Novel Without a Name

by Thu Huong Duong

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Novel Without a Name is the 1995 novel by Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong (born in 1947). It tells the story of a twenty-eight-year-old North Vietnamese soldier, in the tenth year of his military service, who is experiencing an existential confusion about his life, the war, and his place in it.

The novel opens with an exposition that introduces the reader to the desperate conditions the protagonist, Quan, and his fellow soldiers find themselves in during the last days of the Vietnam War. Forced to eat orangutan, they come across the bodies of six raped women. Quan matter-of-factly observes,

So this was how graceful, girlish bodies rotted, decomposing into swollen old corpses, puffy as dead toads.

Quan begins to observe the hypocrisy of the system for which he is fighting. In one instance, for example, he notes the use of the title "comrade" is nothing more than "a lie."

Those two young tricksters called the ticket collector 'Comrade.' The ticket collector addressed us the same way. In reality, though, the first case was a relationship between delinquents and an agent of the law. The second case, now that was a relationship between masters and servants. If the Party is the faithful servant of the people, as Ho Chi Minh says, then the ticket collector is just a servant’s servant. Is that clear? So the word 'Comrade' can mean many things. From a linguistic point of view, it's a lie.

However, the soldiers feel a bond to the system in which they have been raised and a shame in abandoning it. This is signaled in the description of Bien, who has a deep ideological zeal that is undimmed by his suffering.

No doubt, somewhere in his young peasant’s heart he still 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.

Ultimately, Quan's emotional numbness turns to anger as he feels his betrayal by those in whom he has placed his faith.

From the depths of my pain, a wave of rage overcame me. I felt it rise in me, the fever of combat, the hatred, the irrepressible desire to kill, to annihilate, like a fire sweeping through my body.

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