Structure in Bao Ninh’s Sorrow of War
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder consumes a person’s life after a traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person but often include reliving the event through intrusive flashbacks, and nightmares. The physical symptoms include pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, and sweating, they occur when a trigger reminds the victim of the traumatic event. In the novel The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, the narrator tells the story of Kien, a North-Vietnamese veteran who survived the war against all odds. While the omniscient narrator remains unstated, Bao Ninh alludes that Kien and the narrator have PTSD.
After the war, Kien loses everything because he cannot cope with his past; the terrible things he saw or the horrific crimes he committed in the war. Kien finds solace in writing, but the relief soon fades and he loses his childhood love, Phuong, along with most of his childhood friends who die as a result of the war. Bao Ninh portrays the narrator and Kien as victims of PTSD and depicts the symptoms of the disorder through the sentence structure, chapter structure, and chronologic order of the narration. Bao Ninh illustrates the emotional effects of PTSD to the reader with subtle grace through the sentence structure in the narration.
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The author wrote the novel primarily in 3rd person narration but upon further reading, and counting, it becomes obvious that nearly every sentence making up the narration is declarative. In the passage where the man rapes Phuong (Ninh 177-180), 60 of the 62 sentences in the narration are declarative. Declarative sentences form statements; comprised of a subject and a predicate, they state facts. This type of sentence leaves little room for change; it simply states that something exists and adds a finite, concrete tone to narrative writing.
Excessive declarative sentences make the reader feel that nothing changes and everything will remain in its current state. This structure bombards the reader with a sense of finality that Kien’s life will remain hopelessly tragic forever, without change. The structure within the declarative sentences adds to the never-ending hell of Kien’s new life, commas link together two independent clauses, separate out a list, commas lengthen and vary sentences, and commas make sentences longer. The previous run on sentence matches Bao Ninh’s writing style with its 37 words and 4 commas.
In the same passage where the man rapes Phuong on the train, almost every sentence has at least one comma in it, with an average of 1. 27 commas per sentence and a few sentences containing up to 13 commas in them. A comma, when used in moderation, slips in almost unnoticed and links together two clauses or makes a list look tidy by replacing the “and” after every single word. When overused the sentences drag on and the author runs the risk of creating run on sentences and dizzying readers with the never ending feeling comes with them. Bao Ninh purposefully chose this for his readers.
That never ending feeling mirrors what PTSD victims feel. The disorder creeps up on the victim and the ordeal that brought on the disorder never ends for them. The declarative sentences finalize this feeling, they leave the reader with the sense that nothing changes, and the commas in the sentences show how ever-present the traumatic event is in the mind of someone with PTSD. Upon opening most any novel one finds chapter breaks, or breaks of some kind. The unique chapter structure of the novel furthers Ninh’s portrayal of PTSD and the symptoms victims suffer. The Sorrow of War lacks chapter breaks.
Chapter breaks give the reader a chance to step away from a novel, they also give the reader points of reference to prevent the novel from becoming a jumbled, disorganized mess in the reader’s mind. Ninh takes this convenience away from the reader to show how PTSD jumbles a person’s life. By removing all chapter breaks the novel becomes hard to follow, and harder to find where in the novel a specific event occurred. No chapter breaks makes the novel feel like it all happens at simultaneously, it ties all the events together and blurs them into one collective experience that the reader cannot step away from.
PTSD victims are unable to escape, the traumatic event that brought these feelings on does not leave them, it never ceases. There is little solace for people with post-traumatic stress disorder if they do not seek out help. While there are no chapter breaks there are very small breaks between major sections that are shown by about an inch of blank space. These are so brief they do not register to the reader at first. These brief breaks tease the reader into thinking there could be some sort of escape, then they are immediately sucked back into Kien’s personal nightmare.
This choice shows the reader that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder will always come back, that breaks do not exist, even when the victim believes they are cured. Kien thought that his ordeal was finally over when the war ended, in reality it had just began. Bao Ninh utilizes the chronologic order of the novel as his final way of showing how never-ending and ever-present PTSD can be. The novel begins with the end of the war; it also ends with the end of the war. The novel was published at the end of an era, at the end of the cold war, so it made sense to readers of the time for the novel to begin with the end of a war.
Bao Ninh chose this chronology to give the novel a nice book end that pulls in readers and drags them back into the hell of war. Aside from beginning with the end, the order of events is almost perfectly reversed from the order they happened in, with a few exceptions and a flash-forward at the end of the novel. This detail is the most important because it shows that a soldier’s war has only just begun when the war is over. The reader is pulled backward in time and sees all of what made Kien who he is now; Bao Ninh makes the reader understand what it is to be a soldier and what they take with them after the war.
Ninh shows the reader that the war has only just begun for a soldier, and then he ends the novel at the end of the war as well, suggesting the continuous loop this cycle brings. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a never ending cycle that can seem completely hopeless if one does not have professional help and guidance. The narrator of The Sorrow of War is portrayed as having this disorder by of his choppy sentences filled with commas and his declarative sentences that leave no room for changes and his narrative that jumps around chronologically in a non-linear way.
Bao Ninh alludes to the overwhelming hopelessness and the never-ending nature of PTSD through the lack of chapter breaks and the non-linear chronologic order of the novel. Though these are all very subtle ways of representing the disorder in the novel, they are even more effective than a simple statement because they overwhelm the reader and keep reoccurring throughout the novel because structure continues throughout a novel as a whole, it does not go away and it does not relent, neither does Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.