Over twenty years have passed since the evening on the lake. In that time almost everything around the lake has changed, yet the spirit of it lives on, unchanged. Immense, looming, leisurely, romantic.
One of the local names for the West Lake in Hanoi translates as ‘Golden Buffalo Lake’. The story explains how the lake was made from the struggles of a mother buffalo after the disappearance of her calf. Today the lake is divided by the busy Than Nien road. From early in the morning the motorbikes and cars thunder up and down, weaving between the girls selling fruit and snails and the older women selling cold tea from their rattan mats.
Around the lake cafes and restaurants spread down to the water’s edge. Their brightly coloured plastic chairs and tables are put out after the pavements have been swept. Four times during the day the lake side swells with customers eating noodles and clams. The evening is the busiest time. Old men in vests pick up their rods and the young men gather in groups to play and bet at checkers.
After ten the furniture is taken away and the traffic subsides. The lake is left to lovers. They sit quiet and oblivious under the frangipani trees on the white stone benches. Sometimes the men lay their heads in the laps of the women. The women then pluck out any grey hairs they can find.
West lake is where Kien and Phuong spent their final night before the start of the Vietnam War. They had been sweethearts since they were children. He sat beside her in school and cycled her to and from the place they lived. They were inseparable, friends and lovers, clinging to each other as if there were no tomorrows, “At nights, in bed, they tapped Morse Code messages to each other on their dividing wall, and dreamed of the natural progression of their love, the ultimate intimacy.”
They were only seventeen when, on the eve of war, they left for the lake while the other students dug trenches across the schoolyard. It was a spring afternoon, “the cicadas singing and the flame trees in full flower, a day made for reckless abandon.” Phuong had told Kien that she had a pretty black swimsuit under her uniform and wanted to try it out. They swam as far as they could out into the milky water, towards the pagoda that sits on an island. They swam till their limbs were heavy and limp. He carried her then, dripping and cold, and laid her on the soft grass under the trees. They lay together for the first time, their bare skin touching as the sun became a flicker of red on the horizon. At first he was thrown into the passion and intensity of their first kisses, but a sudden pang awoke in him a strange guilt and he tore himself from her arms. Phuong was astonished, buttoning her blouse over her swimsuit. A silence falls; they both listen awkwardly to the lapping water. He tells her he thinks they should wait. She tells him there will never be another time like it. ‘“I’ll come back’, he said urgently. ‘When? A thousand years from now? You’ll be changed and so will I. Hanoi will be different. So will this lake.”’ They speak about the war and their love for one another.
Kien is called away the next day to spend the next six years fighting. The night by the lake returns to him in his dreams. His memory needs little stirring: a dark moon or a gentle breeze. In the Jungle of Screaming Souls he is helped by the hallucinogenic roots of Rosa Canina to ‘feel again her warm flesh and taste her virgin milk’. He is there with a small battalion camping by a river. Three of his men have found respite in the arms of some local girls who live in a clearing. Kien hears them leave the camp every night but hasn’t the heart to discipline them. He continues to dream about Phuong. One day the clearing is empty and the girls have vanished. He finds something by the river. “It was a torn white bra. In the dim light it looked like a strange, large flower with smooth, soft petals. On one petal there was a trace of blood.” A man falls to his knees and cries for Thinh, his innocent lover, raped and killed by some Southern troops.
This is the first story recounted in the book The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh. The book is based on the fictional memories and experiences of Kien, a Vietnamese veteran. His private words and reflections were not meant for anyone but came from a deeply personal need to expel a past that pursued him every where he went, in sleeping and in waking. We learn that he wanted to burn his manuscripts but a mute girl who lived beside him rescued them. She was the only person who had read his writing because she couldn’t respond to him. “People said of her she was like a lost-property guardian, keeping all those messy papers.” Only at the end of the book do we learn that she has given the papers to the author, Bao Ninh. “At first I tried to rearrange the manuscript pages into chronological order,” he writes, “to make the manuscript read like the sort of book I was familiar with. But it was useless. There was no chronological order at all. Any page seemed like the first, any page could have been the last.” Between the pages of writing are incomplete packs of playing cards, photos, award certificates, postcards; fragments of a haunted man’s life. I imagine single lines describing the rain falling on banana leaves and sprawling, unpunctuated pages recalling dreams and visions. There are passages recalling the faces of young soldiers he used to know, at times innocent and joking, at others smothered in dirt and blood. Characters and places drift in and out of the narrative. Past and present are like body and shadow. He has become a ghost in his own city, Hanoi, a living museum of shapes and forms that throw up memories at every turn: a pantomime actor falls on the stage with sudden agony. As he writhes dramatically on the stage Kien sits bolt upright in his chair. “His attention on the pantomime faded as the sharp detail of the tragic love story of his men and the three farm girls unfolded in his mind.” Just below the surface of his present life, of the people he meets, the cafes he frequents, the women he sleeps with, are the ghosts of his past more real than anything around him, emerging through time like bodies floating to the surface of the water.
He leaves Phuong to go to war. A couple of years later he is granted a day visit to Hanoi as his battalion is being moved south. He goes to look for Phuong and finds her at the train station as the universities are being evacuated. He hears a handsome young man calling from the last carriage, telling Phuong to hurry up. He is struck by a sudden, unknown pain. It quickly disappears when he turns to find her staring at him. But things have changed. War has happened, time moved on. The next forty eight hours are tragic as they live through the last of their innocence. She drops everything to go to the southern front with him, for an ‘adventure’. They are soft and young; their eyes open to everything and nothing. In a cargo carriage on a train travelling through the Red River Delta they lie together again, just like the evening by the lake. Phuong tries to coax him into consummating their love. He hesitates. On the brink of responding a siren is heard: a rake of bombers attacking in the early morning. In the confusion Kien is thrown to the ground. In his semi-delirium he looks back into the carriage, in the direction of Phuong, and sees a big man over her, ‘settling into his rhythm’. She is gang raped in the middle of the bombing and Kien can do nothing. Eventually they find shelter. All around them is devastation, screams, smoke. “Like the dead, one felt no fear, no enthusiasm, no joy, no sadness, no feelings for anything.”
As his memories unfold in a series of relays and replies between past and present, the constant thread, or the bearing of the tale, is his desperate love for Phuong. He meets her again after the war but she has succumbed to the misfortunes of her fate. She lives beside him as she once did but all he hears are the comings and goings of older men who now pay for her company. They try and rekindle something but the weight of the past is too great. At times the present is peeled back through simple force of desire. “Many times, after a night of drinking, he would forget the lamp had been left on, and imagine Phuong had returned. He would stand before her apartment door knocking and calling before remembering the light had been burning ever since she left.”
After the initial pain of losing Phuong for the third time, after beating up one of her former lovers outside a tavern and suffering the whispered insults from men on the streets, Kien wakes one morning in a trance and walks the streets. “Coming to an empty bench near a lovers’ lane, he sat for hours just listening to the quiet wind blowing over the lake as he gazed into the distance.” His memories start flooding back: “of a midday in the dry season in beautiful sunshine, flowers in radiant blossom in the tiny forest clearing…of riverbanks, wild grass plots, deserted villages, beloved but unknown female figures who gave rise to tender nostalgia and the pain of love. An accumulation of old memories, of silent pictures as sharp as a mountain profile and as dense as deep jungle. That afternoon, not feeling the rising evening wind, he had sat and allowed his soul to take off on its flight to his eternal past.” For Kien the lake is the only constant, retaining no prints of history. It reflects anything; offering him way to escape his sorrow. For all his tragedies Kien can still inhabit a few sweet memories by the bare lake.
Bao Ninh only wrote one other short story after The Sorrow of War. It describes a young woman called Phuong. There is little doubt that the character of Kien is based on his own life. Only the force of personal experience would allow such honesty and tenderness. When I asked a man in a bookshop in Hanoi he told me the book wasn’t popular with young people anymore. ‘They don’t like to know about the war’, he said. And yet the lake remains, and the couples on the white benches.
393 total views, 1 today