Bao Ninh's new novel in 'final stage'

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Bao Ninh keeps his cell phone off. He's on indefinite unpaid leave from his post as editor at Van Nghe (Literature) newspaper.

He's focused on his new novel, his first since The Sorrow of War, which took the world of war literature by storm 19 years ago.

The most highly-anticipated piece of Vietnamese literature in years, the work is due out sometime this year.

After two years of writing, the author said the novel is "in the final stage."

When Noi buon chien tranh (The Sorrow of War) was first published, Ninh shot to fame for eschewing the heroics of battle and instead portraying the horrors of people forced to kill one another.

Since then he's edited the weekly Van Nghe and eked out an existence on short stories and royalties. He's seen the title of his seminal work changed to Than phan tinh yeu (The Destiny of Love) only to have it changed back to its original name later. But he's been relatively quiet the whole time, always with rumors buzzing around the media about a new novel.

But this time, he admits the rumors are true.

The new work will tell the story of the Vietnam War again, but this time infused with perspectives of soldiers in the US-backed South Vietnam Army as well.

"It's a difficult novel to write," says Ninh. But he believes his experience as a soldier and his acute sense of observation are helping him through it. Without disclosing the title, the author says the book is almost finished.

But the literary community is anxious and impatient, wondering if it will create the same kind of splash that the rotten-corpse filled trenches of Sorrow of War did two decades ago.

Life after the war

Ever since his first novel, Ninh says he's had a degree of economic success.

"It's not right if I say that I've lived the past years completely by the novels' royalties as I've also earned a living by writing short stories and articles for newspapers," said Ninh, who was born in the north-central province of Nghe An and now lives in Hanoi.

"But I admit that I have lived very economically by royalties from the novel because my small salary from Van Nghe is not enough."

Noi buon chien tranh opens when Kien, a 10-year veteran meets his estranged ex-girlfriend again at the end of the war in 1975.

Critics have always said Kien was a thinly-veiled version of the author himself.

The meandering, flashback-filled story, which illustrates scenes north and central Vietnam before, during and after the war interspersed with Kien's childhood, focuses on his ten years at war and his work collecting the bodies of dead comrades in the jungle.

Juxtaposing battle scenes with dreams and remembrances as well as events in Kien's postwar life, the book builds to a climax of brutality that leaves Kien scarred forever.

One can only wonder, after years of quietude, if Ninh was in fact writing about himself when he penned these lines in The Sorrow of War:

"It was hard to remember a time when his whole personality and character had been intact, a time before the cruelty and the destruction of war had warped his soul. A time when he had been deeply in love, passionate, aching with desire, hilariously frivolous and light-hearted, or quickly depressed by love and suffering. Or blushing in embarrassment. When he, too, was worthy of being a lover and in love"

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