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The opening allegory.
The beginning of the story functions as an allegory for the experience of PTSD. Prisoners of war are tasked with the clean-up of their own bodies. The war has just ended. The soldiers make jokes trying to distract themselves from the fact that the war happened, all while picking up dismembered corpses. This is an allegory for what life is like as a veteran, constantly plagued by the unforgettable truth of warfare, even when the war ends.
The allegory of a savior.
When Phuong was raped, that was her becoming a victim of human evil, and her response to that experience is not selfish anger, but rather a willingness to sacrifice her life for Kien. This is an indisputable occurrence of a messiah character. As an allegory, it functions as an image of true love, to lay one's life down for someone else, even when you could be playing the victim instead.
The motif of gore.
The book is gory. Kien explains why he has chosen to be up front about the gore and violence of his past—because it's true. He wants to write a novel about his life, so he must share the truth as he experienced it, which means that the novel is horrific because Kien's experience of war was so nightmarish.
Images of the Sublime.
For those who know the word "subliminal," this related word "Sublime" refers to a dimension of human experience with an otherworldly or occult feeling. Imagine always feeling trapped in a horror movie. That's the right feeling. The severity of warfare and the surreal quality of battles lead to an experience of life that is somewhat detached or disconnected, since for Kien, most of his most important memories are horrific memories from war. Therefore, there are images throughout the novel that hint at Kien's sublime experience of life.
The symbolic author-character.
By introducing himself in the narrative, Bao becomes a symbolic character. Since Bao is a real human being, his inclusion in the novel suggests that all the other characters were real people too. Therefore his self-character represents a kind of union between the fictional universe he helped to shape, and the real life universe where people really fought and died.
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