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.

Bao Ninh: The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu (1991) Literature and War Readalong December 2013

The Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu is the first (North) Vietnamese novel I’ve read. It is based on Ninh’s own experiences during the Vietnam war. We are used to read about the war in Vietnam from an US perspective and I was really curious to see how it would be treated by a North Vietnamese writer. I had a few expectations but none were met. The book was so much better than I had expected. It’s one of a very few war novels I’d say I really loved and if I had read it earlier this year, it would have made the Best of List. Reading this, you may possibly think it’s a perfect novel but it isn’t. It’s flawed but so intense, emotional, lyrical, tragic  and beautiful that I can easily forgive its shortcomings.

The Sorrow of War reminded me a lot of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The two books would make great companion reads. Both approach the story in a non-linear way and narrate episodes rather than a chronological story. Both books have strong metafictional aspects, but The Sorrow of War goes even one step further. We have a narrator who is at the same time a writer and a narrator who had similar experiences and finds the writer’s manuscript. When he talks about that manuscript he addresses the element that I have called “shortcomings” earlier and reading that one doubts whether it’s a real shortcoming or an effect that Bao Ninh wanted to achieve. Nevertheless, the book jumps back and forth in time and there are a lot of repetitions. Every time a scene is repeated a new element is added but it’s still often difficult to know who is telling something and when.

Where Tim O Brien’s and Bao Ninh’s novel differ completely is the tone. The Sorrows of War is much gentler, full of palpable sorrow and lyrical passages in which Kien, the writer-narrator, evokes beautiful moments. Kien has spent far over ten years at war and is a survivor. More than one platoon he’s been part of was wiped out. At the beginning of the book, in 1976, he’s part of a Missing-in-Action body collecting team. Somewhat later, after the war, we see him battle his demons; alcoholism, despair, nightmares, depression. He’s seen the worst. The depravity and cruelty of people and soldiers. One of the worst things happened at the very beginning of the war and is related to the love of Kien’s life, Phuong. The Sorrow of War is also a love story, the story of two people whose love was shattered by war. To read why and how and slowly discover the details is harrowing.

In the best passages of the book Kien renders episodes in which the kindness of people or the beauty of nature are contrasted with the ugliness of the battlefields. Another element I liked and which makes this very different from any of the US accounts I’ve read is the belief in ghosts and spirits. The violence with which the soldiers die turns many into ghosts. There is one part of the forest that the people have come to call the Jungle of the Screaming Souls. One of the drivers of the MIA body collecting team tells Kien that every time he drives by that battlefield a ghost joins him and wants to talk to him. What is interesting is that nobody doubts that there are ghosts. They are not scared because dead people try to talk to them but because they can feel the pain those ghosts had to endure before they died. The whole area is like one giant graveyard where all the souls are screaming and mourning constantly. Eerie.

Another element that makes this book so outstanding is that neither the Americans nor the South Vietnamese are ever demonized. Every person in this book is simply a human, thrown into this awful conflict for no better reason than politics.

At the end, Kien has written his book and leaves. Nobody knows where he has gone. He’s lost so much, there was no returning to the life as it had been before and now he’s lost as well.

I don’t know how typical of Vietnamese literature this is, but I’m determined to find out. If there are more writers like Bao Ninh I’d like to read them.

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The Sorrow of War was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The first book in 2014 is the American Civil War novel The Black Flower by Howard Bahr. Discussion starts on Friday 31 January, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.