The lesson of trauma comes from its content, not form

B0000871The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, by Bao Ninh, is an important but not particularly well known literary trauma narrative.*  Ninh was a North Vietnamese soldier during the war.

The question I want to ask is what difference all the literary devices make, the devices that are supposed to make us feel the narrator’s trauma. Jane Robinett says they make all the difference in the world. I don’t think they make any difference at all. It’s an interesting question because much writing about literary trauma fiction focuses on the form, not the content, as though it is through the form that we can feel what the narrator feels.

Form or content?

Consider the following passage by Ninh, followed by its interpretation by Robinett.

Often in the middle of a busy street in broad daylight I become lost in a daydream. On smelling the stink of rotten meat I’ve suddenly imagined I was back crossing Hamburger Hill in 1972, walking over strewn corpses. The stench of death is often so overpowering I have to stop in the middle of the pavement, holding my nose, while startled, suspicious people step around me avoiding my mad stare. (Ninh, 46)

Robinett interprets.

The subtle shift in tenses (from present perfect to past and abruptly into present) in the middle of the paragraph moves readers directly into the experience just as the narrator abruptly finds himself reliving it. (Robinett, 297)

When I read the passage by Ninh it’s the content that counts, the way in which trauma intrudes on his postwar life. The shift in tenses doesn’t add much.

Referring to a passage in which another character, Phan, returns to help a wounded enemy, only to find the shell crater in which he left him filled with rain water, the man he would save drowned (Ninh, 92-93), Robinett says that

the unadorned and understated language and uncomplicated syntax of these incidents mirror the psychological disassociation [her term] of the narrator. (p. 299)

Was Hemingway’s iceberg style, in which the spare narration appears to stay on the surface, its deeper meaning left to be found by the reader, an instance of dissociation? I suppose one could argue that all Hemingway’s writing is trauma fiction, and so the answer is yes. But, then trauma fiction becomes coextensive with modernism.

Sometimes it seems that this is in fact what those who write about trauma fiction mean. Fragmented chronology, multiple narrators, inscription (where the narrating act is interpolated into the text), sudden shifts in tense, all can be found in modern fiction. Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad, contains all these devices and more. But perhaps it too is a trauma text.

Shattered assumptions need stable forms

Robinett argues that because trauma shatters our basic assumptions about the world, the form of in which the trauma is conveyed must also be shattered.

Exactly because of the shattering of such fundamental conceptual systems, conventional narrative structure must be broken apart and reconfigured as well, since it becomes inadequate to contain such problematic experience. (292)

Why should this be true? I think the opposite is true: the purpose of structured form is to contain the unbearable, so we can know it.

Consider Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, his account of the ten months he spent there. The account is spare, precise, almost documentary. It utilizes none of the literary techniques of modernist or trauma fiction. It begins at the beginning, ends with his liberation from the concentration camp, and tells stories about his experiences there. His account of what it was like to wait for a “selection,” when those who were next to die in the gas chambers were chosen, is all the more horrifying because the prose is documentary (127-130).


A consequence of Robinett’s focus on form is that she ignores the one truly different aspect of Ninh’s novel, one not found in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the best American fiction to come out of the Vietnam War. Ghosts, spirits, and dead souls haunt The Sorrow of War.

The book opens with the Kien, the protagonist, sleeping in a hammock over bodies stacked in a truck. He is part of a post-war collection team, detailed to find and bury the missing in action. The truck is parked in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, the site of a dreadful defeat for the North Vietnamese.

Numerous souls of ghosts and devils were born in that deadly defeat. They were still loose, wandering in every corner and bush in the jungle, drifting along the stream, refusing to depart for the Other World. (6)

Throughout the book, the ghosts of the departed haunt the living, who often make sacrifices and shrines to appease them. Ghosts figure prominently in the symptoms of traumatic stress in many non-Western cultures (Cheng).

One could regard this as a sign of a less “developed” way of thinking, but as Shay argues in Achilles in Vietnam, the inability to mourn dead comrades, whose bodies were quickly whisked away by helicopter, contributed to the PTSD of many American troops (58-62). Respecting ghosts is a form of mourning.

Because she is so focused on traumatic form, Robinett omits this one unusual element of content, at least to those familiar with the standard symptoms of PTSD, a symptomatology Robinett adopts in order to reveal

a close correlation between the experiences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and narrative structure itself. (292)

The purpose of art

Robinett argues that unlike some trauma theorists, such as Dori Laub and Cathy Caruth (see my previous post), books such as The Sorrow of War demonstrate that trauma can be told. In support of this claim, with which I agree, she cites Theodor Adorno’s statement, “in art alone . . . suffering can still find its own voice.” But, the context in which Adorno makes this claim is one in which any artistic representation of suffering is suspect: bound to render suffering noble, purposeful, good, an example of human transcendence in a brutal world. And that, Adorno believes, is a lie.

Robinett, evidently like Bao Ninh himself, believes that

It was necessary to write about the war, to touch readers’ hearts, to move them with words of love and sorrow, to bring to life the electric moments, to let them, in the reading and the telling feel they were there, in the past, with the author. (Ninh, 56)

Adorno would have barfed. One could read Ninh as mocking Kien, the fictional author of these lines, but the tone of the novel belies that interpretation. In any case, Robinett seems to agree with Kien.

So what is the purpose of art about trauma?

Put simply, the goal is not to mimic traumatic experience in literature, so that readers can experience a vicarious version of trauma. The goal is to teach the wisdom of trauma, which is ultimately that the world is terribly fragile, so are we, and everything can be turned upside down in a minute. Forever. And so we must care for each other.

What is needed is knowledge, not the transmission of feeling. To be sure, feeling is a part of knowledge, particularly when trauma is concerned. But in most cases the feeling is best conveyed not by literary techniques, but by a straightforward report of the horror.

Of course, a “straightforward report of the horror” is itself a literary technique. But creating the illusion that the reader has reached his own conclusion based on the facts presented is a mark of the most persuasive writing, no matter what the genre.

The Sorrow of War is overwrought, but since this is a question of culture and taste, this should not be allowed to detract from its merits. It does what it sets out to do, putting the lie to any romantic or heroic representation of war, even (or especially) a victory.

* A British newspaper, The Independent, judged it to be the Best Foreign Book of 1994. The British Society of Authors included it among the Best 50 Translations of the previous century.


Theodor Adorno, Commitment, New Left Review, 87-88, September-December 1974. Available at:

Tony Cheng, Ghosts Stalk Thai Tsunami Survivors. BBC News, January 25, 2005. Available at:

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. [Originally published as If This is a Man.]

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996. [original 1991]

Jane Robinett, The narrative shape of traumatic experience, Literature and Medicine, vol. 26 (2), Fall 2007, 290-311.

Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat and the Undoing of Character. New York: Scribner, 1994.


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