- Visitations of the DeadTrauma and Storytelling in Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War
Although very much a part of the American literary imagination in the late twentieth century, the Vietnam War remains an enterprise still in search of Vietnamese writers. To date, relatively few Vietnamese authors have attempted to recount the harrowing years of and following the war that witnessed the defeat of a Western military superpower by an Asian army dependent on guerrilla tactics and the force of determination. For these writers, however, victory is fundamentally a hollow nationalist discourse that speaks little of the experiences of ordinary Vietnamese who had to endure extreme suffering and loss, the effects of which often continue even decades later. In novels like Duong Thu Huong’s Novel without a Name (1995) and Memories of a Pure Spring (2000), Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War (1994/2005), and The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) by the Vietnamese American lê thi diem thúy, the war inevitably translates into traumatic memory [End Page 83] that profoundly lodges survivors in a state of existential immobility. Despite being works of fiction, these powerful narratives capture the lingering vexation of unspeakable grief that haunts individuals marked by such a history, and how they manage it. Importantly, novels like those written by Bao Ninh and lê thi diem thúy express the tragedy of the Vietnam War not only in what they tell but through how they tell it as well. Arguably, these texts acknowledge that there are properties of war memories that language alone cannot convey and which thus require other narrative means to signify them. To this end, stylistic conventions frequently associated with postmodern literature are especially appropriate: these formal qualities not only intimate the conditions of trauma but vicariously re-create for the reader the mental and physical sensations (i.e., confusion, blackouts, compulsive behaviors) related to a lived circumstance that has been incontrovertibly damaged by trauma. Focusing on The Sorrow of War, this essay will demonstrate how certain stylistic practices, such as the fragmented narrative and the deliberate disavowal of temporal organization, are rehearsed in the novel to textually give shape to trauma.
The Sorrow of War, whose Vietnamese version remained unavailable until ten years after the publication of its English translation in 1994 (the novel also won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize that same year), has since become one of the twentieth century’s most important war narratives. Despite a brief ban in Vietnam, it is today regarded as the country’s most beloved novel, “a book celebrated for its relentless, humane depiction of the generation that fought the war” (Thien 2011). The novel, partly autobiographical, is written by Bao Ninh, who during the Vietnam War served with the Glorious Twenty-Seventh Youth Brigade. Of its original five hundred members who went to war in 1969, only ten survived. Set in 1976, the story primarily revolves around Kien, a forty-year-old war veteran serving as a member of the Missing in Action Remains Gathering team. Interspersed between accounts of carrying out this gruesome task are intimate memories about the war, which Kien endeavors to record in writing despite the obvious emotional and psychological struggles it causes him. In the end, Kien disappears from his story altogether, leaving behind his manuscript to be subsequently passed on to an unnamed narrator. It is this narrator who would eventually [End Page 84] piece together the war veteran’s fragmented story and produce the narrative that is set before the reader.
From this brief summary, formal narrative features corresponding to postmodern literature are already apparent in Bao’s novel. This article explores some of these features, but it will especially consider the manner in which they impart the complexity of Kien’s unclaimed experience (i.e., trauma) that invariably culminates in irresolvable grief. A discussion of the unrepresentable immediately follows from this introduction. Both postmodern aesthetics and trauma theory deploy this concept to describe, respectively, the sublime and trauma’s resistance to language’s signifying agenda, but as I will demonstrate, they do this in fundamentally different ways. What characterizes the unrepresentable (or unspeakable) in trauma may indeed...