By Lisa Newman
Bao Ninh features prominently in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s series on the Vietnam War. Ninh is a Vietnamese writer and former North Vietnamese soldier. Ninh’s novel, The Sorrow of War, is one of the only pieces of Vietnam War literature to make it out of Vietnam.
Published in Vietnam in 1991, the novel stands out for its descriptions and lack of sentimentality. Most of the Vietnamese war literature was heavy with patriotism, stories of slaughter and bravery. Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War literature of the United States could not move beyond the North Vietnamese soldier as a faceless “gook” or northing more than the “NVA” or “VC.”
Ninh weaves a complex story, told in stream-of-consciousness style. The work is a descriptive account of a solider’s experience of war, but also a love story–one not lost in the original Vietnamese title, Thân Phân Cûa Tinh Yêu, or The Destiny of Love.
The novel was controversial for the Vietnamese government–as it presented the first individual human perspective on the experience of war, the loss of human life and love, as well as life after the war–while it won great respect from Vietnamese and American veterans. American critics have compared the novel to Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).
First published in Vietnam in a low-budget format by the Writers Association Publishing House of Hanoi in 1991, the book was translated into raw English by Phan Thanh Hao and rewritten by Australian war journalist and author Frank Palmos. At this point, the English translation was given the title “The Sorrow of War” and was published in Great Britain by Secker and Warburg in 1993 and in the United States by Pantheon in 1995.
Ninh has never published another book, but he reports editing a weekly literary publication in Hanoi for many years. In a 2006 interview, Ninh remarks on the changing political climate of Vietnam and the lessening of government propaganda. Despite the relaxing of tensions, he explains that writing has been difficult since the publication of The Sorrow of War.
“I became famous, so people know about me and other writers respect me…but it also affected me badly because I became self-conscious.”
As Vietnamese and Americans talk more about the war and its aftermath, perhaps it will be easier for Ninh and other Vietnamese writers to share their stories.