Novel Without a Name

by Thu Huong Duong
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Vietnam has a history of colonialism, war, and political upheaval. Do you think Duong Thu Huong supports or rejects the communist regime’s programs of political indoctrination and war as presented in Novel Without a Name?

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Duong Thu Huong's novel Novel Without a Name is a significant contribution to the vast body of Vietnamese literature, both fiction and non-fiction, because it tells the story from the Vietnamese perspective. The novel, despite its grounding in historical reality, is a work of fiction, and so we can't necessarily attribute the views of the characters to that of the author. However, a brief look at Huong's bio shows that he is a former Communist and dissident, so we can, with some measure of assurance, take his critiques of the party and its ideology as his views.

I think the characters in the book are very much weary of Communist propaganda and indoctrination. There don't seem to be very many Vietnamese left who are true believers in an ideological/Marxist sense. What comes through is that the characters believe in their country and the fight against imperialism, whether it be the French or the Americans.

When the novel begins, the main characters, three friends who grew up together, have been fighting for a long time and are presented as jaded, burned out, and exhausted. It's not that they don't still believe in their cause or that of a free Vietnam; war has taken nearly everything from them, and Communist leadership, while superficially appreciative of their sacrifice, always demands more. In Communism, the individual is subjected to the good of the state, and Huong is showing the consequences, on a human level, of such an approach.

I would also recommend the novels The Sympathizer and The Sorrow of War.

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Although Novel Without a Name is told from a North Vietnamese perspective, it is far from being anything like a work of communist propaganda. Duong Thu Huong strives at all times throughout the book to provide a warts-and-all portrayal of the North Vietnamese communists, their bad points along with the good. On the one hand, communism is presented as an ideology that can galvanize the population into truly remarkable feats of bravery against the enemy. On the other hand, it all too often degenerates into brutality, cynicism, and outright fanaticism.

Two particularly notable scenes illustrate this point. In the first one, the story's protagonist Quan overhears a couple of party officials openly expressing their skepticism about Marxism. The men are then immediately given a good ticking-off by a military officer, who criticizes them for insulting the name of Karl Marx. One of the men responds by angrily insisting that it is “we”—i.e. party officials like himself and his companion—who are the ones responsible for introducing Marxist ideology to Vietnam. It is their business, not the military's. Such breathtaking cynicism does not reflect well on the ruling party elite.

Later on, the duplicity of those in charge is much in evidence in the aftermath of a friendly-fire incident in the jungle, when Viet Cong units accidentally shoot at each other. Instead of facing up to the shocking truth of what happened, the Party brazenly lies about the incident, presenting it in a propaganda report as a “glorious victory.” Such blatant lies shock Quan, and seem to make a mockery everything that he and his comrades are fighting for.

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