Duong Thu Huong: Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê (1995) Literature and War Readalong May 2015

Novel Without A Name

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.

Other reviews

 TJ (My Book Strings)

Bonespark 

 

 

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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.

Literature and War Readalong May 29 2015: Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without A Name

Two years ago we read Bao Ninh’s moving novel on the war in Vietnam The Sorrow of War. Quite a few of those who participated and others who read our posts stated that they would be interested in reading novels by Vietnamese authors. That’s why I chose to include Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê, another famous novel on the war in Vietnam. It was written by one of Vietnam’s most prominent authors: Duong Thu Huong. She is well-respected outside of her native country. If you read French you’ll find translations of many of her books. Duong Thu Huong is not only a great writer but a courageous one. Many of her novels have been forbidden in Vietnam and she was imprisoned for her political views.

Duong Thu Huong

This link will lead you to the website of Swiss publisher Unionsverlag. Unionsverlag is a pioner when it comes to world literature. On their website you’ll find newspaper articles and interviews on and with Duong Thu Houng – in English.

Here are the first sentences (which I had to translated from my German copy)

I heard the wind howl all through the night, out there, over the ravine of the lost souls.

It sounded like a constant moan, like sobbing, then again like cheeky whistling, like the neighing of a mare during copulation. The roof of the pile dwelling trembled, the bamboo poles burst and whistled every time like reed pipes. They played the mournful melody of a country burial. Our nightlight flickered as if it was going to die down. I stretched my neck from under the quilt, blew out the light, and hoped that the shadow of the night would cover up all the senses . . .

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Duong Thu Huong (Vietnam 1995), War in Vietnam, Novel, 304 pages.

Vietnamese novelist Huong, who has been imprisoned for her political beliefs, presents the story of a disillusioned soldier in a book that was banned in her native country.

A piercing, unforgettable tale of the horror and spiritual weariness of war, Novel Without a Name will shatter every preconception Americans have about what happened in the jungles of Vietnam. With Duong Thu Huong, whose Paradise of the Blind was published to high critical acclaim in 1993, Vietnam has found a voice both lyrical and stark, powerful enough to capture the conflict that left millions dead and spiritually destroyed her generation. Banned in the author’s native country for its scathing dissection of the day-to-day realities of life for the Vietnamese during the final years of the “Vietnam War, ” Novel Without a Name invites comparison with All Quiet on the Western Front and other classic works of war fiction. The war is seen through the eyes of Quan, a North Vietnamese bo doi (soldier of the people) who joined the army at eighteen, full of idealism and love for the Communist party and its cause of national liberation. But ten years later, after leading his platoon through almost a decade of unimaginable horror and deprivation, Quan is disillusioned by his odyssey of loss and struggle. Furloughed back to his village in search of a fellow soldier, Quan undertakes a harrowing, solitary journey through the tortuous jungles of central Vietnam and his own unspeakable memories.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 29 May 2015.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2015 – Mini Edition

Literature and War Readalong 2015

For some of you it may come as a surprise that next year’s Literature and War Readalong contains only four titles, but I felt we needed a change. That’s why I chose only four books, from four different countries, focussing on three different wars. The list should appeal to those interested in international literature, books by prize winners, novels on international conflict, modern classics, books that have been made into movies and a lot more.

The Disappeared

March, Tuesday 31 2015

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

Here’s the blurb:

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.
Novel Without A Name.
May, Friday 29 2015

Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Huon Thu huong (Vietnam 1995), War in Vietnam, Novel, 304 pages.

Here is the blurb:

Vietnamese novelist Huong, who has been imprisoned for her political beliefs, presents the story of a disillusioned soldier in a book that was banned in her native country.

A piercing, unforgettable tale of the horror and spiritual weariness of war, Novel Without a Name will shatter every preconception Americans have about what happened in the jungles of Vietnam. With Duong Thu Huong, whose Paradise of the Blind was published to high critical acclaim in 1993, Vietnam has found a voice both lyrical and stark, powerful enough to capture the conflict that left millions dead and spiritually destroyed her generation. Banned in the author’s native country for its scathing dissection of the day-to-day realities of life for the Vietnamese during the final years of the “Vietnam War, ” Novel Without a Name invites comparison with All Quiet on the Western Front and other classic works of war fiction. The war is seen through the eyes of Quan, a North Vietnamese bo doi (soldier of the people) who joined the army at eighteen, full of idealism and love for the Communist party and its cause of national liberation. But ten years later, after leading his platoon through almost a decade of unimaginable horror and deprivation, Quan is disillusioned by his odyssey of loss and struggle. Furloughed back to his village in search of a fellow soldier, Quan undertakes a harrowing, solitary journey through the tortuous jungles of central Vietnam and his own unspeakable memories.

Fateless

September, Wednesday 30 2015

Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész (Hungary 1975), Holocaust,  Novel, 272 pages.

Here is the blurb:

The powerful story of an adolescent’s experience of Auschwitz by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész.

Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, gets the day off school to witness his father signing over the family timber business to the firm’s bookkeeper – his final business transaction before being sent to a labour camp. Two months after saying goodbye to his father, Gyuri finds himself assigned to a ‘permanent workplace’, but within a fortnight he is unexpectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the start of his journey to Auschwitz.

On his arrival Gyuri finds that he is unable to identify with other Jews, and in turn is rejected by them. An outsider among his own people, his estrangement makes him a preternaturally acute observer, dogmatically insisting on making sense of everything he witnesses.

A Time To Love and a Time to Die

November, Friday 27

A Time to Love and a Time to DieZeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben by Erich Maria Remarque (Germany, WWII, Novel, 384 pages.

It’s interesting to note that the German title isn’t as corny as the English one. It means “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” not Love and Die.

Here is the blurb:

From the quintessential author of wartime Germany, A Time to Love and a Time to Die echoes the harrowing insights of his masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front.

After two years at the Russian front, Ernst Graeber finally receives three weeks’ leave. But since leaves have been canceled before, he decides not to write his parents, fearing he would just raise their hopes.

Then, when Graeber arrives home, he finds his house bombed to ruin and his parents nowhere in sight. Nobody knows if they are dead or alive. As his leave draws to a close, Graeber reaches out to Elisabeth, a childhood friend. Like him, she is imprisoned in a world she did not create. But in a time of war, love seems a world away. And sometimes, temporary comfort can lead to something unexpected and redeeming.

“The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.”—The New York Times Book Review

 

I will anounce each title with some additional information about six weeks before the discussion date. I hope you like the choices and will join me whenever you can.