Deeply moving account of war beginning as one of the few survivors of a Vietnamese unit looks for the bodies of dead comrades in the Jungle of Lost Souls - haunted by those who have died. And yet there are other ghosts - those who have lived but are carrying mental and emotional anguish, numbness and hopelessness.
Surely one of the greatest war novels to come out of a century of war, and should be essential reading for political leaders who think construction is as easy as destruction. A book that moves you to tears but somehow makes you more alive, and a tribute in a way to the resilience of the Vietnamese people in the face of barely imaginable horror.
on 14 January 2008
This is, quite simply, one of the most moving books I have ever read. Of the 500 original members of his brigade who went off to war against America, Bao Ninh was one of only 10 who survived. That puts in perspective the, relatively speaking, minor losses on the American side (55,000 killed, as against an estimated 2-3 million Vietnamese who lost their lives). Despite the unbelievable sacrifices and losses on his side, this is not a book of rancour - indeed the Americans hardly figure in it at all. It is a book about the sorrow and loss of war, and the often futile attempt of survivors to put their lives back together again afterwards. For Bao, who was away for ten years of fighting (again, in contrast to most American soldiers, whose tours of duty generally lasted only a year or two), it is about the loss of his youth, and the loss of love. Most of all, it is about the attempt to somehow exorcise the demons and nightmares through the act of writing (which as Primo Levi proved, after a lifetime of post-Holocaust writing, is still not always possible). Achingly beautiful.
on 5 June 2000
This is a great piece of work. It is gentle at times while horrific at others. It provides an alternative perspective with integrity and insight in the telling of the other side's story from a point of 'Being Human' as opposed to 'Being Political'.
on 9 February 2007
This novel is both a remarkable work of literature (most importantly the translation is of an unusually high quality) and an account of the misery of war by someone who had clearly experienced it first-hand. The author is not interested in ideological self-justification (perhaps that is not necessary, given the nature of the onslaught suffered by this small nation), and it is indeed a novel written in sorrow and not in anger. If someone were only to read two books on Vietnam and the related conflict in Cambodia, I would suggest this one and The Gate, a harrowing factual account by someone who against all odds came out of one of Pol Pot's death camps alive.
on 25 July 2001
Having visited Vietnam I was impressed with the way the author wrote truthfully about the war and the impact upon the individual. Well worth reading if you want an insight into what really happened during this traumatic and horrendous time of Vietnamese history.
The Vietnam war from the Communist side except this is barely political at all. It's a human story of a slightly soft bourgeois boy who joins up in 1965 and somehow, to his own surprise, lives to be a hardened NVA veteran at the war's end ten years later.
The lead character Kien recounts his experiences of the sorrow of war and the sorrow of having survived. He does not use the phrase but a sort of 'survivor guilt', which haunts him and makes him strive for the 'sacred heavenly duty' that justifies his spared life.
This is not a fin de siecle 'All Quiet on The Western Front' but if you have read the latter I am sure you will feel a strong similarity. The sense of a lost generation that has known only fighting and does not know another way or purpose to that life.
The structure of the novel is not easy to read; no chapters and paragraphs that seem to randomly start 'That was the Spring' or 'That was 1974'. Indeed I struggled two-thirds of the way through before the reward of a tour de force ending.
There are some graphic scenes but do not buy this expecting a battle novel. The Americans are barely mentioned throughout. Be prepared to understand what it's like being on the receiving end of a napalm attack but likewise NVA attacks are recounted as part of a routine life for the Vietnamese lost generation. Very moving and rewarding if you stick with it.
on 6 September 2010
When someone eventually finds the money to make the film, I hope I'm still around to be involved.
But to the book itself: simply a masterpiece. Could you imagine an American book about the Vietnam war that did not conform to the Hollywood simplistic version of good v evil? And the whole world thinks the same way, doesn't it? Well, no, not really. This novel about the American War (as opposed to the French War, which preceded it) is NOT anti-American... which allows for a completely different approach from what you would expect with a novel written by any Western author since Graham Greene.
Read this wonderful book, try to understand the characters... and their positions in the whirlpool of 1960s & 70s S.E. Asia.....
..and understand even more clearly where Bush Baby and Tony B.Liar went wrong as they charged off blindly on their anti-anti-capitalist chargers.
I had the doubtful pleasure of meeting the 'good guys' in Saigon in the late 60s and the real pleasure of working in Hà Nöi in 2005: the 'wind of change' was not something that blew from the West. Read the book. Fund the film. Visit the country. Learn the lessons. Feel the difference.
Like WW1 for England, France and Germany, The Vietnam War left almost no place and no area of life untouched and it was deadlier, possibly in absolute terms and certainly proportionate to its population: there are cemeteries everywhere not to mention those whose flesh was mixed with the unconsecrated earth, to compound the loss of life a loss of body, a terrible fate for a Vietnamese . Kien, a survivor of a unit returns to the land to search for the spirit of the dead in homage, those domestic familial gods the Vietnamese have always honoured and the Woods seem wreathed in humidity and the presence of death. He has had to leave Phuong, his erstwhile girlfriend, for war and its doleful aftermath, elegantly translated, also honours the dead. Too often seen as an American tragedy, the war cost 'only' 55,000 American lives but around 3 million Vietnamese (Three MILLION in a country of about 40 million, I believe). The account of combat is attritional and takes up much of the story, killing and being killed, struggling against huge odds. Indeed in wartime such IS the story, necessarily so, war is not pretty especially when, as here, the land is incongruously beautiful, heightening the contrast with gore - see 'Hamburger Hill': war is not shapely, it is repetitious and nasty, there has to be something relentless and soul-destroying about it. "C'est la guerre mais ce n'est pas magnifique', to reverse the French general's exclamation at seeing the vainglorious Charge of the Light Brigade - and this is a far, far nastier combat. Almost everyone here is damaged, almost all are like the 'farang' or 'ghosts' as ironically the Whites are known frequently in Indo-China. The plot is simple, the mood is almost all as there is a sad pall that hangs over this beautiful land, even if "the jungle is neutral" and the dead souls' wood is like Conan Doyle's grimpen mire, one that will not easily be exorcised. It remains a beautiful land and now, at last, economically booming in 2015, heightening the past's suffering that lingers. Of course it does.. But novels are there to remind us that, unlike the old canard, life is NOT cheap for South East Asians; it never was and it is not now. They value it as we do, of course. This story of two struggles makes you aware that it remains a haunted, sad land as well as a beautiful one of a necessarily stoical, noble people. Kien is one of them, resolute even in awful circumstances. No country deserves a war like the two 'Vietnam' ones (with France until 1954, with America until 1973 and a true civil war until 1975 and fighting the Khmer Rouge in 1978, overthrowing them in 1979). Peace at last: this novel is a part of honouring the living and the dead. When I first visited in 1995 when Doi Moi - their version of 'perestroika' - was just underway, what was the book every one of the book hawkers was selling? This one. I bought it, it wore out and I got this new edition. I am pleased I did, my own small mark of respect.
he title of this novel says it all really - it is a very gloomy, downbeat story about the horrors both of war and of trying to adjust to life after it. The author fought in Vietnam himself, so the vignettes have a tinge of painful reality. The protagonist of the story is Kien, who joins the North Vietnamese troops as an 18 year old and spends the next ten years of his life fighting and watching his comrades die around him. Even once peace comes he struggles to return to civilian life, constantly haunted by the 'sorrow of war'.
There's nothing wrong per se with writing in a realistic way about how dreadful war is. But this book has a number of other shortcomings from a literary point of view. Firstly it dots around in time constantly, which is confusing and breaks the narrative thread. It makes it much harder to get into it and you don't build up much emotional bond with the characters. Even Kien and his pre-war girlfriend Phuong aren't characters I particularly cared for. Secondly, it gets a bit tedious after a while. To start with I found it moving in a horrible way. But by about page 90 of endless descriptions of nasty battles, post war gloom and pre-war nostalgia, I started to lose interest. There isn't much narrative structure and I realised that nothing significant was going to happen. It doesn't have a story arc as such. Random bits of nastiness are spread throughout, along with lots of introspective misery.
It is easy to read and the quality of the writing itself is good. The dialogue works and some of the little scenes are very powerful and vivid. It works as a collection of micro-short stories. But it lacks the cohesiveness necessary to make a good novel. Without characters you can love and some sort of 'journey' within the plot, the sadness becomes unpleasant rather than touching. I don't mind a book making me sad, but I don't like a book that makes me miserable without really emotionally engaging me. Anyone with an interest in the military or in the Vietnam war would probably want to read this, but I wouldn't give it a high recommendation.
Out of Orwell, Kafka, Celine, Bukowski, Algren, Mishima and Kundera one man stands head and tail above them all; Bao Ninh. He's only ever written one book, now an elderly poor man living out the twilight of his years in Vietnam Bao Ninh is to literature what Darwin is to fossils, he brought it alive.
Living in the West during the Cold War, Vietnam was a backdrop to the 60's, people knew something bad was going on, but not exactly sure of what. The Vietnamese were seen as either duped or just cunning. Not exactly the same species of human as the rest of us their lives meant less as they did not have the same values or emotional attachments. They were mown down in their hundreds in Platoon, Rambo, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now as the Vietnam War was rewritten as a piece of drugged madness. As opposed to seeing it as an act of genocide, trying to re enact the western frontier in Asia with the mass anhilation of southern villages in an attempt to rid the world of the red virus, literally entailing the massacre of entire populations in pre emptive strikes to stop them falling foul to communist propaganda.
This book is as far away from Communist Propaganda as War and Peace is from endorsing Napoleon. It is an exploration of humanity and this is its strength and revolutionary act as it portrays the Vietnamese as having emotions and empathy. Emotions sadly lacking in the American portrayal of the war with its bang bang aren't well all mad Hendrix Doors soundtrack. Ninh hardly paints a glorious picture of the North; rape, miscommunication, prostitution, alcoholism and violence all emerge from the actions of the glorious communist combatants. This unsanitised version of the war also placed Ninh at personal risk, entailing his reticence in writing a follow up book. Then again perhaps he didn't need to, once you've reached perfection, how can it be exceeded?
It is also revolutionary in its structure, its themes, the risks the author took to write it and to get it published and in the humble genius of the writer who can be visited in Vietnam. No self serving Oxbridge arrogance oozing out of Radio 4 coated in nepotism points you to read this. Bao Ninh is the real deal, the universal genius. Who needs a publicity machine when you are this good?