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.