BOOK REVIEW: Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without a NameNovel Without a Name by Dương Thu Hương
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel’s protagonist, Quan, is a North Vietnamese soldier who, after ten years of war-fighting and surviving, has worked his way up to a junior officer position with a small unit under his command. Much of the story describes a road trip in the midst of war. One of Quan’s childhood friends who is now his superior officer, Luong, assigns Quan the task of going to visit a distant medical unit to check on a third common village friend, Bien, who is said to have had a nervous breakdown. Luong, further tells Quan to take some well-earned time off for a home visit, since the junior officer hasn’t been to see his home in a decade. In the latter part of the book, Quan returns to his unit after an uneasy home visit to see the father with whom he has strained relations (his mother ran away with another man), the neighbors he seems closer to than he is his own father, and his childhood sweetheart who has fallen on hard times — having had to accept that the two would never be married. On the way, back to his unit, Quan checks on Bien who he busted out of horrific conditions at a field hospital and got reassigned to a special unit with the non-Infantry, but macabre, task of building coffins. The book ends with another uneasy transition, the war’s end – which sees Quan’s comrades in celebration, but also not sure what to expect after an entire adult life spent at war.

Interspersed with the real-time events that occur as Quan travels through a jungle war-zone, one is shown flashbacks to some of the intense traumas of his years at war. These include friendly-fire incidents and the “only the good die young” effect in which it seems the most kind and virtuous are often the most perishable in times of war. There’s also a very human story that’s told about how war effects lives and transforms relationships – in some cases forging unbreakable bonds and in other cases building impenetrable barriers between loved ones.

I’ve read a few books on the Vietnam War, both fiction and non-fiction, but this may be the first I’ve read from a North Vietnamese perspective. What is interesting about that is that the experiences and themes are often not that different from one sees in works like Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers on both sides have similar day-to-day experiences from boredom to horrors, and it has largely the same effect upon the soldier’s psyches. One of the overarching themes this book has in common with its American-centric counterparts is growing disillusionment. Like the American soldiers who often couldn’t comprehend what they were fighting for (other than the survival of their friends and themselves), Quan’s core beliefs become challenged over the course of the novel. It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it seems equally true that there are no ideologues in foxholes. The pragmatic concerns demanded of the war-fighter make it hard to be an impassioned Marxist or an impassioned follower of any ideology. This is seen in one scene in which an older officer is put off by Quan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist message, and then later when the tables are turned and Quan converses with a young subordinate soldier who is even more disillusioned.

Of course, there are differences. Quan is much more at home in the environment of the war – though not exempt from the miseries of the jungle. It’s not like he’s been dropped on a different planet as it was for American soldiers who had no experience of tropical living. On the other hand, an American soldier could at least rest assured that his loved one’s were home in safety, but for Quan and his peers there is no reason to think family is any more safe than they. Of course, the concept of traipsing through the war zone on a home visit after years successively at war represents one important difference that is also fundamental to the story.

I found this book to be gripping and illuminating. It’s highly readable and relatable, even though there are flashbacks that take one out of a linear timeline; they are well done and not confusing. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who reads war stories, who enjoys translated fiction from other cultures, or who just wants a thought-provoking work of literary fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Days by Tibor Cseres

Cold DaysCold Days by Tibor Cseres
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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During the Second World War, there was a massacre conducted by the Hungarian military in the Yugoslavian town now called Novi Sad (known as Újvidék under the Hungarians.) The operation was meant to be a cleanup of Yugoslavian partisans, but the casualties were primarily innocent civilians. The novel is called “Cold Days” (i.e. literally translated from the Hungarian “Hideg Napok”) because the killings took place during a cold snap in January of 1942. Cseres bases his novel on this real world event, but he tells the story through the lens of four fictional military men who are sharing a cell for their respective actions in Novi Sad.

The novel weaves five narrative lines into an overall arc. Four of these are the personal stories of each of the four soldiers during the massacre and the time leading up to it, and the fifth takes place later when they are all together in the cell. The four characters have no connection before being placed in the same cell—or so it seems. At most, the officers know of each other. The five lines come together in the end and the reader sees how the four lives are no longer in strict isolation, but are connected by the events of that day—in some cases more severely than others.

Captain Büky is the highest ranking of the prisoners and is a straight-laced military man except that he takes issue with the order than keeps married men from bringing their families to station at Novi Sad. Prior to the massacre and some killings that instigated it, it’d been a routine assignment. Lieutenant Tarpataki is a new assignee, and his principal trouble is that he arrives to find that he hasn’t been assigned housing or a billet. Lieutenant Pozdor gets his men taken from his control by the police chain of command and is left hiding out trying to avoid being assigned some remedial task. Corporal Szabo is both the only enlisted man in the group and the only one who is directly involved with the violence, though a Cpl. Dorner takes the lead and Szabo is a follower.

If that cast doesn’t seem like the kind of villainous blackguards one expects of a massacre crew, I think that that is part of what the author is trying to convey. Run-of-the-mill men stumble down slippery slopes into treachery during times of war. Sometimes the worst go unpunished, while others take the fall. The author also shows that sides can matter little when it comes to such events. Anyone can suffer loss when events tumble out of control as they did in January of 1942 on frigid day in Novi Sad.

This book is translated from Hungarian. It’s sparse and simple writing, and readability is high. It’s a short book of only about 120 pages.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in tales of the horrors of war. It may have interest to history as well as fiction readers.

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