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by Bao Ninh

Pub Date: Feb. 3rd, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-43961-7
Publisher: Pantheon

 A North Vietnamese veteran transforms his nation's conflict into an elegiac ode to doomed youth caught up in wars not of their making. This novel does not view war as a big, defining male adventure, but rather as something that crushes its participants when they are ``young, very pure, and very sincere'' and leaves behind a legacy of ``sublime sorrow, more sublime than happiness and beyond suffering.'' The narrator, Kien, is a veteran turned writer who joined the army fresh out of school. In a narrative that moves back and forth in time, he records not only the horrors of war, but also his unsatisfactory relationships with his father and with Phuong, the young woman he's loved since childhood. An assignment searching for bodies after a big battle begins his story. It reminds him of old comrades killed in action, of friends deserting because they wanted to see their families, and of his doomed love for Phuong, who, raped repeatedly on a train under bombardment, became ``a hardened experienced woman, indifferent to vulnerable emotions.'' He also describes his current difficulties: finding a place to live, money worries, and the memories that continue to assail him as he writes. (``The conflicts continued from the lines on pages into the real life of the author, the fighting refused to die.'') At the end, we learn that this story is an abandoned manuscript being readied for publication by a stranger who understands that Kien wrote, ``not because he had to publish...he had to think on paper.'' As one of 10 surviving members of a Youth Brigade once 500 strong, the author has the appropriate background for writing this novel, but--more importantly--his alchemy transforms the recognizable horrors of an actual war into universal experiences. A war novel in the great tradition of Remarque and Sassoon.