Tag Archives: Vietnam war

A graphic memoir of a complex family in Vietnam and America

The front cover bills Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (2017) as an “Illustrated memoir.” Inside the jacket cover it is billed as a “graphic novel.” It is nonfiction, not a novel, and “illustrated” suggests a higher text:picture ratio than the book has. So, why not “graphic memoir”? There is still a bit of a problem with this description in that the book is based on the memories of the author’s parents as well as her own, not least in the escape from Vietnam parts.

Even the cover illustration with her parents and the three children who lived to emigrate from Vietnam is a simplification. The family history is very complicated in terms of class and political alignments, with ancestors (grandparents) in the Viet Minh as well as among those who fled from north to south when the country was partitioned at the 17th parallel in 1954. Her parents overshot Saigon and became teachers in the far south of South Vietnam.

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Thi Bui was born in Saigon in 1975, the year the communists overran what had been South Vietnam. Her mother was 30 and would be very (8 months) pregnant when they fled by boat, giving birth to the boy Tam in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Typical of the unnecessarily jangled structuring of the book (which begins with the author giving birth to her own son in New York in 2005), the order of birth (including of children who died as infants) is 1978, 1974, 1975, 1968, 1966, 1965.

The book frequently skips around in time and place. I have to say that a chronological ordering would have been more reader-friendly. I also have to say that I find the colors (a reddish sepia augmenting black and white and the background for land, sky, and water) wearying.

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(jacket photo of Thi Bui)

Still the stories of life in Vietnam and in America (initially, in 1978, crowded into a two-bedroom house in Hammond, Indiana with Thi’s mother’s sister and her husband and their five children, then in the warmer climate of California) are clear with more drama than anyone would want, but also some mordant humor. The book ends with hopes that her son (with her Caucasian husband, Travis) will live without the traumas of war and loss.

I’m not sure whether the reason I prefer Vietnamerica is that I read it first or because I’m man. Both books show and tell stories of complicated family histories, terrifying escapes, and difficult adjustments of Vietnamese refugees getting to the US

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Thanks to Fred Gleach for calling my attention to this new hardback book (from esteemed artbook publisher, Abrams).

Another gripping and moving nonfiction tale by Andrew X. Pham—His father’s

I was not the only reader who was very impressed by Andrew Pham’s combination memoir of fleeing Vietnam as a child and returning and bicycling across it as a young adult: Catfish and Mandala won the 1999 Kiriyama Book Prize.

Pham’s Eaves of Heaven (nominated for a National Book Award) is a memoir in his father’s voice as written in English by his son. Thong Van Pham, lived in way too interesting times (to borrow from the Chinese curse): he was a child during the Japanese occupation, the son of rural gentry in northern Vietnam during the war for independence from French colonialism, drafted and later recalled to the South Vietnamese (ARVN) military.

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Readers of memoirs by Americans (A Rumor of War) and North Vietnamese (Sorrow of War) who fought in the third of the elder Pham’s three wars have expressed considerable contempt for the skills and valor of ARVN troops. The senior Pham recalls great frustration at the corruption and failures of will and imagination of commanders (not least one who left his unit to be slaughtered), but also valor of some frontline ARVN soldiers (also see Perfume Dreams).

I wonder if his analysis of communist domination of the Viet-Minh fighting the French in the 1950s was as clear then as in retrospects, though I incline to believe that the US abandoning the government it had put in place (violating the Geneva Accords for a nationwide election, then greenlighting the coup against the Diems, greenlighting excluding Gen. Minh from the last RVN presidential election) was unthinkable to those who had fought on the American side of Pham’s third war.

The book ends after a stint in “re-education” prison before the Phams became boat people fleeing Vietnam (horrors covered in Catfish). Life in rural northern Vietnam during Japanese and French occupation and during the war of Independence, life in Hanoi before the French left, life in Saigon and in the ARVN, and in “re-education” prison are all vividly portrayed. The cutting back and forth seems distracting to me, though time and place for each chapter are specified. I would have preferred a chronological structure. Would the reader fail to notice the recurrence of brutalities, of fleeing and rebuilding, if the chronology was straightforward? I don’t think so.

The action scenes, notably a fight that an Algerian legionnaire forces a peasant into and the Vietcong attack on the paramilitary force Pham commands, are very vivid, as is the bitter taste of communist purges of nationalists within the anticolonial struggle of the early 1950s.

The book is not at all a rant. There are comic incidents, love stories, vivid characters, as well as the horrors of torture and battle. Pham recalls his mother (who died in childbirth at the age of 31) telling him that “the eaves of heaven had a way of turning in cycles, of dealing both blows and recompenses.” The balance seems to me uneven; to amend Wright Morris slightly: real losses and temporarily imagined gains.

©2009, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

[In addition to collaborating on this book, the Phams collaborated on translating Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram.]

Out of Vietnam, Carrying Vietnam to America

Andrew Lam‘s “Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” primarily his own family’s, contains memoirs and reportage published between 1990 and 2005. Some of these (especially “Notes of a Warrior’s Son” and “The Stories They Carried”) are outstanding. Others are slight; “Two Passports,” is particularly disappointing, ending the collection with wistful whimpers rather than a bang.

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Perfume Dreams is unsatisfactory as a book, because the basic lineaments of the author’s story—growing up in the South Vietnamese elite, the son of a lieutenant general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, being evacuated with his family two days before the fall of Saigon (when he was eleven years of age, facing the loss of status in America, struggling with the English language and American culture, the father arriving a bit later, being deeply depressed, then rallying, earning an MBA and lifting the family to suburban affluence—are repeated and repeated and repeated.

The pieces reflecting on those experiences show that Lam could write a compelling memoir of the status roller coaster of his life and his relationships with Vietnamese in Vietnam and in the US. But he hasn’t.

Some of the pieces are primarily about experiences of others, most notably “The Stories They Carried,” which is a report from a Hong Kong refugee camp for Vietnamese “boat people,” most of whom were being sent back as “economic refugees” rather than political refugees. Lam’s own feelings as a privileged American citizen (exacerbating his survivor guilt) are very much a part of the piece, though it is primarily about the stories of suffering of those who fled Vietnam later than he did being ignored, disbelieved, and disrespected. “Viet Kieu” (Vietnamese-American visitors to Vietnam) is another very impressive piece that is primarily about others, but with the compassion of someone very well aware of his luck.

Although very impressionistic and open to suspicions about bias, Lam’s contentions about the fading of Vietnamese identity in Vietnam are interesting hypotheses.

I also have to grant that Lam produces some good hooks for his essays, for instance, this from “The Dead Travel”:

“‘Til death do us part,’ that age-old marriage vow, has to Confucian ears always sounded a little, well, noncommittal, In Vietnam, death is not the end of relationships, it only deepens them.”

(What follows provides insight into how ancestor worship works, although its primary focus is Lam’s maternal grandmother’s relationship to her dead husband, whose grave she tended and which she was very reluctant to leave to flee to America in 1975.)

As a book, Perfume Dreams is inferior to Catfish and Mandala (in which memoir is integrated into an account of a Vietnamese-American traveling through Vietnam), or Pascal Thwe’s From the Land of the Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, or the pair of memoirs by (Cambodian-American) Loung Ung: First They Killed My Father (about surviving in Cambodia, the daughter of a high-ranking officer) and Lucky Child (about humiliations in America, success in America, visiting family back in Cambodia).

The reflections on what it means to be a general in a war that ended in defeat and exile are insightful—and quite pertinent here and now. Lam expresses dismay that American representations of the war in Vietnam do not show any bravery or honor in the ARVN and its officers, showing a war between American troops and Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.

Actually, the ARVN is not so invisible in American representations. Rather, its officers are portrayed as brutal (killing prisoners), corrupt (profiteering), and unwilling to fight (throwing away weapons and fleeing under any fire, like the Kuomintang army during the late 1940s). Decrying invisibility rather than hostility, Lam does not comment on the negative portrayal.

And this reader is not willing to take on faith that Lam’s father’s hands were clean. I don’t mean killing people, which is what soldiers do. The sentence that caught my attention was the recollection of his father calling in napalm. Lam’s relationship with his father seems too fragile to have candid discussion about war crimes—or whether his father was complicit in torture as well as involved (ordering) the use of napalm on his countrymen.

I would still rate “Notes of a Warrior’s Son” a five-star essay. My rating of the book is lower for its failure to attempt to integrate the slivers of journalism into a memoir, the repetition, and the thinness of some chapters.

(The book comes with blurbs by Robert Olen Butler and Maxine Hong Kingston and a quite useful foreward by Richard Rodriguez. Lam is a journalist, an editor with the Pacific News Service, who, like Rodriguez, frequently comments on “All Things Considered” on NPR.”)

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(Lam at San Francisco Public Library with another, better book)

 

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A Beautifully Wrought Memoir of Traumatizing Losses and Dislocations

The Betrayal: Nerakhoon” (2008) began with Laotian refugee Thavisouk (“Thavi”) Phrasavath tutoring anthropologist Ellen Kuras in Lao during the mid-1980s. She videotaped him and his family some then and later shot some more interviews with him. He got involved in editing footage of an interview of his mother.

Kuras felt that the movie needed footage of Laos. Since the US government is still attempting to deny it fought a war in Laos (dropping more bombs there than the total tonnage the US dropped during two world wars), film shot from the Nixon era, when Thavi’s father worked with the US military remains classified.

In the 21st century Thavi was able to revisit his birthplace and track down the two sisters who were left behind. (They were at her mother’s when the human-smugglers came and said “We’re leaving now.” Thavi had swum across the Mekong earlier. His father was taken away for “re-education.) There is some poetic footage of rural Laos both in the movie and in a DVD bonus short, and footage of very emotional reunions of Thavi and his sisters (one was 18, one three when he left, and the younger one was adopted and take far north within Laos).

Thavi recalls someone in his hometown asking where he’s from and not believing “I was born and grew up here,” though, unfortunately, that was not filmed.

Most of the documentary (which was nominated for an Oscar) was shot in the US. The denial of the war in Laos continues to justify any benefits for the Laotians who were left behind when the US pulled out (any similarity to Hmong who fought with the Americans is completely not coincidental).

The wife of the Royal Laotian colonel/liaison to the USAF and the eight children who made it to Thailand were eventually granted asylum in the US, taken from the refugee camp in Thailand, and dumped in a crack house in Brooklyn. Not an easy adjustment in their second relocation, with physical safety much less than in the refugee camp.

As the eldest, Thavi had to try to father his younger siblings in an unfamiliar and dangerous environment. And Thavi resented having to father a brood he did not create, etc. There’s a very major surprise that I don’t want to reveal. It is perhaps surprising that there is only one funeral in the movie’s story, but it was filmed very revealingly, both for showing the cultural tradition and the family dynamics.
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Though not obtrusive, I realize that the editing by Thavi is really, really good. He may not have known what a jump-cut is, but without any technical training, he brought out dramas in what Kuras shot. Howard Shore provided music with some gentle chanting and poignant string-playing that enhanced the images and very candid interview footage.

The betrayal of the title is the US government’s betrayal of the Laotian officers who worked with(/for) it, but there is at least one other major, heartbreaking one shown. (And, perhaps, Col. Phrasavath’s targeting US bombs onto the part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos [there is no question that Laos’s neutrality was massively violated by North Vietnam troops and supplies moving along it]).

The disappointment in the liberators (American, then Pathet Lao), the anguish of trying to get by in Thailand and less-than-welcoming America is somewhat familiar to me from the poignant autobiographical novels by T. C. Huo, Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles; and the difficulty of holding a large Southeast Asian family together in an American slum from Andrew X. Pham’s luminous memoirs Catfish and Mandela and The Eaves of Heaven; Uyen Nicole Huong’s trilogy Daughters of the River Huong, Mimi and Her Mirror, and Postcards from Nam; GB Tran’s graphic novel Vietnamerica; and Andrew Lam’s memoir Perfume Dreams and  collection of stories Birds of Paradise Lost. Perhaps such background, and other refugee stories such as “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” made it easier for me to understand “Betrayal,” though what Thavi and his mother felt at various times over the 23 years of the movie’s gestation is probably clear enough. The DVD includes some newsreel footage on the US air war, a trailer, a stills gallery, and a commentary track.

©2010,2017 Stephen O. Murray

 

A sort of Vietnamese Gone with the Wind

Many times while I was reading Houston attorney/novelist Uyen Nicole Huong’s Daughters of the River Huong, I felt like I was reading a (much) shorter and more multi-generational Gone with the Wind. There are tough (however feminine-looking) female survivors in the forefront. Though there is no analog to Rhett Butler, there is an Ashley Wilkes or too, conscientious but defeated. The first is the Nguyen prince who will become king Thuan Thanh. In the years around 1900 the kingdom of Annam with its capital in Hue is a French puppet in what is officially a protectorate but for all practical purposes is a colony. He plucks a boat-paddler from the River Huong (often called the “Perfume River” in English). She is not only a commoner, but is of Cham descent (the Kingdom of Champa ceased to exist in 1692). The “paddle girl” is remade into the Mystique Combine. If she were to bear a son who became crown prince, she could have been designated queen, but what everyone assumed was this son turned out to be female twins, Princess Cinnamon and Princess Ginseng.

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The French Resident Superieur, Sylvain Foucault, finds Thuan Thanh both to expensive to maintain and insufficiently pliable, forces him to abdicate and ships him off to exile off the African coast on the island of Reunion. The Mystique Concubine takes the insignia of a queen mother and sets up a silk farm to provide for her daughters, the elderly eunuch who has protected her in court, and the servant who has taught her to read.

The Japanese occupation is largely passed over. Ginseng and a younger brother join the Viet Minh and wars against the re-establishment of French colonialism after World War II, captured, tortured and driven mad by the French.

Cinnamon’s grand-daughter Simone is forced by her parents to leave her grandmother’s palatial villa in Hue for a Saigon apartment. The ten-year-old Simone will get her parents and siblings out of Saigon before it falls to the communists (her grandmother refusing to leave) by marrying an American journalist 15 years her senior, Christopher Sanders (the closest to a Rhett Butler rescuer character in the novel, though far more diffident and who does not fathering a child with Simone).

Simone remains in love with André Foucault, the grandson of the French official who forced her great-grandfather off the throne and otherwise outraged the Mystique Concubine. Though André seeks forgiveness for his grandfather’s deeds (and attitudes), he is weaker than Ashley Wilkes, and succumbs to the seductive underage Simone, generating an immense load of guilt.

Simone borders on being a sexual predator on older men. There is no question that she is the one exercising agency, saving her family via Christopher and wrecking André’s marriage.

Simone eventually returns to Vietnam as a privileged American corporate lawyer and finds out what happened to her beloved grandmother (Cinnamon) and the great aunt she barely knew (Ginseng). She visits places she lived, and may yet rebuild her own Tara (her great-grandmother’s silk farm).

The sex in Uyen Duong’s novel is not much more graphic than that in Margaret Mitchell’s though notably more pederastic (with young women manipulating adult males, Vietnamese, French, and American). There is some remarkably bad writing in both novels, and multiple strong-willed women not merely surviving but prospering in Duong’s. Sometimes I was caught up in the narrative of catastrophes (geopolitical turmoil as it affected the matrilineal line (Cham inheritance, historically, was matrilineal, btw), sometimes I cringed at what these women did and at what happened to some of them.

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I guess that, like GWTW, DRH is “chick lit,” though readers of English who are more interested in Vietnamese experience of colonialism (French), neocolonialism (American and Soviet), and civil wars from the perspective of defeated southerners (mostly those who escaped, but eventually there is material on those who were not able to get out) than in materially advantageous interethnic and interracial sexual relationships may also appreciate the book. The love story strikes me as a structural reversal of the diffident and pederastic sexual liaison in Saigon-born Marguerite Duras’s thrice-told tale of an interracial sexual relationship in the French colony of Vietnam (The Sea Wall, The Lover, The North-China Lover).

I’d have preferred the book to have started with the paddle girl rather than the successful attorney, and I guess that my suspension of disbelief as less willful for the parts set longest ago and in the present. I’m not sure I wanted more about the Simone’s parents, though I noticed that there was much less about that generation than about the preceding two and the present(-tense) one.

I am very grateful for the aid of genealogy and dramatis personae listings at the start of the book.

BTW Uyen Duong was 16 when airlifted out of Saigon in 1965 and has emphasized that she is not Simone, though she has experienced the cultural dislocations (and the American legal profession. The next volume of her trilogy, Mimi and Her Mirror, centers on Simone’s younger (by four years) sister Mimi, who also became an attorney in the US.

©2011,2017

Unless you’re allergic to graphic novels, I recommend Vietnamerica

I liked the somewhat sardonic voice of the rather nebbish-looking narrator of Vietnamerica, GB Tran, who gave up on teachers and fellow students in South Carolina pronouncing Gia-Bao in a way not painful to his ear. GB was American-born, that is, “second generation” Vietnamese-American, without even childhood memories of Vietnam and wars there.

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The graphic memoir he wrote and drew shows him struggling to learn about (never mind understand!) a very complicated history. Unremitting war against foreign armies (Japanese, French, American) and emigration by GB’s parents and older siblings made the Vietnamese life related in flashbacks difficult. The flashback-filled narrative is further complicated by the multiple marriages up the family tree (family trees are shown branching downward on the page) and by a lot of moves within Vietnam, as well as emigrations to France before the unification of Vietnam.under repressive communists.

One of GB’s grandfathers, Do Ty, was a an army physician for the Viet Minh, GB’s father was a teacher in South Vietnam, GB’s father’s younger brother, Vinh, was drafted into the South Vietnamese army, etc.

The characters have varying views in the present about the wars and the regime that followed. The ones who got out, including GB’s parents maintain some nostalgia for a world that no longer exists, some post-traumatic stress disorder from the dangers of the 1960s and 70s in Vietnam. GB portrays himself as having been just fine with his parents’ reticence about telling him about what they and other family members experienced in Vietnam before or after the 1975 fall of Saigon.

The family tree on page 62 is helpful for reminding the reader of who’s who—or some of who’s who in that there are a few important characters not on the family tree.

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The drawings are engaging. The number of cells per page ranges from .5 (something extending to the facing page) to 12. My guess is that the mode is 7.

I have read a number of books written by generation 1.5, that is by writers mostly or entirely educated in the US who were born in Southeast Asia and fled as children, mostly with their parents. The parents seem to their children to be inscrutable — or at least very unwilling to talk about their past in any detail — and the narrators struggle to find out what happened and what the survivors felt. (For a female-centered graphic memoir see Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do.)

There is less about growing up markedly different in America in Tran’s book than in some others written by members of the 1.5 generation. Though ego-centered, his book is about his parents’ and grandparents’ generation rather than what he experienced or remembers. What they experienced was very dramatic, and more fraught with danger than growing up in South Carolina was. Perhaps a memoir of what Tran remembers rather than elicits lies ahead. I hope so, though appreciating the need to find out where he came from in sociohistorical terms, not just geographical ones (though a map would have been almost as useful as the family tree is!)

(It’s odd that there are not (or none that I know of) memoirs by the first generation in that many of those who got out in 1975 were fluent in English. Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh (South Wind Changing) is close, having being 18 in 1975 and emigrating after “re-education”) by the communists).

©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A Vietnamese perspective on the war with American invaders

“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.

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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.'”

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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.)

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“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.

The author

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.

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(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