Kien is a survivor of the Viet Nam war, a North Vietnamese survivor. This book is written by a North Vietnamese writer and clearly evokes much of his experience in what was a much longer war for the Vietnamese than it was for Americans. The similarities between the affects of war on all sides are clear, but this tale is uniquely home grown. The story is told in several different time lines. Kien recalls his youth, his early years in the military, a time ten years after he entered the war, events later in the war, and at its conclusion and in what is contemporary post-war. His central relationship is with his childhood sweetheart Phuong (and one wonders here whether the name is merely a very common Vietnamese given name or if there might be an echo of The Quiet American at play here). As the title indicates, sorrow is a central feature of the story. Kien’s nickname means “Sorrowful Spirit.” War is a sorrow-making enterprise, in many ways.
Kien recalls a parade of figures from his personal history, family members, people from his neighborhood, his first awakening of sexual feelings. Virtually all of his comrades in arms were killed. There is one killing field in particular that chills him. Called “The Jungle of Screaming Souls,” it was a place where his battalion was massacred, Kien being one of only ten who had survived and by the post-war, the only one left alive. His post-war work of travelling the nation attempting to identify the remains of the thousands of unmarked dead so that their families could get closure keeps him close to the ghosts of those who had passed. Yes, he sees ghosts. They are legion, and it appears to be his lot to see them and attempt to bring them some peace. Sometimes there is nothing he can do but be a witness to them.
The many characters are interesting and engaging if short-lived. Lofty Thinh was a soldier who had slain an orang. And when the company saw the corpse they were freaked out at how closely it resembled a woman. Can was a deserter who died alone in the jungle. Hanh was a beauty of his hometown, the object of every man’s desire, who offered herself to him when he was a lad, an act that terrified more than titillated him. Green Coffee Girl was the sister of a friend of his from childhood, a hooker as an adult. Kien saved her from an assault. Hoa was an inept 19-year old female guide who sacrificed herself so the troop she was attempting to lead to safety could avoid being killed by an American search and destroy team.
There is much back and forth among the timelines. It takes some attention to remain focused, but this is a marvelous book, a very human tale that explores a soldier’s relationship with his past, his relationships with those around him, his role in the world, how the war affected him and his society. While Ninh offers a truly Vietnamese perspective the disdain of the ordinary people for political leaders is just as palpable as any American’s disgust with our leaders. Kien lives in a world alive with the ghosts of memory and what soldier does not? Ninh’s imagery is rich, his characters engaging and interesting, and the central pillar of the narrative, Kien’s relationship with Phuong, while frequently muted by other events, holds well enough as an organizational mechanism. There is also much in here about writing. It was clear that this was a difficult book for Ninh to write and he reflects on the process in the novel itself. While it is not at a level with true literary giants, this is a very nice read, a wonderful first book by a gifted writer. I hope to find more by him.