Review: Novel Without A Name, by Dương Thu Hương

At long last, I’m finished with all my end-of-semester papers and exams and am preparing to move back to New York to work at the UN for three months before moving to Berlin at the beginning of September. There’s been a lot going on, is my point, and I haven’t had much time to read for pleasure lately. That said, I just finished (after two weeks) Novel Without a Name, a Vietnam war novel written by a (female) Vietnamese dissident named Dương Thu Hương, who was cast out of the Vietnamese Communist Party and has dedicated herself since then to exposing corruption and criticizing Vietnam’s one-party rule.

I’ve never been a big fan of war novels, but this one is (obviously) written from the POV of a Viet Minh and does a fairly good job of underscoring the brutality, the no-end-in-sight monotony and the shame (of doing things you once never dreamed you’d be capable of doing) of combat. Americans learn about the Vietnam War either through the prism of 1960s liberalism (when everyone got together and protested the occupation) or through the if-Kennedy-hadn’t-been-shot-would-the-US-have-gotten-involved analysis of presidential administrations; in other words, it’s always all about us. 58,000 Americans were killed in action during the war to 2 million Vietnamese, most of whom “joined the army” because they knew no other way to achieve the honor and success they longed for, and ended up on missions that lasted ten years or more. They fought off the French, then the Americans, and then the Chinese (again); the latter half of the twentieth century was like one big constant war for the Vietnamese, kind of the way 1914-1945 was for the Europeans. There were lulls, but there was always the consistency of “the enemy,” even if that enemy changed its face, and even after the war was over, there was the poverty and squalor of daily life under strict Communist rule until the doi moi reforms in the mid-to-late 1980s. Now, of course, Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing countries in Southeast Asia and, despite the nominally “Communist” rule of the Party, is touted as one of the freest (economically speaking) nations in the world. Its human-rights record is still pretty abysmal, but they’ve come a long way, and I don’t think there’s anybody who would say they don’t deserve it. 

When I studied abroad in Hanoi my senior year in college, Vietnam wasn’t quite as “Westernized” as it apparently is now, but it was vibrant, and people seemed content. Novel Without a Name paints a portrait of a dying country, one where talk of ushering in a Marxian utopian idyll was confounded every day by tramping through the jungles, avoiding land mines, stumbling upon the skeletons of former comrades and devouring soup made from orangutan meat (a scene where the protagonist, 28-year-old Quan, forces himself to eat a creature he descended from and vomits after biting into the hand is perhaps the most vivid image in the entire book). The ending is bleak, which is to say there’s really no denouement. That’s the point, I guess: To be a North Vietnamese soldier was to resign yourself to the fact that you had no idea when the end would come; you had to give up on your dreams of a wife, children, love, everything, because you had no idea when you would be given a chance to pursue them. The book had its weaknesses (continuity of plot, general character development), but overall, it was a harrowing, worthwhile read that brought home the sorrow of war in a stark, sickening way that more than rivals any American attempts at describing the misbegotten hell of this particular war.

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