Novel Without a Name

by Thu Huong Duong

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Why does the novel Novel Without A Name consistently include references to the supernatural and natural world?

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The author uses the natural world and its elements to set a tone of eeriness. The supernatural is also used, but mainly for literary effect.

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In Duong Thu Huong's 1991 book about the Vietnam War, Novel Without a Name, the protagonist and narrator begins the story like this: "I listened all night to the wind howl through the Gorge of Lost Souls. Endless moans punctuated by sobs" (1). Given that the novel is dedicated to "[the author's] friends who died, who live on in me," this sets a haunting tone. Quan, the protagonist, has been fighting for years and seen many people die, so the dead are never far from his memory. He is also haunted by bad dreams and talks about the gods with a friend. However, I don't think Huong's use of these devices is necessarily supernatural, so much as literary. One could also see this as evidence of the Buddhist culture in Vietnam. The book could not be described as magical realism, for example, even if the events sometimes have an unreal quality.

Quan is much more connected to the natural world. The Viet Cong often fought in the jungles and so had to be familiar with their surrounding and comfortable fighting and living outdoors. Quan is observant and notices things around him, from the sky to the grass to the animals. Aside from revealing something about his character, the natural world contrasts with the violence and brutality of the war. Significantly, American planes were constantly bombing and dropping Agent Orange on the jungle to drive out the Viet Cong so it was also, in some sense, a war against nature. Nature is usually represented as innocent and even spiritual, which makes the natural world a victim as well.

*I'm using the Penguin paperback.

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The title "Novel Without A Name" was not used because the author could not think of anything better but because she recognized the constant fight for identity. In this novel, the realization of Quan, the narrator,  that he is more similar to his enemy than he ever realized and that he is a puppet  as "billions of lives wait for the signal to jump into the fire, into hell"  and who operates at the command of the government with whom he is disillusioned is a shocking discovery as " … I am one of them." 

The references to the natural "world are Quan's way of showing how everything is so different in war. The reality of war changes people. He begins this journey as a soldier at a young age, full of hope and proud to serve his country "intoxicated by hatred" but now, the ravages of war make him question his circumstances and those of his best friends with whom he embarked on this self-discovery. The fallacy that the soldiers must do what it takes "as long as it brought us glory" contradicts everything.

Quan uses his real life experiences to make comparisons to things he can only imagine as "a symphony of innocent blood raining down, drenching the earth"  fills his thoughts. War solves nothing and is a perpertual nightmare, "A curse that time has carried from century to century."

The war and its brutality has become the norm for these soldiers. Anger, hatred, the war itself with "the beauty of all its moments of fire and blood" threatens to overtake Quan; his personality changed forever as he experiences "the fever of combat, the hatred, the irrepressible desire to kill, to annihilate, like a fire sweeping through my body. He longs "to rediscover our roots, the beauty of creation.." 

The men's only reward is death - not satisfaction, not glory. In one of Quan's episodes he is fixated on a swarm of bees but instead of the sweetness of honey such as the analogy should explore, he feels the sting of bees as "the enormous bee’s nest melts. From each comb falls a coffin. Millions and millions of coffins pile up on the ground." There is no conclusion to war. Men and women strive but receive no release, their hard work fruitless and they themselves become part of the problem, extending the brutality making it almost impossible to return to a peaceful state.

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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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