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Duong Thu Huong: Tiểu Tuyết Vô Đề (Novel Without a Name)

Duong Thu Huong was already a successful novelist in Vietnam when this novel was published and had had a distinguished career in the Viet Cong, having led a Communist Youth Brigade at the age of twenty-one on a major front against the American invaders. Since publication of this novel, however, she has been banned in Vietnam and charged with sending documents abroad containing state secrets (including this novel, which was widely available in Vietnam before being banned).

The novel tells the story of Quan, a unit commander in the Viet Cong, and the turmoil he goes through, both military and personal, leading up to the final surrender of what he calls the puppet government. It is easy to see why the novel was banned. Quan is somewhat (though not too much) disillusioned. The Viet Cong soldiers are not all great heroes. There are cowards and thugs in their army just as there are in all armies. The civilians are also not all heroic, some being disillusioned with the struggle. Quan joined up at the same time as Luong and Bien. Luong has risen up the ranks (and will rise up further during the course of the novel). Bien, however, has gone insane. Luong instructs Quan to go and check out Bien and see if he can help. A good part of the novel is Quan’s picaresque journey to the sector where Bien is being held. We get to see the liaison agents (the people who help the Viet Cong move through the country) as well as the civilians, suffering from lack of food, continual US bombardment and, in the case of one woman, lack of sex. When he finds Bien, he is being held in a cage, naked. Quan is able to talk to him and does get him out. Quan does feel that Bien should quit fighting but he wants to carry on, feeling he will be shamed if he does quit.

Quan also gets back to his village where he finds his father, whom he hates, living on very little and also finds his childhood sweetheart. They had vowed to exchange letters but Quan had received nothing from her (her old letters do get to him later in the novel). Her parents had rejected offers of marriage out of snobbishness but the local party cadres had forced her to serve in the local squad and she had got pregnant. She refused to say who the father was and was cast out of the village. Quan finds her living on her own in a hut on the outskirts of the village, pregnant and alone. His problems with his father are accentuated when he learns that his father had forced his intelligent younger brother into the Viet Cong and the brother is subsequently killed. Bien’s father, who has many more children, has never forced any of his children into the army.

Quan returns to his unit and has to deal with issues of illness, rampant tigers, morale and discipline among his own men. When they capture a South Vietnam post, the men destroy both valuable medicines and TVs, while one man kills another in a fight. Viet Cong discipline may be ruthless but Quan is less so. The book ends with the victory but at a cost, with too many dead. The Americans rarely appear, except as remote characters, either in their B-52s, bombing the countryside, or occasional figures in the dark. Only at the end do we see an American, a prisoner, who may well be a journalist rather than a soldier. Quan is more sympathetic to him than his men are. Overall, it is a well-told book, one that shows that the Viet Cong have human feelings just like any other soldiers and that war, whoever is fighting, brings untold misery.

Publishing history

First published in 1991 by Van Nghe Publishing
First published in English 1995 by William Morrow
Translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson