The Sorrow of War.
A very well written book, a compelling story with true characters coming to life and dying on every page. A book of war. A book of love. A book of sorrow.
Bao Ninh is himself a soldier, a survivor and a victim of the war. In America we call it the Vietnam war. In Vietnam they call it the American war. It’s all a matter of perspective, like so many things in life, and this book gives us the perspective of a north Vietnamese soldier. Yeah, the enemy, Charlie (Vietnamese communist; Viet Cong; VC; Victor Charlie…finally Charlie. In case you were wondering how that name came about).
It’s not the first time I’ve looked at the war from the other side of the mirror, but it is the first time I really felt the story. Several years ago I visited SEAsia and spent a few weeks in Vietnam. That was the first time I came across the idea of it being the American war; kind of a paradigm shifting moment really. Visiting museums and government buildings and the infamous Hanoi Hilton was interesting and very thought provoking. There was a lot to see and read. Captured American tanks, planes, jeeps you name it. References to past French colonialism were everywhere as well, in a war museum I even came across a guillotine; no question about who brought that to Vietnam. Basically being both French and American made for a rather uncomfortable visit in those situations. While the devastating realities of the war were presented in a forthright way, there was always a heavy dose of propaganda in every message. Now I get it, of course, like I said earlier it is all about perspective and as my university history professor always said, history is written by the winners.
In any case I always felt like I missed something while I was there, but most of the time I was just trying to cross the street without getting run over. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my visit! I found the country fascinating, beautiful and immensely rich with history and culture; not to mention the food! But as far as the “struggle” and the story of survival, I missed it.
That’s where this brilliant novel comes in. To fill in some of the gaps of my western written history. Not all of it, no book can do that and I am not looking to raise the flag of Vietnamese communism at all. I just want perspective. An open window to look through to try to begin to feel or understand what people endured. Combined with an intelligent voice and a finely crafted narrative this story begins to take me there.
My life seems different from that of a sampan pushed upstream towards the past. The future lied to us, there long ago in the past.
Now of course this does remain a story of war at its base, so if the violence of scenes from Apocalypse Now disturb you, so too will this book.
What if there is no tomorrow?
I would say it’s a must read if you are interested in the topic and, like me, you have a strictly western education and upbringing.
In high-school I read All Quiet on the Western Front, a story written from the perspective of a German soldier in World War One. These are two very different books, but I only bring it up to emphasis the idea of different perspective. Something that has been lacking lately in our world; the idea that everybody has a story to tell. Everybody.
Thanks for reading.
Next stop: Cambodia!