“The future lied to us” is a major point of Bao Ninh’s 1991 autobiographical novel The Sorrow of War, in which the present is the late-1970s with a survivor helping find MIA remains in the Jungle of Screaming Souls. Set in early 1975, Novel Without a Name (Tiu thuyt vô dê), a novel written about the same time by Duong Thu Thuong (author of what is suppposed to be the first novel to be translated into English, Paradise of the Blind, which is set in 1980s), but not published until 1995 has the same theme. Written by another North Vietnamese veteran with extended combat experience (seven years based in the tunnels of South Vietnam), Novel Without a Name is more explicitly critical of the regime for which the author and the narrator of the book fought.
Repelling foreign invaders more than any ideology inspired Quan and his buddies to volunteer ten years earlier (that is, in 1965, when American marines and soldiers began to be deployed) “As long as a foreign invader remains on our soil, we’ll fight,” the young Quan told a commissar. “That’s the way it was for the Ran Dynasty against the Mongols and the Le Dynasty against the Ming Chinese invaders.” The 18-year-old soldier believed that “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” (that is, tears of family members, though Quan’s mother was ten years dead and his father remote and a cipher to Quan). The commissar to whom Quan recalled long-ago Vietnamese struggles, told Quan that patriotism was good, but that there was more: “We’re doing something greater. Our victory won’t be just that of a tiny country against the imperialists. It will also be Marxism’s victory. Only Marxism can help us to build communism—a paradise for mankind.”
There is very little concern with ideology or the regime in The Sorrow of War. Its protagonist, Kien, is overwhelmed by the carnage. I don’t think that his rank is ever specified, but I infer he was a lieutenant (the counterpart of Philip Caputo in A Rumor of War, who was also deployed in 1965). Quan is a captain with even more responsibility to try to keep the doi bo (soldiers of the people) alive and able to go into battle.
It is clear that if Kien took political indoctrination more seriously, he would rise in rank, as his boyhood friend Luong has. It is just as clear that Kien does not believe a socialist paradise is going to result. There are three major scenes in which others point out the inequality between the emaciated masses and the well-fed party cadres: the first, the father of the third member of the youthful three buddies, then some party officials (so brazen as to be hard for me to believe) who have a seat on a packed train car cleared for them, and just before the end, Kha, a soldier under Quan’s command. Those ruling in the name of the people are not “of the people,” but are the “new class” that characterized communist regimes everywhere (the label and first sustained analysis of class not based on ownership of the means of production was Serbian Milovan Djilas’s 1955 book The New Class).
Quan has little use for the political lectures, but still has some idealism and the ability to speak of saving captured goods for “the people.”
“Kha just laughed. ‘Ah, but do “the people” really exist?…. The people,’ that’s my mother and father, your parents, the soldiers. none of them will ever get a crumb.'”
Like The Sorrow of War, Novel Without a Name includes a prewar romance that is a casualty of the war, childhood sweethearts torn apart by the man’s enlistment and awful experiences of the woman left behind. (The broken romances figuring prominently in these two Vietnamese novels is a difference from the American novels and memoirs of fighting in Vietnam. The Americans on 13-month deployments were much farther from home than the North Vietnamese with ten-year deployments, but, I think more importantly, the Americans’sweethearts at home did not undergo bombing and the destruction of infrastructure or have similar problems in avoiding starvation.)
“They would never leave us, those faces, ashen, drained of blood, twisted in pain, accusatory, demanding justice—”
The war in The Sorrow of War is as hallucinatory as in the books by Larry Heinemann, Michael Herr, Tim O’Brien, Nicholas Proffitt, et al. The war is not quite as hallucinatory for Kien in Novel Without a Name—at least when he is not suffering a malaria attack or lost in the forest. It is still plenty surrealistic… and haunted. Belief in ghosts has more social support and general credence in Southeast Asian (and East Asian) cultures than in American culture, though it seems to me that the ghosts Paco talks to in Heinemann’s Paco’s Story are every bit as palpable as the ancestor who comes to chastise Kien (in a dream while he is feverish from malaria) for cursing his ancestors. I do not see ghost-haunting as differentiating the Vietnamese war novels from the American ones.
Not only does Novel Without a Name turn the conventional Bildungsroman into a tale of disillusionment, like such American works as Rob Riggan’s Free Fire Zone and Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green, but it also uses a disjointed time sequence, reminiscent of works like Nicholas Proffitt’s Gardens of Stone, to try to convey the war’s disorienting, surreal effect.
Flashbacks (involuntary memories) are rife in American literature about the war in Vietnam and in the two novels about prolonged engagement in the “American war” by Vietnamese veterans I have now read. The flashbacks are set off in italics in Novel Without a Name, making it easier on readers than those in The Sorrow of War.
The horrors and sorrows of the war for the victors, even apart from the failure of the socialist utopia that was to follow, are considerable, as both these books make very, very clear. What is euphemized as “friendly fire” recurs in Novel Without a Name. Twice, Quan’s soldiers fire on their own reinforcements. Plus the book opens with mistaking one of the company’s members and shooting him, and, near the end, one infuriates another into a lethal attack. Also twice, the soldiers want to kill prisoners (the Vietnamese ones are killed, Quan is able to protect an American who is probably a journalist and probably unaware how close he came to being executed).
Conclusion: My expectations of Novel Without a Name were higher than those I had for The Sorrow of War, in part from reading somewhere that it was better. It is easier to follow, less hallucinatory than The Sorrow of War (or Paco’s Story) and might provide a better point of entry for readers put off by not knowing where in narrative chronology they are at every point. Although there are some haunting secondary characters in Novel Without a Name, there are some who seem contrived to me (particularly the party officials on the train). Both translations have occasionally leaden metaphors (which might work in Vietnamese, but even if so, should not have been Englished).
Along with portraying the horrors of prolonged immersion in the jungle filled with menace 24/7 (and not just enemy patrols and bombs…), Novel Without a Name provides a portrayal of those running the war from a distance and war profiteers (insofar as these aren’t the same people…) that is as sharp as a bamboo stake, and was unpalatable to the regime of the victors a decade and a half later.
Not only has the book been blocked from publication, Thuong Thu Duong (born in 1947 in rural Thai Binh province in the plains, the capital of which is 109 kilometers southeast of Hanoi) was imprisoned (without trial) for 7-8 months in 1991 for “revealing state secrets” in the manuscript for this novel that has only been published outside Vietnam.
I have held off mentioning that Thuong Thu Duong is a woman. There are women soldiers in The Sorrow of War, but none in Novel Without a Name, which seems to me written from a male perspective that I find plausible. I think that many would be interested in reading what it was like for a young Vietnamese soldier during the 1960s.
Duong was 21 when she led a Communist Youth Brigade to the tunnels and was one of only three survivors of the forty after seven years of combat. She was also a front-line soldier in the 1979 China-Vietnam war. Her first four novels, Journey in Childhood, Beyond Illusion, Paradise of the Blind, and The Lost Life were published in Vietnam between 1985 and 1989 and were best-sellers. In 1989 she was expelled from the communist party and her passport was revoked. Since then, none of her books has been published in Vietnam, she was fired from her screenwriting job, and she was imprisoned without trial for seven months, Eventually, she was allowed to leave and moved to Paris in 2006.
(Duong in 1914, Creative Commons photo by Ertezou)
I was struck by the contrast of Quan, the North Vietnamese captain who was with the soldiers he commanded with the American captain sleeping in comfort and safety far behind the lines each night in Caputo’s memoir. Quan does his best to protect his men from nonsense (political and other kinds) dreamed up higher in the chain of command, whereas Caputo’s captain has the detachment from reality of the managerial military modeling of Robert MacNamara (or Donald Rumsfeld).
©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray