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Book Forum: HISTORY   |    
The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (1994)
IRA D. GLICK, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:2070-2070. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.12.2070
View Author and Article Information
Stanford, Calif.

By Bao Ninh. Edited by Frank Palmos; translated by Martin Secker. New York, Riverhead Books, 1996, 235 pp., $12.95 (paper).

Think you’ve read and heard enough about Vietnam? Think again. This incisive novel is told from their side (and we thought they were the victors).

The novel combines three elements—a classic war story (in the mode of All Quiet on the Western Front[1]), a classic love story (in the mode of, say, Love Story[2]), and a personal view on the nature of "life."

The story covers North Vietnam before the war, the period during the war, and (most poignantly) the postwar period. Chapter 1 starts with a description of the narrator’s (presumably the author’s) job, which is picking up and disposing of bodies of his dead comrades in the jungle.

Kien knows the area well. It was here, at the end of the dry season of 1969, that his 27th Battalion was surrounded and almost totally wiped out. Ten men survived from the Lost Battalion after fierce, horrible, barbarous fighting.

That was the dry season when the sun burned harshly, the wind blew fiercely, and the enemy sent napalm spraying through the jungle and a sea of fire enveloped them, spreading like the fires of hell. Troops in the fragmented companies tried to regroup, only to be blown out of their shelters again as they went mad, became disoriented, and threw themselves into nets of bullets, dying in the flaming inferno. Above them the helicopters flew at treetop height and shot them almost one by one, the blood spreading out, spraying from their backs, flowing like red mud.

The story flows in Joycean style through flashbacks of a pastoral-innocent youth with his family in Hanoi, his childhood "love-of-his-life" girlfriend, how the relationship develops as the war breaks out, how the North Vietnamese fought and won it, and, most movingly, his disillusionment, the disintegration of his family, and the devastation to the North (not just to the defeated South).

Of note, given the "communications and media" of the 1950s and 1960s, most of the North Vietnamese soldiers did not have much of an idea "why and for what" they were fighting, i.e., the bigger picture. For the reader, the strongest emotions occur as the story unfolds and life takes over from childhood fantasies, destroying individuals and their families as a whole society is remade.

Forever he would ache with longing to follow that shining light from the horizons of his past, to return to those moments of the first sparks of war, the glimmerings of his first adventures and the light of love shining from deep in his childhood.

Arguably, of most interest to readers of the Journal are the author’s views on stress and coping as well as those on life, love, and war, i.e., the individual life cycle from an Asian point of view. Tell me, after you’ve read it, if you weren’t affected by the struggles of the girl, the playing out of the relationship, the bittersweet change in the way of life in Vietnam (gone forever), and if you don’t think about the world a bit differently.

Remarque EM: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Translated by Wheen A. New York, Ballantine Books, 1996
 
Segal E: Love Story (1970). New York, Buccaneer Books, 1997
 
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References

Remarque EM: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Translated by Wheen A. New York, Ballantine Books, 1996
 
Segal E: Love Story (1970). New York, Buccaneer Books, 1997
 
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