It took that trip to Aix-en-Provence to find out that I had fallen victim to a literary hoax in Bang Lamphoo.
Bang Lamphoo is the backpackers’ hive in Bangkok, from whose second-hand bookshops I get most of my reading material. A year or so ago, I found a copy of The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh with the usual cover (the one pictured here) but whose pages had obviously been Xeroxed. I found that a bit surprising, but since I had previously noticed a Japanese novel also photocopied, I bought Bao Ninh’s book.
I read it and found it was navel-gazing trash in indifferent English and wondered how the hell such rubbish could have been acclaimed as one of the very best novels on the Vietnam war and sold in the hundreds of thousands. I returned the book to the seller, free of charge.
As it happened, Bao Ninh was one of the nine Asian novelists invited at La Cité du Livre, all mottled-fuzzy-haired and monolingual with an interpreter in tow. Only the English version of his novel was on sale: I had a look at it and noticed two things: the book was much thicker than the one I remembered; also, it was the work of two translators, one Vietnamese and one Australian – usually a recipe for disaster. Could it be the explanation?
When, on the penultimate day of the fair, Sebastian Veg – one of the translators from the Chinese present there – brandished a copy of the French version, saying he was lucky to have found it in a Hong Kong bookshop as the book was out of print in French, I went up to him and borrowed it, promising to return it the next day.
That night, it didn’t take me many pages to figure out that this novel in beautiful French was indeed a gripping masterpiece, and that the book I had bought in Bang Lamphoo under the same cover was a sham: some unscrupulous idiot had squatted Bao Ninh’s novel to peddle his own ranting. The only common point between the two books apart from the cover was that the fake story also took place during the Vietnam war.
Of course, I rushed to tell the whole story to Bao Ninh, who took it in his stride: counterfeits, he said, happen all the time where he comes from. Nonetheless, I have been feeling bad about bad-mouthing freely all along to whoever asked a book it turns out I haven’t read yet.
When I get myself a bona fide copy of the English version, my next mission in life will be to hunt for that fake book in the Bang Lamphoo bookshops, if it has survived.