December 11, 2012
Peace: Life after The Sorrow of War
The novel The Sorrow of War was written by Bao Ninh, former Vietnamese soldier who was involved with North Vietnam and fought in the twenty-seven Youth Brigade. Kien, the protagonist of the novel, is used through the perspective as the soldier the author once was. Kien’s wrote his story in a series of flashbacks before, during, and after the war. Vietnam War was a conflict between South Vietnam and The U.S. against North Vietnam. It lasted from 1955 to 1975. Victory went to the North where Kien and his brigade had served. Kien was one of the luckiest ten who survived in his group of 500 men. The main character in the novel relives the memories he had while in combat, early childhood experiences, and his relationship with his girlfriend Phoung before the war, but mostly, Kien talks about the horrors he witnessed and the effect that they have on him as a survivor. In the novel, Kien suffers from trauma after his involvement in the Vietnam War. In his mind, most of his flashbacks are about the devastating slaughters of the war and how it continue to plague him. As Kien allows his past and pain to come through and take form in his writing, he manages to remove himself from grief and despair back to the reality of peace by accepting his past experience, thus, it may be possible for him to live through postwar life. There are three phases that trigger his thinking process to a life that may not have peace, but still a life worth living. The three phases are memory despair, acceptance, and clear consciousness of realization.
At the end of the war, Kien spends his post-war life reliving his experience in the past. Kien had lost motivation of himself and felt shameful of being a survivor. These psychological scars had altered his mindset to resume back to the tragic horrors he had experienced. Therefore, Kien will never go back to the happy life he once lived. It is impossible for him to change physically nor mentally. He recalls back to the day he volunteered for the war, at the age of seven-teen. Their roles of a soldier were to maintain its duties and comply with its task. Any soldier who neglect to obey will be executed. A strict contract like that shows how Kien is trapped and finds no way out. Kien deeply regret the day he volunteered for war, it had taken away the precious things he had valued in life and leaves him with nothing, “But war is a world with no home, no roof, and no comforts. A miserable journey, of endless drifting. War was a world without real men, without real women, without feeling. War was also a world without romance....But the love he knew had been within him seemed now to have drained away” (Ninh 31). It is stated that war tends to eliminate all the qualities that make a person human. Humans are essential to their feelings and emotions which bonds with one another, however, due to the devastating war, Kien becomes a heartless cold killer, Kien kills another soldier in a risky
situation and makes the claim that upon killing him “he hadn’t cared,” and that “He was unconcerned and coldly indifferent,” this shows how war altered Kiens mind and soul about human life (Ninh 17). His human conscious is buried and the roles of a soldier becomes his first priority. Trauma from the war keeps him from reintegrating life as a civilian, Kien stated that trauma is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” and “emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis” (Ninh 6). Many of his traumatic experiences took place in the Jungle of Screaming Souls because this is where many of his men were killed in battle. His awful memories will always revive his experiences to take over him which refuses him to forget the past. Although Kien is miserably hunted by his heroic memories, he manages to make an acceptance to each one of them by writing it on paper. Every moment he recalls back to his memories, he attempts to think of the happiest things there is, so his evil side won’t hunt him, “To buoy himself up, Kien sometimes tried to concentrate on uplifting memories. But no matter how hard he tried to revive the scenes, they wouldn’t stay. It was hopeless” (Ninh 16). On the night Kien began to write his novel, he felt spiritual goose bumps surrounding him: “Something inside him, powerful and urgent, pumped life back into his collapsed spirit and snapped life back into him. It felt like love. Perhaps it was recognition of some wonderful truth deep inside him” (Ninh 76). When the idea to write comes to him, he says that “he believes he exists on this earth to perform some unnamed heavenly duty” (Ninh 50). It shows that Kien gains a sense of recovery by writing his past on paper and visiting them when he wants to. By doing so, he can fully recover all the glimpse of flashbacks which he will then see the full image of what really happened. Kien’s willingness of writing his memories of the war will hopefully give him courage to not fear it, but accept it and live on with his life. Lastly, Kien goes through a stage where he regains a sense of peace after writing his novel. The process of writing his memories down, Kien will no longer find himself in exile, but to gain a clear conscious to accept all that he has experienced. Kien finds writing as his place of refuge where peace is brought back into his current life. Kien stated “From the time of that realization he felt that day by day his soul was gradually maturing, preparing for its task of fulfilling the sacred, heavenly duty of which the novel would become the earthly manifestation” (Ninh 51). At the end, Kien receives a letter about Phuong which makes him thankful for the life he’s given: “He began to hope for something like a miracle, for some strand from his past to follow into his new post-war life. He might have something wonderful to return to after all” (Ninh 226). The letter gave Kien a sense of hope to live on than to feel miserable about the past. Kien finds it possible to live on his post-war life because of his realization that his past is a part of him. Kien proves that he had broken through his curse of torment, “The day he departed, he left the door wide open. At dawn the wind blew through his curtained window, letting drizzle into the room, wetting his furniture. Ashes blew from the stove, papers from his table, from the bookcase, and from a heap of pages in the corner” (Ninh 228). This clearly explains the freedom that Kien had gained from a long process of tormenting past. The doors of his past are left
opened because they don’t fear him anymore. Therefore, Kien releases himself from the past and lives on with his current life. Six out of the ten survivors had suicide themselves due to the war experiences that hunted them. Kien on the other hand, had freed himself from the plague by writing and that’s what separated him from the others. The war is responsible for turning Kien to the person he is, but Kien is thankful for the life he’s given after the war. Kien gains a sense of conscious about his life, it is possible to continue to live after a life in destruction. It seems that Kien had replaced his feelings of sorrows with a desire of living a post-war life that has no corrupted memories. He can never forget the war because it is a part of him, but he can live through it by not despairing himself. His tortured memories can live in his novel which others can have an insight of. Those who read his novel will learn his experience before, during, and after the war, but foremost on how affected his life after The Sorrow of War.