• U.S.

The Other Side of Hell

5 minute read
John Colmey/Hanoi

IN A SMALL THREE-ROOM APARTMENT in Hanoi’s already crumbling New Quarter, Vietnam’s most famous living author sits in a sweaty white shirt and dark blue polyester pants, his feet bare. Outside, most of Hanoi is celebrating Reunification Day. Giant posters glorify Ho Chi Minh and the 1954 defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. The bright red national flag hangs above shop doors. Fireworks sound over Small Lake. In years past, Bao Ninh used to spend this day with the surviving members of his unit. “Not now,” he says. “We’ve had enough of it.”

So has almost everyone else. Nineteen years after the fall of Saigon, it is not easy to persuade readers anywhere in the world to revisit the Vietnam War. That was the problem British literary agent Gill Coleridge faced when she tried to sell the rights to Ninh’s Sorrow of War to American publishers in & 1992. “They all turned it down,” says Coleridge. “I remember one said, ‘We don’t want to be told how badly we behaved in Vietnam.’ “

Now they wish they had not been so hasty. Since it first appeared in English last January, Ninh’s book has gained a cult following in Europe and Asia. It has been reprinted six times in Britain, where in May it received the daily Independent’s 1994 foreign-fiction award. Sorrow of War appeared on the shelves in Sweden in April. It will go on sale in France, Norway and Italy later this year and in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and the U.S. next year. The English version is already available across Asia but is hard to find. Ninh, who is writing his next novel on the war, will receive half the $15,200 Independent prize money but little more. He still supports his wife and child with odd jobs. But, he insists he “didn’t write it for money.”

First published four years ago in Vietnamese under the ideologically more positive title A Fight of Love, the book is the first critical portrayal of life in the North Vietnamese army ever to appear in Vietnam. “It is my vision of war,” says Ninh, 42. “I wanted to show that this army that is glorified by other writers is not something holy or sacred, but had many evils.”

Much like Sorrow’s central character, Kien, Ninh put his thoughts and experiences on paper long after the war’s end. Though the author says his tale “is pure fiction,” there are other similarities. Both writer and character are decorated soldiers in the NVA’s 27th Youth Brigade. Each is among the unit’s 500 conscripts who enter the war in the bloody Central Highlands — and one of only nine survivors by the time the unit becomes the first to march into Saigon in 1975. After he was demobilized in 1976, Ninh tried university for a while and then quit to live as Kien does, “like a wanderer, jobless” for years. Says Ninh: “My war experience always haunted me and asked me to write it down. I can’t remember the day I started, sometime in 1985.”

Kien takes over from there. The fictional author forces the reader and himself through a “parade of memories” that “push upstream like a sampan toward the past.” Some are gentle, as when his squad mistakenly receives a shipment of bras and side-button pants. Others are stark, as when he collapses drunk at Saigon airport at war’s end and wakes up next to a dead, naked prostitute.

There are ghosts everywhere. Sparkling incense marks the entrance to the ! “Jungle of Screaming Souls,” where the trees and plants “moan a ghostly music,” and where Kien watches his battalion wiped out in hand-to-hand combat. He returns years later as part of a Vietnamese team to collect the remains of his men and finds that their souls are still loose, like his memories, “wandering in every corner and bush in the jungle . . . refusing to depart for the Other World.” In Kien’s mind, asleep or awake, in battle or in peace, the dead talk, and he talks back to them.

The only dreams that give Kien escape involve his free-spirited childhood sweetheart, who refuses to embrace government propaganda about the fighting. But his memories of their prewar days together also edge toward torment. Before he leaves for the front, she entices him to miss the train and then insists on traveling with him as he tries to catch up with his battalion. On the way, Kien is forced to watch her raped by another soldier.

While the novel takes Western readers on a rare journey to the other side of the Vietnam War, Americans may be surprised at the small role they play. Like many NVA vets, Ninh says he never fought against Americans, “except those in helicopters. I only fought against Vietnamese. Our war was mostly brother against brother. That’s what is most bitter.”

Just as novels by some American veterans paint an unflattering portrait of the U.S. Army, Sorrow of War shows North Vietnamese soldiers taking drugs, gambling and deserting — depictions that provoked an unusual silence from the government and harsh criticism from some peers in Vietnam. Yet the censors were evidently moved by the book’s unflinching sincerity and Ninh’s literary gifts. “My book is a reaction against attempts to embellish war,” he says, “and to forget the human side.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com