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"There was bitterness," Bao Ninh (that is a pen name for Hoang Phuong) said in an interview in his crowded apartment in a Soviet-style tenement block. "True, the Americans were fierce with their bombs and sophisticated weapons. And the latter part of the war took on the dark color of civil war.

"But today," he continued, "we feel no hatred toward the Americans -- that is the truth. And when I meet a corporal from the Saigon forces, I feel closer to him than to a captain from our side."

Bao Ninh, himself a corporal, spoke of postwar Vietnam.

"We soldiers from the North feel sad today," he said. "We struggled for the liberation of the whole nation, but we achieved the poverty of the whole nation.

    -Talking in Vietnam, Few Now Use the Party Line Henry Kamm, June 8, 1992, NY Times)

In a war that produced no end of pitiful fiction, this is perhaps the most pitiful book. After all, it's one thing for Americans to whine about how they wish we hadn't fought to preserve South Vietnam and save its people from the deprivations of the North. While that's a selfish view, it's understandable that folks would rather have stayed home and enjoyed the blessings of our liberty than fight for others. But Bao Ninh's novel reveals that the soldiers of the North fought for nothing and achieved even less.

That quote above does not begin to reveal the scope of the catastrophe that he and his comrades visited upon themselves by taking up arms against the South instead of against their own government. Consider that the per capita GDP of Vietnam today is $4,000. Compare that to South Korea, which we successfully defended, which enjoys a GDP of $33,200 per capita.

Or consider that writing such an anti-war novel left Bao Ninh afraid to publish again or even speak out much. Meanwhile, America's Secretary of State is a former anti-war activist. Despite losing the war we enjoy freedoms that remain only dreams to the victors.

As to the novel itself, its fame seems to rest chiefly on its novelty. the narrative structure is awkward. It purportedly consists of a series of notes discovered by a third party that the author was going to try to forge into the form of a memoir. In fact, it is a loosely autobiographical text by an author who was one of only ten survivors of his 500 man unit. It features a few strong scenes, but is not a strongly sustained novel. If Vietnam were free and had a flourishing press, it seems unlikely that this would be the one war book that the world knows and reads. But in the kingdom of the blind....


Grade: (C)


See also:

Bao Ninh Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Bao Ninh
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Sorrow of War
    -PRIZE: Soldier's tale wins foreign fiction award (Independent, 31 May 1994)
    -GOOGLE BOOK : THe Sorrow of War
    -SHORT STORY: A Marker on the Side of the Boat [Bao Ninh (Translated by Linh Dinh), CrossConnect]
    -PROFILE: Photocopies of Photocopies: On Bao Ninh (Madeleine Thien, Mar 26, 2012, DiaCritics)
    -PROFILE: Why Vietnam's best-known author has stayed silent: Fifteen years after Bao Ninh's admired war novel, he explains his fears about publishing a sequel (Suzanne Goldenberg, 18 November 2006, The Observer)
    -INTERVIEW: Bao Ninh interview: The IB Diploma Programme student from Luther Bank High School in Sacramento, California, USA, travelled to Vietnam to meet the author of The Sorrow of War and discuss the themes that appear in his work and his attitude to war. (IB World Magazine, September 2009)
    -INTERVIEW: An Interview with Bao Ninh: Part One (Marc Levy, Spring/Summer 2000 issue, The Veteran)
    -INTERVIEW : Memories with warm machine guns: Disrupted lives, patriotic songs, torches for the war and names signed in blood. (Robert Templer, 04 June 1994, The Independent)
    -Talking in Vietnam, Few Now Use the Party Line Henry Kamm, June 8, 1992, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: A lasting sorrow (Laurie Hergenhan, Griffith Review)
    -ARTICLE: ‘The Sorrow Of War’ Creates Controversy In Vietnam (Tim Larimer, 5/28/1995, New York Times )
    -REVIEW: of The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (Michael Fathers, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Kelvin Ha, Inkpot)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Irish Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Erik Burns, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Kirkus Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Andrew Ng, Storyworlds)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (A Year of Reading the World)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Kenneth Champeon, Things Asian)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Jonathan Mirsky, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Danny Yee, Danny's Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Brendan Doyle, Green Left)
    -REVIEW: of Sorrow of War (Eric Adunagow, Humanities 360)
    -REVIEW: ofSorrow of War (Mark Ford, London Review of Books)

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