Duong Thu Huong is one of Vietnam’s most important writers. Since I haven’t read a lot of Vietnamese novels I was looking forward to reading her most famous book Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s beautiful and harrowing.
At the beginning, Quan, the narrator, is sent on a mission to find his friend Bien. Quan, his commanding officer, Luong, and Bien have grown up together. When Luong hears that Bien has gone mad, he sends Quan to go and find out if it’s true.
What follows is the account of a dangerous mission on which Quan meets many people, dead and alive, sees atrocities, remembers his childhood, falls dangerously ill, dreams about his love, and finally finds his old friend.
Bien stands for many other “crazy” men we meet in this novel. Some really go mad because of the horrors they have experienced, others just withdraw into themselves, trying to escape the war.
Quan and his younger brother, who has been killed, have signed up right at the beginning of the war, ten years ago. Their father was one of those who supported a 100% mobilization, accepting that he might lose both of his sons. Almost all of Quan’s comrades are dead. The main story follows Quan on his mission, but overall the book is more like a series of vignettes. In parts it reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Without the metafictional elements. Duong Thu Huong uses a mix of very short and long chapters. Some are dedicated to what’s happening to Quan on his trip, some are childhood memories or stories from the war, otheres are just short, intense snapshots.
What I liked best is how descriptive this book is. It speaks to the senses like not many others. It felt at times like watching a documentary on Vietnam. We read about the food, the flora, the fauna, the beliefs, the scents, the way people love, sleep, cook. Several chapters describe the landscape and make you want to visit this country that has sun sets the color of chrysanthemum flowers.
Duong Thu Huong served in the North Vietnamese army and so it’s not surprising the descriptions of combat, dead soldiers, the horror of war are drawn in a shockingly realistic way. She also manages to capture how tired and disillusioned most soldiers have become. The political slogans that fired them up and made them sign up have become mere empty words. Bodies pile up, their country is destroyed – for what? An ideal that isn’t even humane?
On his quest, Quan meets many people. Simple farmers, single mothers, small girls, old men. They are drawn with a lot of detail and warmth. We suffer for these kind, gentle people who had to endure the worst for such a long time.
It’s admirable that the author doesn’t blame the US. She finds a lot of fault with party politics and the false promises of the government. There is no evil enemy. Nor is there an army of faceless Vietnamese soldiers. Every soldier she describes becomes a human being with a history, feelings, wishes and hopes.
Novel Without a Name is a visceral account that doesn’t leave out any aspect of this war. It’s an insider’s perspective, a soldier’s account. The novel unrolls like a huge canvas, a painting of an abundant jungle, where humans butcher each other amidst the most beautiful scenery.
I read the German translation of this novel that’s why I can’t share any quotes. It’s too bad because many of the descriptions are so amazing that I read them more than once.
Novel Without a Name is the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2015. The next book is the Hungarian Holocaust novel Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész. Discussion starts on Wednesday 30 September, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.