When we ring the doorbell of Vietnam’s most famous novelist, “Für Elise” begins to play. Bao Ninh, author of the internationally acclaimed novel The Sorrow of War, still lives in the city of his childhood — the same city where his protagonist, the tortured veteran Kien, wanders by night, when “the spirit of Hanoi is strongest … even stronger in the rain. Like now, when the whole town seems deserted, wet, lonely, cold, and deeply sad”. The writer’s home, a typically vertical urban Vietnamese construction, is down an alley off a main road just south of West Lake, where Kien and his childhood sweetheart, Phuong, swim the day before he goes to war, and which triggers hopeless nostalgia in Kien when he returns home a decade later.
Bao Ninh, himself a North Vietnamese veteran, is often asked if the novel is autobiographical. The answer is no. And while it’s possible to walk around Hanoi today and see streets and lakes mentioned by Kien, his Hanoi is a world apart. On the day of our visit with Bao Ninh, Hanoian summer is in full swing and West Lake glimmers in the sun. Families picnic on the grass and the wealthy inch their BMWs down the narrow lakeside road. To the east lie the dense Old Quarter and the government villas of downtown Hanoi; to the west are the new residential high-rises and car dealerships of the city’s sprawling suburbs.
“Für Elise” ends and the door opens. We sit on couches in the living room, sipping tea and not touching the fruit laid out on the table. Bao Ninh holds a pillow as he talks, then sets it down beside him, then picks it up again. He’s wiry, with a shock of curly silver hair. He often ends sentences by tilting his head back slightly and raising his eyebrows, as if daring you to express offence at or object to his words, which always seem frank and delivered without thought of consequences. At sixty-five, he’s a man recently reacquainted with his own mortality: earlier this year, his first health check in over a decade confirmed the need for bladder surgery. On the day we meet, he’s at home recovering.
Bao Ninh has not released a novel since The Sorrow of War, first published as Than phan cua tinh yeu (“The Destiny of Love”) in 1990. A book of his short fiction was released quietly in 2013, followed by a book of essays in 2016. He’s now at work on another major project, but he doesn’t want to call it a novel (or say much about it at all). When we arrived, he told us he had agreed to the interview only because he thought we would ask exclusively about his thoughts on other writers’ work. But since we were already there, we had a conversation anyway.