Why does Duong Thu Huong open her book Novel Without a Name with an eerie description of the Gorge of Lost Souls in which nature is perceived as being full of supernatural elements? Why does she make frequent references to the supernatural and natural world? What are these descriptions intended to do?
In Novel Without a Name, author Duong Thu Huong tells the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of Communist soldiers fighting on the North Vietnamese side of the war. Though the war is called "The American War" in Vietnam and looked at as a great source of pride due the North's conquests, Duong's novel surprisingly shares themes found in Western novels on the topic of the Vietnam War such as novels written by Tim O'brien. As the characters progress through the war, especially Quan, just like their Western counterparts, they begin feeling disillusioned with the war they were once so proud to join. The atrocities they witness allow them to see the war as an act of senseless killing. Since the Vietnamese worship their ancestors, being surrounded by masses of unburied dead would have a significant impact on their emotional and psychological states. It is this impact we witness in Duong's book.
As worshipers of their ancestors, the Vietnamese believe that the souls of those not properly buried become trapped in this world and haunt. One of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War is that so many civilians and soldiers alike were killed in remote and hidden places such as in distant villages and deep within the jungles, places that are difficult to get to in order to find and properly bury the dead. The result is that, as a consequence of the war, many of the Vietnamese feel they are constantly surrounded by the ghosts of the war, and these ghosts are accompanied with tragic, horrific, haunting memories (Kwon, "The Ghosts of the American War in Vietnam," The Asia-Pacific Journal). As we see in the novel, being surrounded by ghosts trapped between the living and the dead makes the characters, especially Quan, feel equally trapped between the living and the dead.
The novel opens with this feeling of being trapped between the living and the dead and being haunted by the dead when it starts with Quan encamped in the battleground called the Gorge of Lost Souls. He hears the moaning wind as the moans and sobs of the dead and wounded:"Endless moans punctuated by sobs" (p. 1). He then says a prayer of petition to not be haunted, showing us just how much being surrounded by the unburied dead is affecting him psychologically and emotionally, making him feel trapped between the living and the dead himself:
Dear sisters, you who have lived and died here as human beings: Do not haunt us any longer. Protect us. Fortify our bodies, light the way for our spirits, so that in every battle we may conquer. When victory comes, when peace comes to our country, we will carry you back to the land of your ancestors. (pp. 1-2)
Soon, we learn that he, Lanh, and members of Lanh's platoon had discovered the bodies of six tortured northern Vietnamese girls and had done their best to bury them in a fire pit dug in the shallow earth, a burial that's considered inadequate.
One example of another moment in the novel when he feels trapped between the living and the dead is when he accounts Van Kieu men bearing coffins on their shoulders as they "traced a snaking line up the mountain slope" (p. 192). As he thinks to himself that one of the coffins may someday be for him, he flashes back to a moment of his mother giving birth. That moment, too, was like a prison that hovers between life and death because his mother's agonies put her on the brink of death; yet, the moment she heard the new baby cry, her agonized face relaxed into a smile. This memory he has while watching coffins being carried incites him to think of life as the "[b]arbaric beauty of life, of creation" (p. 193). He is also "seized with terror" (p. 193). In his moment of terror, he sees the blood of war as a beautiful thing while also wondering if their country will ever return to peace so that life can be embraced once again:
Me, my friends, we had lived this war for too long, steeped ourselves for too long in the beauty of all its moments of fire and blood. Would it still be possible, one day, for us to go back, to rediscover our roots, the beauty of creation, the rapture of a peaceful life? (p. 193)
His reflection shows us his conflicted feelings. As one who worships his ancestors, he knows that death itself is not a horrible thing, yet so much death and to be trapped between life and death as so many of the dead are is certainly horrific and something he wants to see an end to. His desires for an end to the senseless killing shows us his feelings of disillusionment with the war.
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