review by Gabriel
The North American perspective on the Vietnam War (called ‘The American War’ in Vietnam) has been thoroughly fictionalised in the novels of authors such as Tim O’Brien and excellent movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Novel Without a Name tells the story from the Vietnamese side, but the first thing that may strike readers is how similar the experiences of soldiers on both sides were – the brutalising effects of war, the horrors that were inflicted on enemy combatants and civilians, the arbitrariness of death, and the widespread affliction of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
A common theme of Western artists on Vietnam is the disillusionment of US soldiers with a war that had lost the support at home and had dubious idealogical motives. In the West, many now view the Vietnam war as folly. In Vietnam, it is a source of national pride, at least in the official accounts, in which a technologically superior invader was repelled by the Vietnamese people’s fighting spirit.
It may surprise readers, then, that the narrator of Novel With out a Name, Quan, suffers a similar disillusionment with the war to that felt by some American soldiers, albeit for different reasons.
The author, Duong Thu Huong, is a vocal critic of the Vietnamese Communist government and advocate for democratic reform. She has been expelled from the Communist Party and her books are no longer published in her native country. When she sent the manuscript for Novel Without a Name overseas for publication, she was imprisoned for seven months. But persecution seems only to have strengthened her resolve.
Novel Without a Name is a non-linear narrative, reflecting the fractured psyche of its protagonist, Quan, a twenty-eight year old platoon commander who is haunted by memories and hallucinations as he struggles with tramua and his identity.
When Quan left his village ten years prior with two of his childhood friends, Luong and Bien, thier heads full of Marxist ideals and visions of glory. Over the course of the war, the three take very different paths. Now, Luong, who has risen through the ranks to become an officer, tasks Quan with verifying reports that Bien has gone insane and is being confined until he can be sent to an infirmary.
Quan’s journey takes him across a country ravaged by war and eventually back to his home town. Every person he meets along the way causes him to reflect on how much he has lost and the shallowness of his motivations for joining the war.
Huong documents the suffering endured by the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians – the atrocities, deprivations and trauma, both physical and psychic. Throughout, the US and South Vietnamese soldiers are almost entirely absent until the end of the novel; Huong’s vitriol is saved for the Communist party.
When Quan returns to his village, his childhood sweatheart has been impregnated and then discarded by one of the local bureaucrats. While he is riding on a train back to the front lines, he overhears a conversation between two high ranking officials who openly admit their contempt for the people and their manipulation of public opinion.
Despite these encounters, the idea of desertion never even enters his head. He carries out his orders and charges into fresh campaigns, losing himself to blood lust but feeling each death of the young soldiers serving under him until the unexpected end of the war.
He is simultaneously capable of great cruelty and nobility, relishing the fear of a South Vietnam soldier under interrogation, then sparing an American journalist against the wishes of his men. Throughout, his humanity is paramount, and this is the source of Huong’s strength as a writer. Each of her characters are distinct, fully realised and believable.
Novel Without a Name definitely has its flaws. Major plot points appear without sufficient build up, and and are resolved just as suddenly.
There’s a lot of purple prose, but it’s difficult to tell who to blame in translated novels: the translator or the author. And if it is a faithful translation, then I often wonder if the offending phrases would come across badly in the original language.
The often extravagant descriptions also make Quan a somewhat unconvincing narrator; for a relatively uneducated villager who has only known war for most of his adult life, he’s capable of some pretty flowery language.
Nevertheless, while Novel Without a Name is not the best war novel I have ever read, it is both good and readable. But perhaps its greatest value to Western readers is that it provides an important and literary perspective on the side of the Vietnam/American War that we don’t usually see, while for Vietnamese readers, the human cost of the war seems to be a good argument against indulging in mindless nationalism.