I couldn’t have been more surprised when our guide in Hanoi, a Vietnamese Catholic, mentioned offhandedly that some soldiers coming back from the war after 1975, sometimes years later, had found that they’d been declared dead and their wives had remarried.  This is the core of Duong Thu Huong’s most recent novel, No Man’s Land (2006), which I had finished on the flight to Vietnam.  It is published in French and English but not allowed into her native Vietnam where she is still on the proscribed authors list. In fact I wondered if a curious customs agent might find it in my bag.  [None appeared.]

A returning ‘dead’ husband seemed like such a perfect fictional set up — plausible but made for writing about.  That such events had actually happened, and enough to be be mentioned in passing in 2013 (the guide wasn’t making a point about the privations of war) brought me back to the novel with force.

It’s a sometimes too sprawling tale of two loves pitted against each other in a small hamlet on the skirts of the Truong Son Cordillera, northwest of Hue.  Mien, the beautiful Mien, is married to the love of her life, Hoan, a successful plantation owner and wealthy man when Bon, her first husband, long declared dead in the American War, reappears.  He has held on to the memory of their love and month-long marriage at age 17 just before he was sent to war.

Living in a small village where the citizens meet once a week –translated by Nina McPherson as ‘family clubs’– for semi-organized gossip sessions, under the umbrella of a wealthier family headed by a respected elder, deciding what to do is written in the voices — and the voices of all the ancestors.

“…conversations were already buzzing like a smashed hornet’s nest.  No one respected the usual rituals, or bothered to make small talk; everyone just plunged right into the scandalous matter that was causing such a stir in the region: the bizarre, complicated love triangle between a woman and her two husbands.”

 Even though the local committee chairman says she is free to do as she wishes, Mien feels she has no choice but to rejoin the returning soldier as his wife.  In marvelous scenes she witnesses the parades of those who are watching her — brigades of soldiers, her long dead ancestors, the villagers.

…this world belonged to a whole battalion of well-alinged solders that marched toward her, wave after wave, in camouflage.  Then to her distant ancestors, whether they were dressed in coarse hemp, canvas or silk, clad in oak bark or brown tussah, whether they shaded their heads with regal parasols or bound them in simple black turbans.  And finally, between these two crowds–the veterans and their ancestors–she faced her contemporaries: the president in his starched white shirt, the Party secretary in his faded green soldier’s uniform and ragged top that hung out over his pants; the smartly dressed teenagers in their gaudy flowered and metal-studded T-shirts; the women of the hamlet in their drab everyday pajamas.  They all stared at her with accusing, vindictive eyes.

Hoan, her second husband agrees, reluctantly, and gracefully, that Mien should re-join her first husband, leaving their own house himself to move to a coastal town, and their child in the care of the family ‘auntie.’

Mien’s return to Bon’ shack, painted in its absolute poverty, is unhappy from the first moments.  They are sharing space with his grotesque sister whom ‘the heavens had endowed … with a rapacious, almost bestial sexual appetite.’  Her children are hellions, and starving.  This, contrasted to her life of idyllic ease with Hoan, successful, with family retainers, and they deeply, and mutually, in love.

The constant theme of ‘fate’ appears here, and throughout the novel.  Mien asks herself:

“Why has fate put me in this horrible situation?  Did I contract some debt to Bon in a former life, a debt still unpaid till now?

Or, when she realizes she will stay with Bon, against everything her heart and head tell her, she says:

You have already submitted to fate.  Your voice is no longer the voice of a conscious, lucid woman, just a chorus of anonymous sounds; some witch’s curse on the lips of hungry hosts.

As with reading any novel from another culture, the opening up of thought patterns, behaviors and beliefs adds layers not found in reading about lives we are more familiar with.

Bon, is not only impoverished, but impotent.  He is crazed to bring Mien’s love back to him, and to sire his own heirs. She is passive, disgusted by his advances.  He goes to a local man, famous for his virility.

He gave Bon the recipe of a potion and instructed him in the art of drinking rice wine mixed with goat’s blood. He also instructed him to eat special fortifying food, showing him how to mix goat sperm with lotus shoots and seeds; how to steam it with garlic, onion and five spice; how to eat the bulbs of lily pads; and how to grill and eat goat’s heart at dawn.

That night, Bon dips his penis in the goat blood and rice wine, taking the prescription to a different level [unless a translation error crept in and the potion wasn’t meant to drunk at all.]

We hear about urinating in a circle around a hammock to keep away the ghosts of comrades who have been killed but not yet buried.  We read that “eating boar gelatin…was effective in treating kidney infections and back problems, weak nerves, night sweats, overheating of the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands, constipation, dry skin and dry hair.”

While Bon, from his first appearance, is not sympathetic to us, we do get a picture of  full blown PTSD, which in another culture, another novel, would surely be more empathetically connected to his current struggles. The first time we suspect what is happening begins when Bon begins talking to his sergeant who has come back from the dead to help him.  This merges into long descriptions of Bon’s war experience: friends blown apart, running through murderous fusillades  bodies decomposing.   Even as he fights against his impotence and Mien’s disgust at his sexual advances, images from the war overcome him.

‘I love you, you’re mine!’ … every time he repeated it, the flame writhing in him soared higher and in this wild inferno, he saw the sea of flames on Hill #327 as it exploded under a rain of fire bombs, thousands of crimson walls rising up to the dark night sky, burning everything, boiling the sap in the trees, scattering flaming pieces of uniforms that danced in the air like thousands of bats trained by a sorcerers invisible hand…
Duong writes authoritatively about the war, as she herself had been on the front  for seven years, attending the wounded, doing theatrical morale-boosters and, if like many of Vietnam’s war women, carrying ammunition and digging tunnels and trenches.  She describes men drinking their own urine, or plunging their heat pinched faces into elephant dung.  The pages of Bon dragging the corpse of his  sergeant as vultures repeatedly descend are particularly vivid.
“He could ..put a basket or helmet over the corpse head to protect its eyes.  When the soul departed, the light shed by the eyes would guide it to paradise or the path of reincarnation.  The soul of a corpse without a skull or without eyes would wander forever in the shadows, falling easily into the hands of devils.
And, as a reminder of the cost to the Vietnamese of the war:
Twelve days later, Bon woke up in the army headquarters hospital. Of his battalion of eight hundred and eighty-eight men there were only seven survivors.”
In fact, of Duong’s own cadre of 40 volunteers, only seven survived the war.
Recollections of the war do not come only from Bon.  Mr. Lu, the aged caretaker to whom Mien turns for stability and normalcy, tells her that no one is left in his family:
‘There were eighteen of us in the family.  Half were killed by shells from the Saigon soldiers, and the other half were killed by the rockets of the liberating troops.  Nine dead for each camp.
In a brief sentence near the end of the novel a question is answered which I have often had of Vietnamese soldiers after the war.  How were they treated?  An enormous number of American veterans are homeless.  What about in Vietnam?
“Hundreds of other veterans in [Bon’s] situation took to the streets, homeless, or had to go live in the charity camps.
Of course the village people have a stake in the outcome of which man will finally be Mien’s husband.  Xa, a friend of Bon’s, tries and tries to get him to move on, away from a woman who no longer loves him and to a collective farm far from the village where there is work and many women. Bon refuses.  Mien is his.  The village, having done its duty of honor and respect when Bon first appeared gets tired of his odd behavior. He is followed by young boys when he haunts the cemetery hoping for scenes of real insanity.   Not only that, her wealthy second husband has contributed to the Party’s building of a new school:  should they be happy or alarmed?  Why would someone do something without a self benefit?  And what might that be?
As in Duong’s previous novels, food has a central part.
  • sticky-rice cakes, green bean paste, candied squash, watermelon seeds
  • lotus tea and best quality cakes for the clan head; jasmine tea for the branch clan chief;  persimmon and orange candies for the children
  • eel, stewed snail and fish grilled in banana leaves
  • pigeon stewed with eight treasures…and a steamed carp stuffed with pork and mushrooms.  A soup of fish stomach and imperial stewed chicken… to fortify his virility
Mmmm, good!
And language and image!  McPherson, who has been Duong’s translator for most of her English releases, does an excellent job of letting the folk-sayings of the people come through.  This one, in different words, is familiar to us:
Like they say, one drop of your own blood is worth a whole pond of clear water.
or this:
The tardy buffalo must drink the murky water…
Beyond the cultural freshness of familiar ideas, there are images that burst from a distant place and people, unfamiliar to us but instantly seen:

‘…a road lined with flame trees that bloomed like a fresh pair of lips.’

‘At night the bat of desire refused to be still…’
As a ghost speaks to him, ‘Suddenly his eyes blinked open like an oyster springs open over the flames.’
‘His [deceased] mother stroked his hair and then vanished like steam rising off a pot of rice.’

Bon’s sexual agony generates unforgettable images:

‘He was now a man frantic with lust who struggled to impregnate her every night, panting the same refrain, like a grave digger laboring over a tomb.’
or
‘That night he made love like a farmer struggling behind his water buffalo at the height of summer.’
or
‘If Mien were to leave him, his shack would become a grave equipped with a roof and a door.’
It is also interesting to hear the Duong/McPherson rendition of the frank sexual talk in the villages, often carried on by the men but the women unafraid to jab back, and walk out if their husbands get too uppity.
“Miss, can you believe the bravery of my dick?  Why it went it and expelled the government’s IUD!”
One of the few questions I have about this very well done translation comes up here. In a man-to-man conversation one comments on the pleasure of having a virgin:
“There’s nothing like a virgin. A new vagina is worth a dozen familiar vaginas'”
It seems odd to me that a more earthy noun is not being used; these are village men, chortling out of ear-shot (thy think) of their women. “Dick” is appropriately used for the man’s “engine”, as it is referred to by an irritated wife who threatens to tear it off with her own teeth if he doesn’t behave. Why would one of many possibilities for ‘vagina’ not be used, unless, improbably, only one word is used by Vietnamese in the doctors office and around the campfire?
Mien’s struggle goes on, and it is mostly her struggle.  Significant sections of the novel are devoted to the two men, Bon as he agonizes over the love he remembers but which is not blooming again, and Hoan as he devotes himself to his businesses, and in some pages that could have been cut back, to sexual adventures in sleazy brothels with a business acquaintance.  In fact, there are a few too many times throughout the novel when repetition has not been trimmed.  We should not be bored with Bon’s self doubts or Mien’s indecision.  Condensed and sharpened, dramatic tension would have had room to work its magic and the novel pushed from being interesting and worth-while to being can’t-put-it-down and an indispensable look at another of the many remnants of war.
Duong’s language, and its translation is often lovely, memorable; her perceptions sharp:
The conversation turned again toward the beautiful woman and her two husbands because time is too long, and nights in the mountains were too dull, because life out here trickled by like a lonely stream, without a single footbridge, or boat, or even a ripple of a wave.  In this colorless existence no one could pass up such a rare chance to… revive this ancient tribunal, this invisible yet enduring courtroom where anyone could don the judge’s wig and robe.
Hoan, in his own, if better cared for, despair, thinks of Mien
“Returning to her first husband was like a kind of suicide, a self immolation in the tradition of self-sacrifice of a woman born in a country shattered by endless wars, where human lives were as fragile as dragonfly wings, where the men draw their strength from the fidelity and resignation of their wives.”
A few people I’ve told about this novel are reminded of Martin Guerre, another soldier who returns from war to find his wife re-married.  But that’s to miss the core difference   In Martin Guerre, the story is of a deception, a man who steps in, feigning to be the missing husband and who is found out only several years and children later.  The actual husband/soldier eventually returns with an amputated leg, having fought with the Spanish against the Dutch.  In No Man’s Land there is no deception, simply the terrible decisions confronting three people when a man returns from the dead.
[There are other recorded stories like No Man’s Land, from other countries.  I’ve found a few from WW I and France for example.  And one would think that in every war, in every age, or simply in centuries of distant adventuring with little communication, life would go on, in all its forms, when men were gone for years.]
The story makes its exit from the turmoil of doubt and the struggle with fate. Mien returns to Hoan, but heeding the words of her father,  “Man is weak, he becomes human only if he has a moral conscience,” she tries to care for Bon, ‘as a brother, not a husband.’  This too is a path along which Bon struggles.  He finally finds some solace, returning to a relation with his dead sergeant, “the face that was dearest to him, the only one that belonged to him, that would now accompany him…”
I did have a curious thought as I re-read this paragraph near the end of the book.
Mien prepares for ‘the onslaught of ghosts that she knew were still lurking inside her, those all-powerful, ancestral voices that had reigned for millennia on this earth and who influence had compelled her to return to Bon … she even rehearsed for the day the president of the commune, the Party secretary, and the president of the Women’s Union would come and ring the bell.  She knew they would appeal to her conscience, or to her sense of civic duty and responsibility, as they invoked all the traditional Vietnamese values.  And from her anguished soul and raging heart came a flood of words, in a language that was no intellectual’s but rather the scalding hot lava of an indignant woman.
In an almost perfect symmetry the author,  Duong Thu Huong, is talking about her life — not with two individual husbands, but their representation in the world — her first love, the Party of her youth, her joining in the liberation struggle, and her second as she begins to write,  finding herself as a free-acting individual, a writer, with her second love, the openness and lack of censorship in the wider world.  The Party expels her.  She is more and more a ‘wife’ to her new existence, but her guilt assails her;  she  has lived with and understands the Party’s call to revolutionary obligation yet she no longer loves.  She loves her independence, the less grubby, brighter, wealthier new house — not in material sense, but the house of the human spirit. [And indeed the world; she now lives in Paris.]  This book is the result, a story of her own struggle between obligation and love,  written in a ‘language that was no intellectual’s but rather the scalding hot lava of an indignant woman.”
And she sees clearly the larger social implications of this new love:
‘She saw “that the villagers had no moral conscience, that the crowd always submitted to the strongest.  When Bon had returned he had been the strong man, the heroic veteran.  His martyred, ghostly body had recalled an era of sacrifice for every family, for every man or woman who wanted to claim his or her share of pride and glory. But now Bon was devalued. The hero of the new era was Hoan.’
As it seems to be in Vietnam now. Only 5% of the population are Party members.  The new heroes are the business and commercial successes.  May Day is of less interest than  Louis Vuiton, Ermenegildo Zegna and Christian Dior.
Of the three Duong Thu Huong novels I’ve read, Paradise of the Blind, and Novel Without A Name, this one had the hardest time holding my attention. Very strong passages and inventive wonderful language are weighted by too much repetition, and frankly a position outside the characters.  It’s hard to believe, for example, that Mien never talks directly to Bon about their life and trouble together, or to Hoan about the agony of decision.  There is a child present throughout the novel.  We know Mien loves him but somehow he doesn’t enter into her decision of what she should do. Perhaps this is an accurate portrayal of people who believe fate is the most powerful thing in their lives.  All they can do is adjust to it, rather than deciding what it will be.  In any case it leaves me a bit ready to slap a few characters around and say, ‘do something!’
If you are heading for Vietnam, or anywhere in Southeast Asia, or simply interested in a land so different than our own don’t be put off by my lesser applause.  Reading No Man’s Land will bring you into other people’s lives, into impossible decisions that must be made and a clutch of questions about how they, and you, are governed by all the beliefs and pressures that act on our lives, shall we say it, like ghosts?
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