BAO NINH SETTLED INTO his chair and ordered for tea. He put a pack of Camel cigarettes on the table and looked out of the window. “It’s not a good time to come to Hanoi,” he said.
May in the city is hot and stifling, and marks the beginning of a sweltering summer. As the temperatures soar, the crowds fizzle out. Later, the monsoon rains wash the city, igniting the “spirit of Hanoi,” which, according to Kien—the protagonist of The Sorrow of War, Ninh’s daring and wildly popular 1990 novel based on his experiences in the Vietnam war—is “strongest by night, even stronger in the rain. Like now, when the whole town seems deserted, wet, lonely, cold, and deeply sad.”
We met at a cafe in downtown Hanoi, favoured by journalists, artists and middle-ranking officials of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which has ruled the country since the end of the war in 1975. Ninh rarely engages with the press or gives interviews, preferring a quiet and simple life in Hanoi, which he seldom leaves. Outside, on the street, a light wind blew and the sun shone on the window pane, occasionally capturing Ninh’s attention. He lit a cigarette. “I appreciate your efforts and your interest in me, but there is not much to say,” he said to me through his interpreter Nguyen Phoung Loan. “I’m a writer. I can write but I’m not very good at talking about myself.”
Ninh is handsome, with a thatch of wavy, ash-grey hair and deep, glum eyes. “Shall we begin?” he said. “Don’t have much time. I might have to undergo a surgery tomorrow.” In the first week of May, Ninh was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour, the consequence of years of dependence on alcohol and tobacco, a habit he acquired after he returned home from the war, to a troubled post-war life, writing and drinking from night till dawn in his home, at the time a squalid pad in Central Hanoi.
Ninh, who will turn 66 this October, is Vietnam’s most celebrated writer, best-known for The Sorrow of War, which was immediately deemed a classic of war narrative when published in English in 1994, earning comparisons with Erich Maria Remarque’s famous All Quiet on The Western Front, a novel about the experiences of German soldiers during the First World War. Based on Ninh’s time as a North Vietnamese soldier, who served with the Glorious 27th Youth brigade—of the 500 who went to war in 1969, Ninh was one of the ten who survived; of these, six later committed suicide—the novel recounts the experiences of its anti-hero, Kien, a middle-aged war veteran chronicling his war memories while collecting the bodies of his fallen comrades in the jungles of Central Vietnam. In 1994, Ninh became the first Vietnamese writer to win an overseas literary prize when The Sorrow of War bagged The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, trumping Italo Calvino’s The Road to San Giovanni, among others. At the awards ceremony in Hay-on-Wye, Robert Winder, then the literary editor of The Independent, called the novel “historic,” and remarked, while announcing the award: “Usually, history is the story told by the winners; Bao Ninh’s book reminds us that, in war, everybody loses.”