AUSTRALIANS ARE EAGER to learn ever more about the Australian side of the Gallipoli conflict, but not the Turkish experience. Similarly, there is growing interest in Australia's participation in the Vietnam War but little attempt to understand what it meant to the Vietnamese. This is the result of Vietnamese migration to Australia, tourism and more recently, a growing wish to commemorate Australian casualties and battles, and acknowledge the postwar experience of veterans. The meaning of the war to Vietnamese people, their culture and history, remain neglected. Popular views of the war have been filtered through American films and books; serious Vietnamese literature has received little attention in Australia.
Bao Ninh's partly autobiographical novel, The Sorrow of War, a highly praised best-seller in Vietnam, Europe and America, is available in Australia only by import. It was published in America in 1993, and Britain the following year. Many paperback reprints have followed.
The novel has an unexpected Australian connection. The 'English version' is attributed to Australian writer Frank Palmos, a foreign correspondent in Asia for many years Palmos's autobiography, Ridding the Devils,recounts his search for the attacker of four Australian war correspondents ambushed by Viet Cong in 1968. He was the sole survivor. Twenty years later the Vietnamese Government invited Palmos back to pursue the culprit. As he threads his way through bureaucratic institutions, talks to veterans on both sides and visits old haunts, Palmos tries to come to terms with his experience. Finally he locates his 'quarry' only to discover that 'far from wanting to harm him,' Palmos wanted 'to make it easier for him to tell his own story.' Both men 'had seen hell'.
ON A VISIT TO Hanoi in September 2006, I had an opportunity to interview Bao Ninh with the help of a translator, Professor Nguyen Lien, though much was lost in translation including the humorous exchanges between them. Bao Ninh (who was born in 1952 and was a North Vietnamese soldier), said that his novel was initially criticised in Vietnam as unpatriotic: its realism cut across propaganda. The novel begins with a tribute to 'the glorious 27th Youth Brigade', a company of five hundred of whom the author is one of only ten survivors. It takes the form of the personal story of the protagonist, Kien, but The Sorrow of Warhas a panoramic reach as a 'communal' story, a version of the country's war-time fate. Its critics, Bao Ninh said, were, unlike him, not involved in war action. They were concerned to preserve traditional views of the bravery of Vietnamese soldiers, buoyed by their proud record of having defeated the French and Chinese.
The background reading Bao Ninh referred to – Remarque, Tolstoy and Sholokhov – surprised me until I realised that few books were translated into Vietnamese when he was growing up, and censorship further limited choice. He disparaged the fake 'optimism' of Chinese books and said he had not read American writers though he praised Stein-beck. Bao Ninh did not mention reading contemporary literature but his novel, although traditional in its use of what he called the anti-hero, is modernist – even somewhat postmodernist – in the way it builds its painfully protracted, postwar composition into a narrative dependent on a series of interwoven flashbacks.
Kien, the narrator, is forty. He estimates he has already lost fourteen years because of a war that lasted ten. 'I'm nearly forty. I was eighteen at the start of the war in 1965, twenty-eight at the fall of Saigon in 1975. So how many long years have passed? Twelve? No, thirteen. Another year with the MIA corps [collecting the dead] ... and more time wandering as a veteran. Close to fourteen years lost because of the war.' The story's vignettes range from scenes of pre-war life to the disappointments and trials of peace, from bombings in the north, to jungle warfare, scouting in rural settings, taking Saigon airport and the degradation of postwar Hanoi.
The Sorrow of War is not ideological. It condemns brutalisation and suffering (not the Americans in particular or the politics behind the war) and criticises Vietnamese propaganda and indoctrination, including the three big don'ts: no sex, love or marriage. American forces enter the narrative only briefly. The emphasis is on Vietnamese civilians, soldiers and the occasional conflict between them. The most brutal rapes are committed by Vietnamese men against Vietnamese women. This is an unusual war novel. Women feature prominently as soldiers and victims. Whereas Kien himself is severely damaged, by the war, his childhood love, Phuong, is destroyed. She never recovers from her rape – the novel's climax.
As Bao Nihn commented, Phuong suffers even more than Kien.
WHILE THE PHYSICAL horrors are graphic, it is the underlying sadness, or 'sorrow' of loss, evoked with a poetic tenderness, that is the real force of the work. If, for Wilfred Owen, the poetry is in the pity, here it is in the sorrow: 'The sorrow of war inside a soldier's heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of the world at dusk, a sadness, a missing, a pain ...' It may seem presumptuous to question the translation, but here 'yearning' seems a more appropriate word to evoke feelings so deeply rooted. It is the loss of the capacity to love that the novel mourns – the love of life itself. Kien's attachment to Phuong symbolises this loss. His nickname, 'the spirit of sorrow', implies his special sensitivity, and extends the novel's scope beyond war.
Though the narrative concentrates on the events of war, it also depicts Kien's subsequent battle to come to terms with his experiences. In this sense it is a modern novel. But it is not concerned with formulaic social 'rehabilitation' or 'trauma therapy'. Rather, Kien is facing the irremediable suffering that tragedy embodies: 'The sorrows of war ... drove him down into the depths of his imagination.' The novel draws its strength from these depths. With his pen 'going its disobedient way ... he had to write, not to publish'. A chance outsider discovers the disordered manuscript and prepares it for publication. He sees it rather superficially as 'a work created by turbulent, even manic inspiration', whereas Kien's is an agonised search driven by an inner logic and confronts memories that are vivid and haunting. Bao Ninh's novel has the power of direct personal experience.
Spontaneity is suggested through Kien's relations with a mute girl, who becomes his first 'reader' – listener – and his muse. She preserves the manuscript Kien tries to burn. While she cannot speak, and her lip-reading is limited, the two communicate intuitively, reaching beyond the sympathy of the 'handicapped', though she must bear his self-absorbed exploitation and ultimate refusal of her love. Kien's fate is uncertain as he disappears from the narrative. There is no suggestion that he is ever 'healed' but rather that he and his country, like his creator Bao Ninh, will always be marked by sorrow.