Some books hit and hit hard. “Sorrow” hits hard not only because of the subject matter of the Vietnam War, but how it’s written. It’s a tremendously beautiful book, full of longing and nostalgic tremors. Ninh writes of a Vietnam that was, and a Vietnam that became. In some ways, “Sorrow” is meditative, a necessary exercise for the author to get rid of his demons. Bao Ninh was one of ten in a batallion of five hundred who survived. “Sorrow” is a testament of that survival.
It is easy to compare it to O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” — some of the stories of the Vietnamese jungle are eerily similar. For example, in “Things”, O’Brien mentioned a mysterious symphony playing in the jungle, almost like an orchestra. Ninh mentioned music in the jungle too, haunting and melodious. I wonder if the marines in “Things” were listening to Vietnamese music.
“Sorrow” has no beginning and end. There is no suspense here. Kien, the narrator, described fairly early on how his comrades were going to die, in the battle for Saigon. The deaths of soldiers here, and the victims are never glorified, and always a waste. War gives the dead reprieve, and the survivors ghosts. There are no chapters either, the story (if you want to call it) flows from one paragraph to the next, without structure. And it works so well.
The book is about lost things. Time is divided into before and after the war, and so do the people. The mainstay of the book is Kien’s childhood sweetheart, Phuong. She is a truly incredible character and the moments they spend together are absolutely gut-wrenching. As Kien described: “He had only two loves in his entire life. Phuong at seventeen in the pre-war days, and Phuong now, after the war.” War and events like these changes people into two — divides them, damages them.
There are lost moments in the book that haunt him, perhaps haunts Ninh — hesitation in the battlefield, sexual tensions with girls, people who he’d never meet again. It is a book about memories. More than that — it is a book about writing. The book is borne from the author out of a necessity to write. As much as he wanted to burn his work at the end, I can understand why the author has that love and hate relationship with his work — the act of writing more important than what’s written.
There are brutal moments too, of course. People forget themselves during wartime — they seem to switch to their base nature. Women become victims of violence, men fight each other over squabbles, corpses littered the jungles and backs of trucks, hammocks hanging above while the living sleeps above the dead. But there is much beauty in this brutality too. Kien’s batallion found a woman’s naked corpse and out of respect, dressed her before putting her with the rest of pile of corpses. It is an act of grace.
When I talk to people about this book, they tell me that it sounds depressing. Sure, it can be. But like any amazing books that blow you out of the water, you are left with a strange feeling of satisfaction. In some way, I’d like to think that Ninh found some reprieve by publishing this incredible book.