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The Sorrow of War

I read Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War on a bus from Hue to Hanoi around twenty years ago. I don’t normally read on buses. I usually get sick. But somehow, I could read on the Vietnamese bus. I was drinking a lot at the time. I’d picked up a jug of homemade rice wine I think in Nha Trang and I sipped it most of the way. I was more or less drunk during the entire bus ride, is what I’m saying, and that made it possible for me to read, possibly.

In those days, the cheap buses in Vietnam (there were only Vietnamese people on the bus, other than me) would drive day and night. The road, and there is basically one, two-lane road that works its way all the way up the spine of Vietnam, was filled with travelers of all sorts. There were cars and buses. But more so, there were mopeds and bikes and people just walking along the road. There were water buffalo and other livestock. The road was for everyone, and everyone used it. The bus driver would speed down the middle of the road honking madly and continuously for ten, fifteen, twenty hours straight. Just swerving and honking. During the first three hours of the trip, I wretched everything out of the front window and tried to control the bus with my mind. This became exhausting. So I stopped. Anyway, the driver seemed to know what he was doing, even if the desire to walk up to the front of the bus and strangle the man did pop to mind now and again. Anything to stop the ceaseless honking. Finally, even that stopped bothering me.

I watched the road go by. I watched the towns and villages and the endless stream of people and animals on the road. In the evening, the moon rose very bright and white over the canopy of jungle just outside the window of the bus. The white moonlight was on the leaves of the giant green trees. The light was quiet, even though the bus continued to honk its insane route along the road, which was raised up on a kind of mound over the rice paddies that stretched out alongside the route. The moon was white. The world was green.

I don’t remember the plot of The Sorrow of War. Maybe there isn’t a plot. It is a book about war. The Vietnam War, or more properly from the Vietnamese perspective, the American War. Boa Ninh seems to have experienced the War in an extended, hyper-aware fugue state of poetic impressions and melancholic, fragmented reflections. It is a book written with extreme detachment, and yet a detachment that is not indifferent. Anything but. The detachment becomes a vehicle for experiencing deeply the actual feelings and emotions that Ninh experienced. It is a book that does not say things about war, it feels them, and those feelings are passed along in words. This is impossible to do. Ninh did it.

I was reminded of Bao Ninh’s impossible prose style recently. I was sent a book by a person named Cab Tran, who co-translated and edited a new collection by Boa Ninh. It is called Hanoi at Midnight. In the book, Ninh is still thinking about the past. The War still haunts him. But war is also always more than war with Bao Ninh. War is, in essence, the most extreme example of what happens even without war. This is to say, everything is obliterated. Always and completely obliterated, quickly or slowly as the case may be. Memory holds onto a few things. But memory itself is just a slower version of loss. Memory itself is loss, lies, pretending; the process of it. And then the letting go, finally.

This is why Boa Ninh often describes events and people so laconically. He frequently writes sentences like, “I didn’t see Giang’s father ever again, not even during the following dry season when I was ordered to go join another division.” Matter of fact. Dry to the very bone. Here’s another one: “In mid-July of the lunar year, the bombers unleashed their payloads onto our rice paddies.” Just the facts.

But then a sumptuous prose breaks out every now and then. A rich outpouring of description in the poetic vein. “The train lurches from side to side, its iron wheels grinding violently as it barrels down the tracks. A soft wind wanders through the cabin, lulling people to sleep. Outside the window, the moon appears luminous, the landscape blurring into the long night ahead.”

How do these two modes of writing, thinking, being, how do they exist together when they would seem, on the surface, to be mutually antagonistic? How do you chronicle the world in its sorrow and pointlessness so dispassionately and then, in the very next sentence, embrace it so lovingly with words?

The answer is that these are not really two different modes. They are a version of one central, abiding, numinous truth. The central truth is the following: everything is nothing. There is only nothing. There is only passing away. And what passes away was never really there in the first place. This truth is the hardest truth that exists. This truth was revealed to Bao Ninh in the fires of a terrible and overwhelmingly destructive war.

The experience of war and death and grief caused him to cherish the otherwise empty and meaningless experiences of the world. It is the fact that none of these things matter at all that makes them matter so much. A puzzle. A nonsense. A koan even. True and not true. Like Bao Ninh’s two short books. There is nothing in them. They practically evaporate in your hands. For this reason they are the saddest of books, they are the emptiest of books, and they are the most beautiful of books.


Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1The BelieverHarper’s MagazineThe Virginia Quarterly Review and is a contributor at The New Yorker. He won the Whiting Award for non-fiction in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. His books from Slant are The Drunken Silenus. and  The Fate of The Animals He can be reached at