos, FrankEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Phan Thanh HaoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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On the banks of the Ya Crong Poco River, on the northern flank of the B3 battlefield in the Central Highlands, the Missing in Action body-collecting team awaits the dry season of 1976.
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Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier, provides a strikingly honest look at how the Vietnam War forever changed his life, his country, and the people who live there. Originally published against government wishes in Vietnam because of its nonheroic, non-ideological tone, The Sorrow of War has won worldwide acclaim and become an international bestseller Annotation. The first novel of the Vietnam War written from the point of view of the North Vietnamese, The Sorrow of War has been hailed by critics not only as the best novel to emerge from the Vietnam experience, but as one of the greatest war novels of the century.… (more)

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