The Nonlinear Structure of the Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh is a Vietnamese war veteran and the author of what is said to be “one of the most moving war novels of all time” (Gareth Smith), The Sorrow of War. In the epic tale, Bao tells the story of Kien in a nonlinear narrative, weaving in and out of stories of young love and war, each failing to complete its own objectives: to come home and live in peace with those they love. It compares the ‘sorrow of war’ to the sorrow of love, both nostalgic as Kien looks back on what has been lost, and the heartbreak created.
Bao compares the two sorrows by intertwining flashbacks and events occurring in the present. Bao writes very straight-forwardly when speaking of war, but leaves much to be explained when describing the seemingly complicated relationship of Kien and Phuong. The nonlinear structure, non-chronological sequence of events, and Bao’s saving of key information until the very end of the novel, distorts the view of their relationship so that it appears to be a more hostile than loving. This technique creates character depth in Kien, describing why he becomes the man he does: sad and full of regret.
In the novel Kien’s best friend from the war, Oanh, is killed by a beautiful woman on the front lines. It is mentioned multiple times in the novel that Phuong had wanted to participate in fighting in the war, as she made clear the night before Kien left for war, stating “I’ll see you to the gate of the battlefront, just to see what it’s like” (136). This event is a major turning point in the tone that Kien and Phuong’s relationship is discussed. This event is a reminder of the loss he suffered by leaving her as well as reminding Kien of all the things he loved about her, including her beauty and strength.

Before the death of Oanh, Kien appears to be more focused on the negative aspects in their relationship, such as their breakup, the struggles he faces as she tries to move on with her life, and his losing battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Kien’s post-war difficulties, particularly with Phuong, can be best described by the character himself as he ponders the difficulties he’s faced in his life since the end of the war, “…Though now he often drowned himself in alcohol, though hundreds of times he pleaded with his inner self to calm down, he was constantly torn with pain recalling the post war times he had with Phuong.
His life, after ten destructive years of war, had been punctured by the sharp thorns of love” (84). The idea that Phuong is the main reason Kien is so depressed after the war is introduced early on and is mentioned many times in the beginning of the novel. Generally, in the beginning of a book with a traditional structure, characters are still being introduced and are receiving information that is vital to the rest of the story. In the beginning of The Sorrow of War, Kien often reflects on ‘the love he knew had been within him seemed to have drained away’ (31).
The audience is generally in the traditional mindset. This gives the audience the false impression that Phuong was never as in love with him as he was with her, or at all, since she can move on with her life and watch him struggle to move on with his. This distorts the view of the relationship because Phuong is being mistaken for a cruel person, begging the question of how this could possibly be one of the greatest loves of all time. The idea that the person you love most does not love you back creates a deep empathy toward Kien, and gives him depth as a character because his levels of depression are justified.
Kien often dwells on Phuong’s unrequited love for him and his failed attempts to forget her, stating ‘he had tried desperately to forget Phuong, but she was unforgettable. He longed for her still” (71). Despite this, Kien’s belief that “nothing lasts forever, including love and sorrow” (71) gives him faith that one day the pain will go away if he continues on his damaging path. This hope for the better despite the destructive path he has placed himself ironically shows his strength.
The focus shifts from Kien’s depression and his awful post-war relationship with Phuong to a discussion of their pure love before the war after Oanh’s death. Before the war, Kien and Phuong were inseparable. The intensity of their relationship is best described through the narrator’s mention of “neither of them had other close friends. Others seemed unable to penetrate their cocoon of friendship” (131). Phuong often refers to herself as Kien’s wife, as Kien and the rest of Hanoi expects her to be. This part of the novel chronicles their shift from best friends to lovers, although their ove was never consummated.
Kien would never accept Phuong’s advances to make love to him. This is what makes their love so true and desirable, because it is innocent and pure. His denial of her, however, also distorts the view of the relationship because it now appears that he does not want her or is not as attracted to her as she is to him, a feeling Phuong will later direct toward Kien. The love they share appears to be on some scale that is never even. With all this, Phuong is still viewed as the unkind woman she was previously regarded as.
Her kindness is almost viewed as her having an ulterior motive because of the way she was described earlier in the novel. Before Kien leaves for war, Phuong tells him that “from now on I’ll be a lover and wife to you; I’ll never be angry at you, and remember, I’m not taking leave of my senses. Not yet…” (136). By Phuong says that she isn’t taking leave of her senses, she is solidifying that she’s thought what she said through and that she is making a promise to Kien rather than a statement. If Phuong had promised Kien that she would love him forever, it raises the question of why she left him later on in life.
It also appears Phuong has contradicted herself. She promised she would never be angry at him and later allows him to suffer without her. These questions are frequent because of the knowledge collected at the beginning of the novel. This promise is very misleading and is a large contributor as to why Kien feels the heartbreak he does later in life when Phuong is anything but a wife to him. It begs the question of how a love so pure and strong could disappear. It is almost as if key elements or events are being kept secret. And they are.
After the explosion, rape, and murders at the Hanoi train station, Kien and Phuong continue their journey into the frontlines but not before they stop at a school house to rest. After harassment from a group of soldiers, including accusations that Phuong had cheated on Kien, Kien leaves her at the school without any notice. Later, he receives a letter from the men in the schoolhouse apologizing: “We had made a big mistake in kidding you about what she did…Contrary to what we told you, your girlfriend was not like that at all…She was very much in love with you” (226).
This information is key to the story because it proves that Phuong was truly committed and in love with him after all, and he left her. Had the narrative been in chronological order, one would have sympathized much more with Phuong and would not have thought so harshly of her and the reasons she left and got over him would have been much more justified. The narrative instead gave a deep analysis as to why Kien is so depressed and how deep their love for each other was and continued to be.
Upon, reading this letter it “warmed Kien’s heart, consoling and cheering him, he began to hope for something like a miracle…He might have something wonderful to return to after all” (226), which was sadly not the case. The nonlinear structure of the story and non-chronological order of events not only distorts the relationship and creates character depth, but masterfully describes the sorrow of war, and the even deeper, sorrow of love. By describing war’s destruction on, not only countries, but on our most intimate relationships. Ninh presents the idea that after war, it is not possible to have love, which is the sorrow of both love and war.

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