Post War Life in The Sorrow of War

The Sorrow of War is a unique war novel in that it places special attention on the different parts of the lives of its characters: before the war, and after. The main character, Kien, takes up most of the book with his life stories. However, there are several other characters who have their post war stories told in this novel. Such characters include Phuong, Lan, and Sinh. The course of their lives after the war are very significant to the meaning and purpose of this novel.

Kien was already known to live in his pre-war past. The book tends to occasionally focus on the better days of his life, when he was still young and innocent. However, the war had jaded and scarred him, both in body and mind. The horrors and atrocities stayed with all of the soldiers who had the misfortune of surviving the war: “. . . psychological scars of the war will remain forever” (193). Even the memories of battles torture the souls of soldiers, just like Kien. He uses many different examples in the novel: the three girls in the farmhouse, the brutal death of Quang, the rape and sacrifice of Hoa. These are only few of the graphic depictions of loss and suffering in war. Things like these stay with the men and women forever, coming back in the form of PTSD that forces them to relive the horrific events. This is shown in Kien, as he admits that he had no choice but to write the things that were going through his head as he remembered such events, or he might have gone insane. At some point feelings become numbed, as Kien says, “One was totally devoid of feeling and had no regard for the clever or the stupid, the brave or the cowardly, commanders or privates, friend of foe, or death, happiness or sadness. It was all the same; it amounted to nothing” (213). After the war, Kien lived bleakly and meaninglessly. He visited people of his past, wrote down his memories, and waited for Phoung. He represents the lack of purpose many soldiers find upon their return home from a long war. He had joined the war as a young man, and grew up into an adult through the heat of battle, leaving no time for him to build a life to return to when the fighting was over. The atrocious war had been his life, a cruel and hard one. Kien’s life after the war was one of no purpose, direction, or joy.

Phoung had been a young and beautiful young woman, as described by Kien. She had long black hair and pale smooth skin. Free-spirited and rebellious, she was a model for youthful perfection. She had an angelic voice, and had a talent for the guitar and piano. But she was also very delicate, like an easily breakable fine China teacup. Her mother had predicted a drastic change that would befall Phoung. She said, “The girl’s soul would become warped and twisted when she played in the mainstream of life” (201). This was true, but much worse than her mother must have imagined, as the “mainstream” of life for women had become hellish during and after the war. She had undergone the first break in her soul on the first day of the attacks, after she decided to accompany Kien to the front lines. There she was separated from him, and attacked and raped by multiple men, only to have to see the one person she could have trusted lose his mind and brutally murder a man right in front of her. In a single day she had gone from being an innocent kind young woman, to a damaged rape victim. After the event, she was instantly jaded. She lost her sense of personal value, seeing herself as unclean and impure: “‘. . . even if I do bathe, even if I peel my entire skin away, I’ll be just as unclean’” (217). Phoung hadn’t even been a soldier in the war, yet she was already a victim of it. Rape is a huge and common problem in times of war, where men forget any sense of civility or compassion, and lose themselves to savagery. Phoung represents a large majority of women who fell victims to such men. Whose lives were forever changed, damaged. At that time, there was a very slim chance of Phoung finding the love and support she needed to recover, and feel her self-worth again. She lost herself and did not have any care for whom she slept with, or what happened to her. War had left her empty, and alone, with no hope of recovery. Phuong’s life after the war was one of self-hatred and desolation.

Lan had been a shy girl from the countryside when Kien first met her during his years as a recruit. After the war, he decided to pay her and her mother a visit, only to find that she was alone. The war had taken her family from her. First, it had taken her elder brother, and then her second. Her mother had received the news in the same day with the second death certificate courier coming only a few hours later with the horrible news. The heartache was too much for the older woman, so she collapsed in a faint, then slipped into a coma. It lasted three days before she died. The the war had taken Lan’s husband only six months after he left to fight. She received a letter from his comrade with the news. Finally, the war had taken her two-day-old infant as well. The stress of her loss caused by the war most likely affected the child in her womb, weakening it, so that after birth, it couldn’t survive. It was a surprise that Lan herself was able to survive such loss without any support. “‘First my brothers, then my mother, then my husband, then my son. No wonder I feel weaker every year. I live in this shell of loneliness, going from house to hill, hill to house, and around the hamlet, with no one paying any attention to me and me not noticing others’” (54). Lan represents the agony of loss that is caused by war. The agony many experienced when their loved ones never returned home, leaving a void where they once were. Lan’s life after the war was one of lonely emptiness, one that was impossible to fill.

Sinh was a childhood friend of Kien and Phoung. He had joined the army after Kien, but was wounded and sent back home. He seemed in decent shape, and had developed plans for the future, like marriage, before his body slowly, became paralyzed. It started from his left leg, then his right, as it slowly made its way up his body. During his time in the hospital, he tried to remain enthusiastic, never complaining about his plight, and making sure his visitors felt comfortable. When Kien visited, he talked to him about the good days when they were young, and other, more pleasant things, as long as they didn’t have anything to do with his current situation. Sinh wanted to remain himself as long as he could, his passionate, poetic, and optimistic self. That, however, didn’t last. He was sent home from the hospital to await his death. His health deteriorated, and soon he was no longer the old Sinh. By Kien’s next visit, his lungs had collapsed, his hair had fallen out, and his face was as sunken and bony as a skeleton’s. By then Kien could tell that he had lost his will to live, he was just a soul trapped in a dying body, waiting to be released. His life had reached a terrible end. Rather than a quick death, he was condemned to die slowly. To have the life sucked out of him, along with what made him who he was. “‘. . . I wish I could kill myself and end everything quickly. War has robbed me of the liberty I deserve’” (79). His death had taken four years before its bitter end. His fate was shared by many others who weren’t lucky enough for a swift death. Men who returned home with damaged paralyzed spines. Men who were left forgotten in ditches, slowly bleeding out over a span of days. Men whose wounds became infected, poisoning their blood, only for them to slowly die in a septic haze. Sinhs life after the war, like countless others, ended slowly and painfully.

Even after the war had been won, the lives of many had been destroyed or lost in the process. The victory against the South wouldn’t restore their lives and bring back their loved ones who had been taken by the violence. People who survived were forced to live with whatever was left of their lives after the war, be it loneliness, hatred, emptiness, or loss. As Kien had said, “Justice may have won, but cruelty, death, and inhuman violence have also won” (193).

Loss of Youth and Love in Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War connects the tragedy of wartime to the loss of youth and love. It is the story of an idealist named Kien and his first love, Phuong, and how the dramatic events of war caused their pure love to diminish little by little, until the relationship that once was ceased to exist. Ninh writes, “Kien thought back to the source of his own love, when he had been young. That was now hard to imagine, hard to remember a time when his whole personality and character had been intact, a time before the cruelty and the destruction of war had warped his soul.” (30). In The Sorrow of War, Kien learns that the pure love he experienced as a seventeen year old boy is not attainable postwar because of the haunting events of the Vietnam War. Before the war, when Kien was still young, he had a very romanticized view of the love he shared with Phuong. It was essentially love at its purest form. It was “so intimate, so perfect that it made [Kien] ache.” (118). There was very little sexual interaction between Kien and Phuong, which emphasized the innocent state that both characters were in. Although they had both time and access to privacy, making them capable of physical interaction, Kien kept Phuong’s virginity for the sake of purity and perfection. It was a simpler time when a virginal love could easily exist, because bloodshed, rape and war did not taunt and lurk at every corner. Kien idolized this idea of innocence and virginity, especially within Phuong. When the two laid next to one another, it was Phuong who insisted on kissing Kien, urging him to be more physical with her, while Kien was described as “nervous” and afraid to touch her “lovely body.” (119). He was never able to fully consummate their youthful relationship, which shows how much value he places in purity. “It was a desperate, pure love, which ached within them.” (131). Ninh associates the word “ache” when he talks about Kien and Phuong’s pure love in several passages. He does this in order to emphasize how much value Kien associates with the days of his youth with Phuong. It made him ache to remember these times, because he would never be able to experience purity to this degree ever again. He idealized his age of innocence. The love that Kien and Phuong shared before the war also functions as a metaphor for prewar Vietnam. Like the two lovers’ relationship, everything was simpler and purer. The natural imagery used by Ninh in The Sorrow of War helps to emphasize the idea of innocence before the war. Kien remembers walking through Hanoi in his youth fondly: “Memories of a midday in dry season in beautiful sunshine, flowers in radiant blossom in the tiny forest clearing.” (88). A similar, spring description was used to describe Kien and Phuong’s relationship: “What a beautiful, warm and sweet April day it was.” (118). Spring imagery is very effective, because it reinforces the idea of a simpler time where innocence easily existed. Prewar Vietnam was like Kien’s relationship with Phuong in the sense that they both were representative of his youth. It was a more beautiful time that had not yet been tainted by the cruelty of war. However, like his relationship with Phuong, the city gradually moved past innocence into darkness as the war carried on. It was inevitable and sorrowful for Kien, because he placed so much value in the memories of his youth. During the war, Kien struggled to hold on to his idealized vision of Phuong. It is his love for Phuong that essentially keeps him moving. “’I wonder if they’ll bomb Hanoi,’ Huan asked. But Kien did not respond, realizing then that he had only come to see Phuong and that no one else mattered.” (161). Kien’s memories of Phuong before the war are dominantly positive, and it is these memories that he has no trouble remembering. Remembering Phuong in her youth became his oasis in the midst of turmoil. It is his love, or idea of love, that keeps Kien fighting and moving forward. On page 44, Kien’s nostalgia for the past is described, “At night while I sleep I hear my steps from a distant peacetime echoing on the pavement. I just have to shut my eyes to conjure up those past times and completely wipe out the present.” (44). Love acted as a fuel to help Kien function in the midst of war. As Kien is pushed deeper into the war, more winter imagery was used by Ninh to describe the desolate and deadly times that Kien was living in. The city that he loved was burning down to the ground. The war came with heavy baggage – death, bloodshed, rape and prostitution. The winter imagery signals a change in tone. Unlike his prewar memories of Phuong, it is as if Kien would willingly dispose of his memories of Phuong during the war. Rather than making him ache, these memories are like a sharp pain. Kien encounters many women during the war, mistaking them for Phuong, as if he was silently wishing that they were his young love. These women, who were so negatively affected by the war, become representatives of Phuong. Despite how beautiful and delicate these women were, they too were affected by the war. Kien slowly begins to fully comprehend that the haunting effects of the war were universal to all of Vietnam. Like many other women in Vietnam, Phuong becomes the victim of a rape. After that, Kien takes issue with holding Phuong close to him. His world seems to fall apart and he resorts to interacting with Phuong robotically, relying on instinct instead of passion and love. The woman that he was once so attached to, who was described as a shadow to his body, was now a victim of the war. She was part of the disarray and destruction. Kien began to turn some of his hate for the war to Phuong, because of some cruel comments made by several soldiers that labeled her a whore. The physical rape of Kien’s beloved also functions as a metaphor to describe that the country of Vietnam was also being raped. It was being raped of all the goodness and purity that Kien once saw in it. Although the war eventually ended, Vietnam had become tainted, “bitter and sad.” (193). The country, like its people, had been negatively affected by the war. One of the sorrows of war is that Kien fought so hard to protect this idealized view of Vietnam and Phuong but what remained postwar was anything but innocent and pure. Like his relationship with Phuong, Postwar Vietnam was not the same Vietnam that Kien adored so much in his youth.Although Kien finally discovered that the comments made by the soldiers were not true, it was impossible for him to go back to Phuong. If Kien tried to find the Phuong that he once loved, it would be a lost cause, because the war had an extreme effect on all of Vietnam, including the two lovers. He loved a Phuong that no longer existed. One of the sorrows of war is that the boy and girl that entered the war is never going to come out the same. The relationship that he cherished and romanticized at the beginning of the war really had no chance of lasting, because the war left “psychological scars.” (193). Postwar, Kien has a choice of either holding onto a war-tainted relationship with Phuong or holding onto the optimistic, idealized idea of their love in his head and physically letting his first love go. Both Kien and Phuong were too torn up by war to ever go back to the relationship that once was, so the decision is simple for Kien. He chose to hold on to the idea of their first love. “Despite the horrors of war, despite the cruelties, the humiliations, despite all the ridiculous prejudices and dogma which pervaded everyone’s life, his Phuong would remain young forever. She would be untainted by war… untouched, unchanged.” (227). The Sorrow of War powerfully depicts the effects of war on this tragic couple and, on a larger scale, the effects on an entire country.

Phuong as a Metaphor for the Direction in Kien’s Life in The Sorrow of War

In 1991, Bao Ninh published his novel with the title Thân Phận Của Tình Yêu, or The Destiny of Love in accordance with North Vietnamese regulations to publish material that only glorified the war, reflecting Ho Chi Minh’s fervent patriotism to unify Vietnam. However, while The Destiny of Love has the implication of ending in a positive manner, Ninh uses a disjointed narrative to reveal the stark contrast of Kien’s personality before and after the war, when his childhood love Phuong leaves him. The Vietnamese word “phương” even translates to “way” or “direction.” Through the contrast in Kien’s personality, Ninh portrays a realistic view of the Vietnam War from a North Vietnamese perspective. Hence, although Ninh originally published his novel as The Destiny of Love to concord with North Vietnam’s requirement to glorify the war, he uses Phuong as the metaphor for the direction in Kien’s life as the sadness from the war ultimately paramounts the love in Kien’s life, revealing that the “destiny of love” is the “sorrow of war.”

As Ninh parallels Kien’s emotional state with Phuong’s presence, he reveals that Kien’s pure, naïve love for Phuong gives him purpose to his life during his childhood. For instance, Kien and Phuong were “inseparable, like a body and its shadow. They clung to each other as if there were no tomorrow, as if there were no time to lose and every moment should be spent together” (Ninh 131). Through the simile “like a body and its shadow,” Ninh places emphasis on the close relationship between Kien and Phuong. Much like how a body and shadow could not be without one other, Ninh emphasizes that Phuong is the direction in Kien’s life. Phuong and Kien are inseparable, as the direction in Kien’s life is synonymous with Phuong. Moreover, right before the war, Ninh even uses an ominous tone as he describes, “It was to be the last night of their prewar lives, their last moments of youth. These had been the final hours of their secure, pure and happy youth, those years and months counted in pleasurable day before the fateful hour to leave… The next day was to be a single step onto a convoy heading for the front” (130). Through diction like “step,” Ninh presents Kien’s life as a journey in relation to the war. Before the war, Kien’s life is governed by his love for Phuong, which gives meaning to his life as revealed through diction such as “secure,” “pure,” and “happy.” Shortly after, Ninh creates a foreboding mood as he terms the last night of Phuong and Kien’s lives before the war “their last moments of youth,” referring to Kien’s last moments of pure happiness (130). Hence, Kien’s time with Phuong parallels his youth, when he had purpose to his life due to his love for Phuong.

Subsequently, Ninh uses Phuong’s rape and her consequent absence in Kien’s life as a metaphor to reflect how the innocence in Kien’s life comes to an end due to the war. In fact, Phuong was raped while helping Kien get to the front lines and, “It was from that moment, when Phuong was violently taken from him, that the bloodshed truly began and his life entered into bloody suffering and failure” (Ninh 180). Ninh parallels Kien’s entrance into the war with Phuong’s rape to emphasize that he lost his innocence and the meaning in his life with the war. In Kien’s life, Phuong is originally a symbol of purity and happiness in contrast to his broken household, where Kien’s mother had left him, and Kien is ashamed of his father for not acceding to socialist ideals. When Kien initially goes to war, he is still capable of feeling love and reminisces upon Phuong as one of the last remainders of the purity of his prewar life. However, Ninh emphasizes the end of this purity and thus Kien’s childhood coming to an end through war imagery with diction like “bloodshed” and “bloody.” While it was not a physical wound, Kien even recollects Phuong’s rape as “his first war wound” (Ninh 180). Kien’s guilt for not doing more to protect Phuong is also similar to his survivor guilt after the war. Thus, Phuong’s rape is a metaphor for the war, where Kien’s childhood rapidly comes to an end.

With the parallel of the corruption of war with Phuong’s rape, Ninh implies that love and sorrow are eventually synonymous to highlight the idea that the destiny of love is sorrow. In fact, “the sorrow of war inside a soldier’s heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk” (Ninh 94). When the narrator describes Kien’s prewar past, the novel reflects the destiny of love, but it shifts to reflect the sorrow of the war during and after the war. After all, once the legacy of love or the direction in Kien’s life is gone, all that remains is the sorrow of the war. Furthermore, through the simile of a world at dusk, Ninh reveals Kien is in the middle of two lives. He cannot go back to the brightness or “day” of his prewar past, yet he cannot move on from his love from Phuong. With the “sun” that is Phuong gone, Kien has lost all the happiness and joy in his life. As a result, without Phuong, Kien has lost all direction, or purpose, in his life.

Consequently, after the war, all Kien is left with is nostalgia for his childhood full of love and melancholy due to the sorrow of the war, as Ninh reveals how the destiny of love has become the sorrow of war. As the narrator describes, “What remained was sorrow, the immense sorrow, the sorrow of having survived. The sorrow of war” (Ninh 192). Ninh reveals that Kien’s survival guilt overwhelms his life and prevents him from living a normal life after the war. In fact, to emphasize Kien’s sadness, Ninh uses repetition with the word “sorrow” and uses diction like “immense” and “remained.” The diction “immense” and “remained” have the connotation of there being a burden in Kien’s life, which refers to his survival guilt, and highlight how the love in Kien’s life has been replaced with sadness in conjunction with the repetition of the word “sorrow.” As a result, although Kien has romantic associations with other women such as Lan, it is clear that his purpose in life disappeared with Phuong, as he is unable to love other women. When Lan professes her love to Kien, “Kien remained silent, avoiding her gaze” and “tried to smile but his heart felt constricted” (Ninh 55, 56). Unlike Lan, who is trying to rebuild her life after losing her mother during the war, Kien is unable to rebuild his own life, as he no longer has the capability to love. With Phuong, or the direction in his life gone, Kien is unable to move on as revealed through words such as “silent” and “constricted.” Through the disjointed narrative coupled with Kien’s inability to love, Ninh creates a melancholy tone to evince that Kien is stuck in the past. For instance, Ninh describes, “from now on it was nostalgia and war collections that drove him on. With Phuong gone this was his only hope of staying in rhythm with his normal life” (73). Hence, Kien’s “destiny of love” remains in the past with his “nostalgia,” as all his love has been replaced by the “sorrow of war.”

Bao Ninh uses Phuong as a metaphor for the direction and purpose in Kien’s life to evince how the destiny of love becomes the sorrow of war. While Phuong is initially a symbol of innocence and purity in Kien’s life, Ninh uses her rape, which parallels Kien’s entrance into the war, to reveal that even the purest love can be corrupted by the war. Kien becomes hardened by Phuong’s rape and is no longer able to love or trust anyone in the same way. Hence, Phuong’s rape functions as a metaphor for the war, as Kien is unable to love after the war. Moreover, Ninh uses a disjointed narrative to emphasize that Kien is stuck in the past. The love in Kien’s life is gone, as the “destiny of love” is the “sorrow of war.”