Death was a whore; she always chose the fragile ones. – Novel Without a Name
Vietnam. It's a word I grew up with. There was a war there. For some reason it was an unpopular war. That's about as much as I knew about the place when I was a kid. I suppose if Britain had been sending troops over there that might have been different. I do remember thinking that it was a bit soon after the Second World War to have another war but I supposed the grownups knew what they were doing.
As I grew up film and TV programmes started appearing revolving around the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong were the bad guys. They didn't wear black hats but everyone knew they were the bad guys. Their speciality was psychological warfare, sneaking into camps and cutting up tents while the soldiers were sleeping, that sort of stuff. At least that's what I was led to believe but I've not been able to find much to substantiate that position and the Wikipedia articles on the Viet Cong's battle tactics seems quite thorough.
Suffice to say in the movies and TV programmes all they were there for was to be shot in exactly the same way as the Nazis were in World War II. It must be a war thing, depersonalise the enemy, strip him of his life, his family and his beliefs and reduce him to a mindless, faceless killing machine. I imagine many people thought that about the North Vietnamese in the sixties and seventies. I bet most people didn't even know why they were all called 'Charlie' ('Charlie' was short for the phonetic representation 'Victor Charlie' for 'VC', Viet Cong.)
I'm just thinking about all the films I've seen about the Vietnam War: Apocalypse Now; Platoon; The Deer Hunter; Good Morning, Vietnam; Hamburger Hill; Forrest Gump even and I still really have no clear idea what it was all about. I expect it was a war over an ideology; the Russians and the Americans couldn't risk going head to head themselves so they played war in a little far eastern country no one knew much about or cared much about. Perhaps I'm being cynical. Perhaps not. In an interview with Robert Stone in New York Public Library on April 30, 2006 Hương was surprisingly blunt:
I consider that, though, the war that most people have been heralding, the war against the Americans, is in fact the most stupid war in our history. And it created a war where brothers became enemies and Vietnamese became a Kotex in between the two forces of two trains colliding. Our people are a tampon of a race.
I became aware of Novel Without a Name when it was first published in the UK in 1995. The title intrigued me – it is a great title – but the cover put me off; I've never been into war books. And so it passed me by. If I'd even read the blurb on the back I might have reconsidered because it's not just another book about Vietnam, it's a book written by one of those 'Charlies' on the other side, actually a 'Charlotte' if we're going to be accurate:
Dương Thu Hương [pronounced zung tu hung] was twenty-one when she led a Communist Youth Brigade to the most heavily bombarded front of Vietnam's 'War Against the Americans'. She spent the next seven years there, living in tunnels and underground shelters alongside the North Vietnamese troops. Of her volunteer group of forty, she was one of three survivors. – from the front page of the Picador edition
Now that did pique my interest. I had no idea there were women on the front lines. She was actually a theatrical performer whose job it was to boost the soldiers' morale.
As it happens though the hero of Hương's book is a male, Quan, a company commander. Hương's approach to her novel is an interesting one because the first thing she does with her hero is take him away from the battlefront. When, in 1965 (which is when American marines and soldiers began to be deployed), Quan joined up he was accompanied by two childhood friends, Luong and Bien. When they marched away together all they could think about was honour and glory but now, ten years on, we find three quite different characters: Luong has moved up the ranks and is now Quan's commander – he has become the complete embodiment of the Communist soldier; Quan is tired, sick and disillusioned, however, he is a loyal soldier and a fair chief who is well-liked and respected by his men; Bien it seems has gone mad.
At the start of the book Luong summons Quan and reassigns him:
"I want you to go find out what's happening with Bien. I've written a letter to Nguyen Van Hao, the division commander, and another to Doan Trong Liet, the political officer. You'll see what the story is when you get there. Do whatever you think is necessary. After you've settled this, use the opportunity to take some leave."
On the surface this sounds like Luong is doing Quan a great favour but reading in-between the lines I'm not entirely convinced his motives are all that pure. Quan presses Luong:
"The war . . . It's going to be a long time, isn't it?"
Luong didn't answer. I pleaded with him: "It's just you and me. Tell me."
Luong stood without moving or speaking for a few minutes. Then he turned and walked away. I followed him, and we plunged into the forest. The air smelled of rotting leaves, and it grew more and more humid. The night engulfed us, broken only by the sudden, aimless cries of birds. I still wanted to call out to him, to put my arm around his shoulder. But I held back. Time had slipped between us; we were no longer little boys, naked and equal.
Quan is the narrator of the book but in addition to his recording what happens to him over the next few weeks we also get to hear his recollections of his childhood as well as a few disturbing dreams when he can grab a few minutes sleep. This is not so much a book about war, it is a book about people who happen to be at war and who have been at war far longer than they ever expected.
As he travels he thinks. And for much of that time he thinks about food. Food is a major issue mainly because there is very little of it to go around. In addition to fighting a war the soldiers also have to scavenge for food in the jungle or hunt wild animals. Orangutan has recently become a favourite of the men:
The memory of the boiling-hot soup we had eaten at the foot of Mount Carambola came back to me. The soldiers had squatted down in a circle, banging their spoons against their mess tins, their eyes riveted on the steaming pot. Every now and then the cook stirred the clear broth with its floating grains of puffy cooked rice . . . and tiny orangutan paws . . . like the hands of babies.
Everyone had congratulated one another. I just stared at the tiny hands spinning in circles on the surface of the soup. We had descended from the apes. The horror of it.
Quan's is not an easy journey. At one point he gets lost in, what he learns later has been called by another troop of soldiers, The Valley of the Seven Innocents, an ocean of green colocassias and khop trees where he nearly dies of starvation. The term 'khop' is not explained in the book. It turns out it refers to broad-leaf tropical forests but a few footnotes would have been helpful here and there not simply to explain the different kinds of vegetation that are mentioned but also some of the titles. Many times Quan is referred to as bo doi by the civilians he meets but it's never explained. Bo means 'foot' and doi means 'unit' or 'group' so the western equivalent would most likely be 'foot soldier' and yet when the term is used it feels like there is a respectful tone, a similar kind of tone to the one you would use when talking to or about a sensei master. By the way he is treated being a soldier – any kind of soldier – is something deserving of respect.
This is where the book got interesting for me. We get to know the Vietnamese people, the ordinary folk in the villages, the ordinary men who have volunteered to fight for what they're told to believe in. Marxism might have been the official driving force but there is another side to these people. The word 'comrade' is used but not nearly as often as 'uncle' or 'elder brother' where there is no immediate familial connection. The Vietnamese in this book come across as one big – and despite their hardships – happy family.
Late in the book, as he is making his way back to the front, Quan stops a supply convoy looking for a lift. The driver in the lead truck nearly knocks him down in fact:
"Are you crazy?"
The driver jumped out of the truck. "We don't have any brakes left! Just a bit farther and you would have gone to hell and sent me to a court-martial!"
I laughed awkwardly.
"Sorry, elder brother, you understand . . ."
He grumbled. "Come on, get in."
I said nothing and climbed into the truck. After a moment he turned toward me and asked, "What’s your name?"
"My name is Vu. Twenty-five years old. Hung Khoi village. And you? You must be about thirty?"
"Only twenty-eight. The white hair, that's from the sorrow of life. Dong Tien village."
"Ha, ha – your district is right next to mine. We're from the same province. So, shall we swear to eternal brotherhood in the peach garden? Our little club already has about twenty-three members, and that's just in my division. You want to sign up?"
You see what I mean? Quan doesn't refer to Vu by rank or the title 'Comrade', no, but rather, in a gesture designed to pour oil on troubled waters he calls him "elder brother" and you see within minutes Vu wants to reinforce than bond of kinship. Rulers come and rulers go but the people stay essentially the same.
As I said, after some difficulties Quan finds his way to the camp where Bien is being held. His madness is nothing new. For six years now the man has been locked in a small cell surrounded by piles of his own excrement. He's not crazy – Quan recognises that immediately – but he doesn't let on and returns later on his own, instructs him to follow him down to the river where Bien cleans himself up and they discuss his options. Quan is willing to arrange for him to be discharged "on grounds of psychological instability" which would enable Bien to return home and settle down but he refuses:
I fell silent. I understood. A cock will fight to death over a single crowing. We had both been mobilised the same day. Luong was already a commander, a staff officer. Despite my impossible temperament, I had been a captain for three years now. Bien was still a sergeant. Now, with a mental illness on top of it all, he didn't have a prayer of leaving the front and returning to the village with any honour. The rumours would be awful. No doubt, somewhere in his young peasant's heart he still dreamed of glory. He couldn't let go of the struggle. Bien would rather hide in some godforsaken hole, in this immense battlefield until V-day – until he could march with the rest of us under the triumphal arch.
Since he can't discharge Bien Quan arranges for him to be "sent to Huc's unit, M.0335. They're in charge of special missions." At the time he's unaware about what so special about their missions but later on he finds himself there; sees Bien settled in, happy and active and finds out just what they've been tasked with, the construction of coffins which the Huc's men actually sleep in at night for protection from the wind and the fog. A macabre image if even I heard about one. Quan is provided his own coffin for the duration of his visit.
When Quan arrives in his home village we get to see the effect of the war on a section of the general populace. His father, once a soldier himself in the war against the French, has grown old and feeble; his life has completely lost direction. Quan arrives home to find him eating in the dark:
He turned toward me and was silent for a moment before he spoke: "Is that you, Quan? You're back."
"Yes, I just got here." My voice seemed to echo through the house. "Why don't you have a light on?"
"What for? A few silkworm grubs and soup? It's not worth attracting the mosquitoes."
To top this off he discovers that his younger brother, a brilliant scholar who had been coerced into enlisting by their father, has been killed in action and his girlfriend, Hoa, who had promised to wait for him, on hearing nothing for years, had finally joined up herself. It transpires that she has now become pregnant and has been discharged from the forces but because she refused to divulge the name of the father she has been disowned by her parents and is now living alone in a shack on the outskirts of the town. War is part of everyday life. No one's life has failed to be touched by it.
Reading through this book several times I was reminded of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular when Quan overhears two party officials having an unguarded conversation about how their own love for the Marxist revolution is beginning to fade. The line that jumped out at me is something "the short one" says:
"Words are like everything else in life: They're born, they live, they age, they die."
All of a sudden we hear:
"Attention!" … A military officer wearing a red armband stood in front of the two men. He spoke carefully, weighing each of his words: "We have a report that you just insulted Karl Marx, our venerable leader, that you slandered our socialist government."
The men are outraged and "the little fat man" hands the officer a diplomatic passport:
"It's we who are in charge of introducing Marxist thought to Vietnam. We are the ones who teach the people – to which you belong – just what Marxist ideology is all about. When it comes to defending Marxist thought, that's our business, not yours. Is that clear?"
This so reminded me of O'Brien's conversations with Winston Smith. O'Brien is under no delusions about the party he is in and yet he still toes the party line. These two are clearly tarred with the same brush. It feels a little contrived having Quan get the train so that he can overhear their chatter but it works. How else was Hương going to cover all her bases because you'd never see these two in Quan's normal daily life? I think she can be forgiven.
This is not the first time Quan has become aware of the duplicity of those in charge though. When fighting in southern Vietnam his troop engage in a confused night-time battle in which the enemy unit they attack turns out to be one of their own. The authorities never acknowledge the error and later Quan is horrified to read a report that describes the encounter as a "glorious victory" by revolutionary forces. No one could be unaffected by news like that.
The style of this book is very simple but it is an effective way of covering a lot of areas in a believable way. There is no real plot. Quan ends his journey where it began. We have no idea if he is going to die or survive the war although it does seem likely considering the fact the war ended on April 30, 1975. It doesn't really matter through.
What I didn't like were the many dream excerpts we get treated to. I'm not a fan of dream sequences at the best of times but I didn't think these added greatly to the book. Most are short and so they don’t take anything much away either but I would rather have seen a few less of them.
Novel Without a Name is not a great book – it's certainly not great literature – but despite it's flaws I think it is an important book. It humanises the Vietnamese – there's not a single 'Charlie' in the whole thing and actually only one American, a journalist from all accounts and not a soldier. Killing takes place off the page. Even the tiger attack is something we learn about after the fact. Hương doesn't try and cover everything in this one book. She sets out her stall and sells what she has to sell, one man's experience of the war and its effects on those close to him; this is a novel not a history book. Quan has seen so many of his comrades die. There are only twelve veterans left at the end of the book, all the rest are rookies; his brother has died but he has also lost his girlfriend, his father and his friend Luong in the worst kind of ways.
"Yeah, glory only lasts so long."
"What happens afterward?"
"How do I know? We're all in the same herd of sheep."
Dương Thu Hương was born in the Thai Binh Province of North Vietnam in 1947. At the age of twenty, she volunteered to lead a Communist Youth Brigade sent to the front during the Vietnam War. During China's 1979 attack on Vietnam, she also became the first woman combatant present on the front lines to chronicle the conflict. Her impressive military career has made her eventual rebellion all the more embarrassing.
The first time she saw prisoners of war, she realised that they had black hair and olive skin like her: They were also Vietnamese. She realised that this was not a war against invaders, but a war between differing philosophies. “It was so new, I didn’t dare think it through to the end. That was the beginning of the mental itinerary that led me to change my views,” she relates. – World People's Blog, 11th Aug 2006
A vocal advocate of human rights and democratic political reform, Hương published short stories and novels about hunger and malnutrition in Vietnam, but her books were banned and she was expelled from the Communist Party in 1989. In 1991, after sending abroad a manuscript of Novel Without a Name she was imprisoned in solitary confinement for seven months without trial. International pressure from the P.E.N. Writers Association and Amnesty International helped obtain her release. That same year, she was awarded the Prix Femina and the UNESCO Literature Prize.
Dương Thu Hương lived and wrote in Hanoi under permanent surveillance for many years and was not allowed to travel abroad. This relaxed over time and after two foreign trips she finally relocated to Paris in 2006. In January 2009, her latest novel, Đỉnh Cao Chói Lọi, was published; it was also translated into French as Au zénith.