Novel Without a Name

by Thu Huong Duong

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In Duong Thu Huong's Novel Without a Name, what happens to the three friends Luong, Quan, and Bien, and why? How does the fate of these relationships tie into the novel’s central theme?

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"The war was not simply another war against foreign aggression; it was also our chance for a resurrection."

Luong, Bien, and Quan are three men fighting in the Vietnam War. Quan is the protagonist and narrator, and the men are in the jungles fighting against the American forces. They are close to each other, as they have been friends since childhood; they grew up together and went to school together, and now they are in war together. Quan is sometimes called elder brother by the other men, and they seem to look up to him and view him as a leader.

One of the themes of the novel, a novel without a name as the title indicates, is how war takes everything, and Quan often reflects on all that he has given up and all that he has lost. All the men believed in the Communists and believed in their country, and while they haven't forsaken these beliefs, years of fighting have left them disillusioned and exhausted. It has changed their relationship as well: "We were no longer little boys, naked and equal" (33). Everything, including friendship and childhood, is subsumed by war. There is only war, nothing else.

Perhaps the most significant part of the men's friendship is what happens to Bien, who Quan finds locked up and filthy because he's apparently gone mad. Quan frees Bien, takes him to bathe, and takes care of him. Bien is something of an innocent, naive character, and his suffering shows the cost of war.

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In Novel Without a Name, author Duong Thu Huong characterizes Quan, Bien, and Luong as having been friends since childhood and all joining the war together, feeling proud to fight for the sake of the Communist Party. Yet, despite their unity as childhood friends who share the same Communist ideological beliefs, they have very separate experiences during the war though all three can't bear to let go of their hopes for glory. Duong uses the characters' separate experiences and hopes for glory to show the devastation and futility of the war.

Luong develops into the classic Communist soldier--all he says and does is for the sake of the Party. Due to his continued devotion to the party, Luong was quickly moved up the ranks to the position of deputy to Quan's commander. Similarly, Quan rises to chief and remains dedicated to the war effort throughout the book even though he becomes disillusioned with the war. Bien suffers the worse fate of them all. Plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder, he becomes imprisoned as a lunatic.

Most of the story concerns Quan's journey to free Bien upon Luong's orders. In part, Luong sends Quan to free Bien out of friendship yet out of the desire to do what is best for the war effort. He wants Quan to take time away from the war because he knows the war will continue for many years to come, and the war effort needs Quan's help. Though Luong's orders are a sign he still values his childhood friendship with Quan and Bien, Quan cannot help but recognize and feel the great chasm that has opened between them, since the war has developed them into completely different people.  Quan comments on the chasm between them when he asks Luong if the war will continue for a long time and Luong gives no answer; Luong is not permitted to comment on the predictions of the war effort as a commanding officer:

Time had slipped between us; we were no longer little boys, naked and equal. That time had passed, the time of diving headlong into rivers at dusk, for shouting and swimming, for splashing little girls. (p. 33)

Despite the differences in how the three characters progress, they continue to share two things in common. First, they continue to hold on to the belief that they are fighting in the war for the sake of glory. Even Bien, once released, refuses to accept a discharge from Quan because Bien still holds onto the belief that he will return to their village after the war having earned honor. Quan comments about how he can relate to Bien's feelings in the following:

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. (p. 109)

The second thing they share in common is that they all lose faith in the vision of a Marxist revolution, especially due to the horrors they face as a result of the war.

As a severe critic of the Vietnam War, Duong uses her novel and the characters in it to develop a central theme that paints the war as destructive and absolutely pointless. The chasms created between the characters and their loss in faith in the war's cause helps underscore the central theme concerning the destructiveness and superfluousness of the war. Their inability to let go of the hope for glory further underscores the notion that the war was begun based on superficial reasons.

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