10 November, 2005

Novel without a Name - Oanh's Thoughts

This is one of the most famous novels by Duong Thu Huong. It is the third of hers I have read and, though more impressed with the previous two, I find the imagery and the writing evocative, powerful and intense.

Novel without a Name is a story of a young man who is a member of the communist Vietnamese army (perhaps better known as the Viet Cong). It is written from his perspective and opens at an unknown date during 'the War'. The war is never identified -- and this is an important aspect of the novel -- although we understand it to be the war the Vietnamese term 'the American War' and the one Australians and Americans term 'the Viet Nam war'. The story of the novel is that the young man is to locate a friend from his home village, whom he understands to have 'gone mad', and rescue him. But the story is rather unimportant - it is the backdrop to a movingly written account of the futility of war and the hypocrisy of government.

Duong Thu Huong was herself a member of the Vietnamese army, until her disillusionment some time after the end of the 'reunification of Viet Nam'. Her intelligence and outspokenness led to a period in a re-education camp. Nevertheless her commitment and patriotism to Viet Nam shines through in her work. Clear principles of democracy and human rights imbue her work, and her willingness to question government has meant that her books are frequently censored, and sometimes burned. Duong Thu Huong was denied a passport for many years and only some of her novels are published in Viet Nam. Free Asia Radion has interviewed Duong Thu Huong here.

The aspects of the book that stay with me the most are the young man's descriptions of his love of his mother and his nostalgic yearning for village life. Duong Thu Huong develops a keen sense of the dream like nature of the young man's memories; I keep picturing a young Vietnamese woman wearing a red shirt and trousers her long hair falling away behind her, steadily climbing a hill as fields of rice fall away to either side. I don't recall whether this was an image Duong Thu Huong uses (there is an image of his mother struggling towards a temple on a hill), but each time the young man recollects his home, this is the image that comes to mind.

The overall theme of the book - the futility and hopelessness of war, the destruction it wreaks on ordinary lives - is so calmly encapsulated within the powerful writing and the evocative description that recognition of it is not fully realised until some time after the book is finished. In many ways, Novel without a Name left me feeling the same way I felt when I finished her other two novels (Beyond Illusions in May 2004 and Paradise of the Blind in December 2002), lost but hopeful, quiet and stirred.

There are so many reasons why she should be read, that you should just read one of her works to comprehend what I am grasping towards in this too brief outline.

Only two Book Groupies had finished Novel without a Name when we met for Viet goi cuon (rice wraps) at my house - Nikki & me.

Nikki commented on her disappointment that the protagonist was male, given that Duong Thu Huong had also been a member of the Viet army. Both Paradise of the Blind and Beyond Illusions had a female protoganist and I was also a bit taken aback (because my presumptions were jolted but for no more cogent reason).

Meg and Celia appeared to be enjoying the reading and I was interested to note Meg's response to the descriptions of food. Food is a theme of our reading.

The ritual, symbolism and function of food is also important in Norwegian Wood.

- Oanh


n.t said...

just a few observations:

i read this novel (and it's the only one i read of hers too) probably 4-5 years ago and i don't remember much (except for some reason, the bit about peeing into a can).

however, i just wanted to point out, correctly that the war is what the communist vietnamese government terms 'the american war'. i'd say that for non-communist vietnamese (i.e. former citizens of the republic of vietnam/south vietnam) and most of the vietnamese diaspora, it is also the vietnam war. the notion of 'the american war' is a complete political construct that does not acknowledge that there was a south vietnam which invaded and erased.

i am vietnamese myself - i've just come back from travelling in vietnam, and i was completely incensed whenever i heard the term 'chinh tranh chong my' - it completely obliterates the idea that there was another vietnam, a south vietnamese military which fought against the communist northern army, and which too, had men and boys die. it also fails to acknowledge how hard it was for most south vietnam citizens in the years after 1975 - the years of rations, the re-education camps, the social fall out etc. because really, in a sense that's why you and me are here right? our parents were victims of the end of this war: things changed with the victory of the communist north such that our parents couldn't bear to stay in their homeland anymore and had to flee.

whilst i'm not discounting the relevance of duong thu huong's reflections, it's a pity that for most of us, the second generation of the vietnamese diaspora, that when we try to find out about our past independantly, the only sources available are from vietnam, the socialist republic of vietnam - an impartial vietnam. we're become naturalised into another culture, and so we go to read, it's only what's been translated from the vietnamese, because we either can't read vietnamese, or we read too poorly to get thru a novel with ease or proper understanding.

there is a huge vietnamese diaspora with it's own stories and own history (the history of the other half of vietnam in a sense - the history of what happened to the republic of vietnam). i'm sure there have been books written which lament as much as duong thu huong and were written by the diaspora, but it hasn't been translated, and unable to read vietnamese, we don't know about it, haven't read it and are ultimately, estranged from our own history.

i had a look at your blog too... my guess is that you do want to know more about your identity, and are figuring out how to mediate your identity between these two cultures. although i do read other things (i'm doing lolita atm) - maybe read andrew x pham's 'catfish and mandala.' i think he's very representative of where our generation is at and you'd like it.

and also, for a different perspective of vn - try and pick up pham thi hoai's 'the crystal messenger'. Personally, i really like pham thi hoai - i like her ideas and what she's trying to do. she's also banned now in vn. the crystal messenger is a view from vn starting almost starting from 1975; her writing is clever, post-modern, witty, but very human.

OTT said...

NT –

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and pointing me towards Andrew X Pham and Pham Thi Hoai. I've seen Catfish and Mandala in the bookstore but something prevents me from buying it. My own biases, I suspect. But on that recommendation, I shall certainly pick him up in future. Pham Thi Hoai, too.

I am waiting on the writing of the Viet diaspora. I've found some from the United States but only a very few Australians. I'd like to see more. However, I am also interested in the writing of Viet Nam now – no matter its politics and the things done to my and your family, and whatever remnants of our families are in Viet Nam. Because the country and the people have continued and changed – it is more than my past that intrigues me. I picked up a journal of Vietnamese literature (translated into English) and published by Ha Noi University, and some contemporary poetry while I was in Viet Nam earlier this year.

On your other point regarding the term for the America / Viet Nam War: I do not entirely agree with you – but nor do I disagree with you. This is something I would like to explore with more time to reflect and compose, and will probably post to my own blog, rather than this joint one. I will leave a comment on your blog when I have come up with a satisfactory post (it might take me a while).

The point that I was trying to make with regards to Duong Thu Huong's novel was that the reasons behind the war that was the background of the book were quite irrelevant – and incomprehensible. And, at least for my family, I think this is a truer representation of how the war was felt. At least for my father, war was the background of his entire life in Viet Nam: it did not matter what the fighting was about, it took uncles and brothers, disrupted family life and livelihood.

- Oanh

n.t said...

I suspect that this dialogue might work better in email, but it’s an interesting posted dialogue anyway.

I look forward to you hearing your comments on Catfish and Mandala, and on Pham Thi Hoai. Pham Thi Hoai’s novels (there only two in translation; The Crystal Messenger and a selection of short stories – Sunday Menu, may be a bit hard to find, you’d probably have to order them. But they may turn up in the local library!)

I guess, I may have come across as not being interested in Vietnam as it is today, which isn’t true. One of my goals is actually to somehow work and live in Vietnam for a few years someday to give me the chance to learn more about Vietnam and also, the opportunity to change/help/improve Vietnam somehow. I really enjoyed my recent trip to Vietnam, there was a really interesting energy there; a great eagerness for the new – although, too heavily weighted in consumerism, but also the stirrings of hope and change.

The thing with being Vietnamese though, is how complicated our history is, which in turn doesn’t really help make things easier with us when it comes to identity, and particularly, as diasporic Vietnamese living in another culture. You’re absolutely right that the Vietnam War is rather incomprehensible; academics don’t share opinions, new facts are constantly coming to light, there are so many layers of propaganda; so really, forget about the chances of the average Vietnamese making head or toe of it.

To think of it in perspective – it’s quiet sad. A history of being colonised and rebelling – 1000 years by the Chinese, 100 years by the French, and finally free to rule for ourselves, we fight amongst ourselves about the (political) direction our country and culture. One of the ideologies was for a capitalist western democracy, the other to follow the communist socio-political model, and Vietnam unfortunately, became a pawn, and the last battle ground of international politics over these socio-political models. In the end, regardless of the politics, it was Vietnam that was the victim.

I, too am waiting on and am very interested in the writings of our diaspora. There’s a lot of interesting writing, thinking & developments coming out of the US, which is a natural consequence of the diversity and size of the Vietnamese population over there. But in Australia, I think it will fall upon us to record and voice our experience: a partial reflection of the history of Vietnamese people in Australia, our population and also, Australia culture.

(detour, and I realise that this is a dynamic narrative: I remember reading a book of short stories by a Vietnamese Australian, but I cannot at all remember the title or the author, only a fragment of a story; her stories were set in the late 70’s early 80’s and the character was locked in a room for a while, because the rest of the family were scared of her stealing things from them; when I was 16 I wrote a short story which captured a different time again, which now doesn’t exist anymore – ours is a fluid history…)

Vietnam seems to be heading into the start of a new phase of change; it has changed much since our parents left. Although we can break down ‘Vietnamese’ culture into diaspora and ‘in country’ – in the end its all still Vietnamese. But, it will be interesting to see what unfolds of ‘Vietnamese culture’ as time passes, particularly through the increasing dialogue between the diaspora and those ‘in country’ and what becomes of it.

And a post note: one of the reasons why I like Pham thi Hoai so much is that she runs the foremost forum for Vietnamese thought atm (www.talawas.org ((ta là was (she lives in germany) what/who am i?!), encouraging dialogue from inside and outside of Vietnam on all things (almost). It’s actually firewalled in Vietnam. My mother recently read on there that Duong Thu Huong has just sought political asylum in France.