Novel Without A Name follows Quan on his journey of self-discovery as he matures from an eighteen year old, "intoxicated by hatred" who cares only about "mortars, machine guns, mines, bayonets, daggers" as long as it is "good for killing" into a disillusioned young man, searching "to rediscover our roots" and "the beauty of creation."
Quan and his friends, his peers, experience very different outcomes from this seemingly, pointless war. They enrol as soldiers, eager to protect the Marxist philosophy. They become confused as time goes by and no longer understand their position in this fruitless war. Bien has suffered illness and malaria but still he "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.”
Luong is Quan's senior officer and dedicated to the Party. He sends Quan on a mission to locate Bien, so affected by his illness - or is it the war? - to the point of insanity. Quan must rescue Bien and ensure his safety somewhere. Luong also wants Quan to return to their village to reassure the people that things are going well. The changes Quan finds at home confirm the thread of this story and the fact that everyone is affected and suffers - not only soldiers or the enemy.
The style of this novel is, at times, difficult to follow but it is intended to unsettle the reader, to alert him to the horrors of war and the things we do "in glory." The theme, then, is certainly, the futility of war and the fact that "the enemy" is sometimes much closer than imagined. Quan realizes "it’s just a leader’s trick" and that he and thousands like him are nothing more than puppets lulled into a false sense of security by nothing more than words, such as "Comrade." The only certainty is death. Quan is haunted by his memories and longs for the environment of his childhood, mainly his mother's love.
Quan's unlikely enemy is his own father, as much a victim of war, despite his allegiances and the fact that he sent Quan's young brother off to fight in this war, in a vain attempt to get glory for himself.
Will Quan's realization save him? He has no-one and nothing to return home to. His adult life has been brutal and he has seen things that make him shudder and he has imagined the unimaginable! Sadly, it is unlikely that lessons will be learnt - or have been learnt on the pointless cycle of war. Quan, at least has turned his back and the "lapping of water at the foot of a bridge, the murmur of stalks of rice" creates a far more positive image, a different future, perhaps.