Beginning to prepare for a February trip to South East Asia I do what I always do — read.  What is the history?  What are the poems?  What is the fiction? — mostly from those whose country it is, but if well recommended, from those who know a place or event and can imagine it well.  The first to come to my eyes, from Vietnam, Novel Without a Name, (1995) by Duong Thu Huong, turns out to be a wonder of conception, of writing and translation.  I am sorry I waited so long to read it.

It is a story of war, the same war Americans know so well, and which so many came to hate. It is the war American soldiers and journalists have written about [in their hundreds?], from Graham Green’s The Quiet American [1955] to Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn [2010]. always from the American side. [You want a list?] Now there are several from Vietnamese writers, writing about what those soldiers felt, witnessed and did, how they killed and how they died, including the highly regarded The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, and this one, Novel Without a Name. 

Reading war fiction is not for everyone and this novel is as tough as any. Some will chose to pass it by. For myself, since we can’t seem to escape the reality of war itself, it seems a good idea to read what those on every side have to say. If the writing is honest and enough people read, perhaps fewer will rush over the next martial cliff.

As it happens I’ve been thinking about war and its representation in fiction for many months, absorbing novels about WW I, written during, shortly after, and decades after the event.  Not one opened with the power of Novel Without A Name.

“I listened all night to the wind howl through the Gorge of Lost Souls.  Endless moans punctuated by sobs.  From time to time it whinnied like a mare in heat, whistling through the broken shafts of the bamboo roof above me, sweeping through the countryside in a macabre symphony of sound.”

Immediately we know we are in a strange and melancholy place and, from the cover and the reasons we chose to read it, we know that place is war.

Within a page we are fully into the horror, the horror seen and felt by the Vietnamese soldiers …  a terrible stench that leads them to a small meadow where “six naked corpses.  Women” are found.  Mutilated. It doesn’t say who is responsible except of course, ‘the enemy.’  The girls ‘were northern girls.’

“We could tell by their scarves made out of parachute cloth and the lotus-shaped collars of their blouses. They must have belonged to a group of volunteers or a mobile unit that lost its way.  Perhaps, like us, they had come here to search for bamboo shoots or vegetables.”

Even in this appalling scene Duong finds a language of image, which continues through out the book, that is inventive, vivid and unforgettable, never burdened with cliche or predictable adjectives of battle and war.

“Maggots swarmed in their wounds, their eyes and their mouths.  Fat white larvae.  They crawled over the corpses in waves, plunging in and out of them in a drunken orgy.”

The narrator is a 28 year old man named Quan, a captain in the Viet Cong (we learn late in the book,) who has been fighting for ten years.  He has been sent on a mission by an old friend and senior officer to find a third friend who has gone insane and is being held in filthy and dangerous conditions, and then to take a few days leave. This immediately sets the story apart from most war novels.  Since he is not, for most of the novel, in a fighting group, the story does not track through a series of battles with details of the shelling, the dying and the conversations among the men.  Quan is more of an Odysseus, wandering through a war, though, not the years after one.

“‘The sound of an airplane rumbled overhead.  I didn’t care.  Why bother running for cover?’ I thought. ‘Bullets may miss people but no one dodges a bullet.’  … Planes howled across the sky.  I remained buried in the high grass.  The grass protected me; at the very least its green tenderness soothed my soul.   The planes veered toward the southwest, glinting in the sun.  A carpet of bombs gushed forth.  They tilted toward the ground, gently, calmly.  Falling toward the earth, they looked like a cloud of giant termites, their wings sheared off.”

The Americans are not named until late in the book. With that naming our understanding shifts.  The ‘enemy’ of the early parts of the novel was likely the South Vietnamese, the ARVN — the brother against brother kind of war that is often the cruelest.

“…corpses hanging from branches, eyes gouged out, men’s bodies split in two, ligaments cut at the knee, legs folded back like those of grasshoppers… An endless settling of scores.”

We learn of Quan’s child hood, the early loss of his mother and the return of his abusive father after years away fighting the French. Of his mother, in language that is redolent of place and his love.

 “To me she had always been young and beautiful  She used to rock me in a hammock, toss me in the air. Her laughter was like music.  Even now she is inseparable from the memory of the cool water we poured from a coconut.  She loved me; I adored her.  When I wrapped my arms around her neck, nothing could frighten me; not even the shadows, the cries, or the gunshots.”

And his father, again, the arresting image, the kind the book is saturated with.

“I said nothing.  He would never understand me.  We would always be strangers to each other.  Like two ponds in the same field with no canal to link them.”

We learn in a dizzying passage of his difficulty in sharing orangutan soup with his comrades, and of his differentness from them.

“We lived in a community.  Anyone who stood apart stuck out like a nail that everyone–the cowards and the heroes, the vindictive and the tolerant alike- yearned to pry out. They wanted me to submit to the will of the group, if only to demonstrate its power.”

Along the way, as Quan thinks about the war or talks about it to others we hear the disquiet of experience rubbing up harder and harder against the fading true belief of youth.

“This war was not simply another war against foreign aggression; it was also our chance for a resurrection.  Vietnam had been chosen by History: After the war, our country would become humanity’s paradise.  Our people would hold a rank apart.  At last we would be respected, honored, revered.  We believed this, so we turned away from those tears of weakness.”

Battles Americans know of are described, with again, the growing separation from the reasons that brought him there:

“Once, by coincidence , at Camp 88, I had picked up off the ground an old issue of Nhan Dan, the Communist Party daily.  The issue was celebrating the glorious victories on the B3 front during the Tet offensive.  The year of the Monkey, 1968.  We had been there.  I had buried with my own hands countless numbers of my companions, had dragged away from the line of fire little Hoang’s corpse, one of the many angels lost in the war.  All he had left was one arm, one leg, and a diary filled with gilded dreams.”

I remember ripping the Party newspaper into shreds and throwing them into a stream.  It was then I realized that lies are common currency among men, and that the most virtuous are those who have no scruples about resorting to them.

Novel Without A Name is not just about the war, though there is plenty of that –friendly troops killed in mistaken panic, a platoon wiped out due to an officer’s ambition, the killing of POWs, receiving news of a brother’s death, a knifing to end a quarrel between comrades, and soldiers, as soldiers everywhere, both revering and lusting after the women they cannot be near. They play cards, tell dirty stories, seek out those from neighboring villages or provinces for ‘hometown’ friendships.

But beyond that we grow accustomed to conversations with spirits of ancestors, often asking for their help though, with one, an argument about the great deeds of the past. We hear of the food,

“Madame Buu had killed two ducks and prepared two plates of curdled blood.  She had stewed one duck with lotus seeds and steamed another, which we ate with a mixture of salt and crushed garlic…the tray was piled with aromatic herbs.”

and lack of food in a country that had been at war for over twenty years, first with the French and then the Americans.

“Salads made out of banana trunk, colocasia roots, and bindweed.  He even dared make them from young manioc and chili leaves…”

We hear the slogans and beliefs of ordinary Vietnamese:

“I’m not like other fathers.  I never urged my children to enlist, to ‘nourish the earth with your body or return glorious.’ Also, I never encouraged them to desert.  As long as the country is occupied, whatever it costs me, I let them go.”

or

“It is better not to enter life with an empty sack. But neither should you dip into the sack you have inherited without filling that of another.”

A wild lynx invades a camp.  A tiger gnaws a sick soldier to death.

Descriptions are arresting, and more — they belong with the culture and country. The intended readers are Vietnamese.  We are the beneficiaries of a cultural exchange through translation. Who can imagine the following appearing in a French novel about WW I?

“[Luy] had walked awkwardly behind a huge woman whose body swam in an ao dai the yellowy color of chicken fat. This was his mother, his guardian angel, his slave, his best friend.  An ugly, lonely, elephantine woman.  Luy was her only pride, her sole reason for living.”

Short exchanges sketch the divide between city and country folk:  “‘Thank you’ this and ‘thank you’ that — what hypocrisy!  You must be from Hanoi.”  44

A repellent but heartbreaking attempt at a seduction –and not by Quan. Of him.

A visit to his girlfriend of many years before, now dishonored and banished from the village.

Quan finally find his insane friend, Bien, and with a sort of ‘friend whisper’ calms him, talks the officer in charge into releasing him into his custody and resumes his walk across country, back to the village of their birth. Bien appears in the closing chapters in remarkable scenes in which a Special Battalion is converting the lush forest into coffins to be carried out on tribal men’s backs to the battles where they will be needed.

As the novel draws to a close, the fighting is continuing and the Americans have been gone for two years.  A celebration of looting and destruction as [what we take to be] Saigon falls.

The writing is as inventive and memorable as any I have read in recent years and is all the more remarkable because the main character is male and Duong Thu Huong is female.  She spent seven years in some of the most savage zones of fighting, as a singer and a nurse.

Her mission was to “sing louder than the bombs” and to give theatrical performances for the North Vietnamese troops, but also to tend to the wounded, bury the dead, and accompany the soldiers along. She was one of three survivors out of the forty volunteers in that group. She was also at the front during China’s attacks on Vietnam in 1979 during the short-lived Sino-Vietnamese War [Wiki]

So her knowledge of the war and its injuries comes first hand.  And while male writers have written strong female characters in literature around the world, and vice versa, when it happens, and happens well, it is worth noting.  As an observer, a writer and one who reflects on war and its damages, as the creator of a man in war, Duong is a cut above the mean….

[I will add that perhaps Duong’s work is not yet finished. According to one source over one million women fought alongside the men during the war, to be mostly ignored when the heroes were recognized. At least one book, Even the Women Must Fight,  has been published, photos and documentary film are compiled in National Geographic’s Vietnam’s Unseen War but they still await the talents of a superb writer to lift them from obscurity.]

The translation is quite good or better to say, since I can’t read Vietnamese, the English is quite good.  Coming from a non Indo-European language, which presents a range of challenges that Spanish, French or German do not, the work Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong have done is impressive.  They speak to us in English while never tampering with the illusion that we are accompanying a Vietnamese soldier, and they do it with very few stumbles.  Those that did occur only made me slow down, never stop cold, though I would call putting “You asshole” into the mouth of a Vietnamese man, odd.  Not that they don’t have analogous epithets, just that this is so American, and so relatively recent in public language, much less on the printed page, I would have searched for something else, closer to a Vietnamese insult.

“He was three grades higher than me in the army hierarchy,”  isn’t terrible, but isn’t “army hierarchy” a redundancy, which no military person would ever say?

“…the airplane rumbled overhead…” — droned? I don’t know what the Vietnamese says, but rumble in English is not usually associated with airplanes high in the sky; tanks are.

As in another novel or two I’ve reviewed, from France and Germany, I was struck that a single file of soldiers was rendered as “Indian file.”  Really?  Do the Vietnamese [French or Germans] say “Indian file,” or more likely something like “single file?” Not a big deal, but it distracts, without reason.  “I spotted the Van Kieu; they were walking single file, each man shouldering a coffin,” does quite well.  No need to insert “Indian”  where Indian in any case refers to another people, not known for walking this way.

In reading this, as well as other war novels [here, here and here] foremost in my mind is ‘what is the attitude of the author to the war?’ as revealed in the narrator’s observations, characters’ thoughts, and in the outcomes of actions and lives? Those books that celebrate war and its manly exploits — a genre called combat novels– with no concern for the cost have never attracted me.  What does attract me are those which, regardless of the side held in favor, describe the reality of life under fire, of human response to fear, to obedience and to death. It’s not so much an anti-war attitude I look for as a novel of right-seeing.

Novel Without A Name ranks high in this regard.  Although Americans call it the Vietnam War and Vietnamese The War Against the Americans, the Americans are not the primary concern of the author. Not a line appears of visceral hatred against them; there are a few lines of laconic description about Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese cruelty. As we find in other war novels, the enemy is less ‘the other’ than the war itself: the hunger, the cold, the rain, the mud, the remnants of friends. For the Vietnamese the 16 years of fighting against the Americans was the latest in a chain of wars that extended back through time, against the Chinese, the Cambodians, the three regions of Vietnam against each other, and most recently against the French. The fathers and uncles of those fighting the Americans had come home wounded and disturbed from fighting the French.  There are pages when what is described could almost be that of a typhoon or earthquake — author-less.  The soldiers do not hate; they do the only possible thing –more.

Like such western war novels such as Three Soldiers, or The Enormous Room, or Farewell to Arms, Duong has a theme other than the war itself –the perfidy and betrayal of ordinary people by the leaders who profit, while directing the war.

“They study their Marxism-Leninism, and then come and pillage our vegetable gardens and rice fields with Marx’s blessing.  In the name of class struggle, they seduce other men’s women.”

or, in this key exchange near the end of the novel, where a subordinate, once a friend, shatters Quan’s resistance to the loss of his own faith.

“You see, the people, they do exist from time to time, but they are only a shadow.  When they [the officials] need rice, the people are the buffalo that pulls the plow. When they need soldiers, the cover the people with armor, put guns in the people’s hands.  When all is said and done, at the festivals, when it comes time for the banquets, the put the people on the altar, and feed them incense and ashes.  But the real food, it’s always for them.”

 [Translation note: In the passage above the referent to “they” in the original is confusing. “You see, the people, they do exist from time to time but they’re only a shadow.  When they need rice, the people are the buffalo…”  “They need rice” refers to a different “they” than “the people” and should have been made clear. This is more an editing problem than translation itself, but whichever it is, another pass under a close eye would have cleared up such impediments to an otherwise amazing display of language and image. ]

It won’t surprise any reader to know that Duong, while her novels were initially run-away best sellers in Vietnam, did not endear herself to the Party, even after the thaw leading to mutual relations with the U.S. in 1986.  After the publication of Novel Without A Name in the west she was imprisoned without trail for 7 months.  After years of being denied a passport she now lives in Paris. [For more see here, here and here.]

Is this an anti-war novel? If descriptions alone could make the case, one might say yes.  But as Susan Sontag pointed out in Regarding the Pain of Others [2004] about Virginia Woolf’s belief that atrocity photos of the Spanish Civil war would impel people to stop it, ‘one person’s atrocity is another person’s call to revenge.’ The characters in Novel Without a Name never comment on what they have seen, never say this war sucks, this is stupid, let’s go home. There is no grousing against the war or the superiors as we find in All Quiet on the Western Front, or Under Fire.

But the question comes up: is this anti-war?

“There is this earth, this mud where the flesh rots, where eyes decompose.  These arms, these legs that are crunched by the jaws of boars,  The souls ulcerated and foul from killing  the bodies so starved for tenderness that they haunt stables in search of pleasure.  There is this gangrene that eats at the heart.”

For me it comes close.  Yet not.  This is a description as honest as it is searing, yet with a sense that the gangrene must be borne — which for me is more honest at least than writing and belief in making such sacrifices which which will transport one to the presence of Jesus or a squadron of virgins.

And interestingly, the closing lines of the book begin with a comrade saying, “We received the Heroes’ Medal” …then shift to Quan’s own state of mind… “all I hear now is the lapping of water at the foot of the bridge, the murmur of stalks of rice…a mournful chant of the months, of the years spent in the Truong Son mountains.  Soldier, the dawn is icy.  You fall under the bullets.  On the white of parachute cloth I see your blood spreading.”

Exhaustion, sorrow, reflective, but anti-war?  For some readers, yes.  For others, perhaps not, but it is surely not a celebration of manly might, the triumph of the good and national pride. It is one step forward, it seems to me, on the road to reluctance to wage another war.

As to the title of the novel?  Novel Without a Name.  It’s an odd one.  I don’t know for sure, but this sentence, paragraphs from the end seems to indicate.

“I thought about my own brother.  Then I don’t think of anyone at all.  I remember a face without a name, silent, still alive, a face that surfaces from the flood of my past. Fifteen years have gone by.  He smiles at me.”

A Novel Without a Name...a flood of memories.  I’ll return to again.

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