No Man's Land

by Duong Thu Huong

translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong

Published by Hyperion East

402 pages, 2005






Bleak and Accomplished

Reviewed by Brendan Wolfe


When it rains on page one of Duong Thu Huong's No Man's Land, you know something's up. That's because in Vietnamese novels, the heavens are always trying to shoulder their way into the action, dousing characters with water or setting the odd fire, usually in an attempt to prove they're wise to danger ahead or perhaps the cause of it. (Elsewhere in No Man's Land, which, believe it or not, is a painstakingly realistic novel, a ghost shows up to taunt his killer, and the moon gets away with tempting a man to abandon his disabled wife.) On page one, though, it's raining, a "strange, violent storm," "icy water and hot vapor," "everything dissolved and merged in the flood." Even after the sun comes out, the melodrama continues to pour down: "Like after a long separation, the blind passion of the earth and the forest flared, raking and burning everything that lay in the wake of their frenetic coupling."

Not to spoil anything, but it's raining at the end, too, and here it seems to be Huong's way of saying that, even after 27 chapters of metaphorical tides and currents, of boyhood-ending squalls and love born from a near-drowning, of souls drifting out to sea and swimming back to port, the best we can hope for is a humid, late-spring drizzle.

It's not much, but we'll take it.

No Man's Land is Huong's fifth novel to be translated into English and it is every bit as bleak and accomplished as its predecessors. What has the storm clouds so worked up in the beginning is a premise straight from the second half of that Tom Hanks flick Cast Away: Mien, happily remarried to a wealthy farmer with whom she has a son, returns one day from gathering honey to find that Husband No. 1, a soldier missing for 14 years, has marched back into town. Bon, however, is no Tom Hanks; he wants his wife back, and he's willing to shamelessly play the Returning War Hero in order to get her. Mien, meanwhile, is hardly Helen Hunt. Victim to the mother of all Confucian guilt trips, she breaks the bad news to handsome Husband No. 2 and trudges down the road with skinny and pathetic Bon. That she goes armed with a small harvest of virgin grass is a hint of conflicts to come.

As setups go, this one doesn't promise to be a political powder keg, which is a switch for Huong. If you've heard of her at all, chances are it's because she is Vietnam's most vocal dissident, regularly quoted in the foreign press shouting epithets at the suits in Hanoi. "The government is a bunch of liars," she told People magazine in 2000. "They are corrupt, ignorant, incompetent leaders." Of course, the Supreme People's Organ of Control gives as good as it gets, over the years calling Huong a "national traitor," "the lowest-class hack writer for Western bosses," and "a woman ungrateful for what Vietnamese martyrs have done for the country's liberty."

The irony of this last insult is that Huong herself is a veteran of the "American War." The daughter of one of Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas, she served in a front-line cultural unit for 10 years, living in tunnels and dodging B-52s. The job of her theatrical troupe, she has said, "was to make our voices loud enough to drown out the sound of the bombs." In 1987, she published her first novel, Beyond Illusions, in response to a call for writers to freely address Vietnam's problems. Even though the book condemned government corruption, Communist Party chief Nguyen Van Linh personally praised it. Huong's second novel, Paradise of the Blind, went a step further, however, attacking Ho Chi Minh and his disastrous Land Reform Campaign of the mid-1950s. This time, Nguyen called Huong a "dissident slut" and booted her out of the party. Then, in 1991, the government caught her trying to smuggle out of the country a third novel, discreetly titled Novel Without a Name, and she was thrown in jail.

The problem with all this biography is that it too often gets in the way of Huong's actual writing. "It is a measure of her talent that the government has tried so hard to muzzle her," reads one typical review. "And it is a measure of her courage that they have failed."

That's just dumb. The huffing and puffing of bureaucrats and the pain inflicted by seven months in prison are not a measure of Huong's talent but a response to the size of her readership, which, in Vietnam anyway, has always been large. In a recent consideration of a Thai writer, Carlin Romano of the Philadelphia Inquirer let his tsunami-weary readers in on the fact that "Asians, too, possess intricate private psychologies." In other words, if you don't read Southeast Asian writers for their politics, then read them for the fact that their novels prove them to be ... human.

Happily, No Man's Land is worth a great deal more than that. Huong's plot, which is captivating without ever being particularly eventful, follows Mien to Bon's miserable hut, where he barely subsists with his miserable sister and her miserable kids. We get a full frontal of the Returning War Hero's embarrassing, at times even offensive, effort to impregnate his wife, and the stoic attempt on the part of Hoan (a.k.a. handsome Husband No. 2) to accept this new state of affairs. Huong deftly and ironically mirrors these two men -- their love for Mien, their out-of-school pursuits, their inability to conquer the flesh -- in order to suggest that we are all victims of fate. In Vietnamese, the word for such victims is oan, or "wronged," which is meant to suggest that the gods are crazy and, above all, arbitrary.

That said, Huong never lets anyone off the hook, especially Mien. If her resistance to creepy Bon is sympathetic at first, by the end she has twisted into someone capable of real cruelty. For his part, Bon develops into a character of startling complexity, haunted by the death of a war buddy, forever struggling and forever failing to do the right thing. And if Hoan's name is a mere letter off from oan, it is he alone who manages to stay in control.

Huong's prose style, meanwhile, is so intensely sentimental and unfashionably melodramatic that her novel becomes a kind of steam bath inside of which American readers can sweat out their literary preconceptions. Her writing refuses to distinguish between an everyday walk in the woods ("the ground was scalding, feverish") and the desperation Hoan feels on his last night with Mien:

If only he had a weapon that could smash this too-serene sky in two, setting it all ablaze, this too-calm night, these mountains and hills and fields, these plantations and hamlets and sleepy villages, this insidious world, with its tyrannical order, its impassive, unbending rules. And all the powers-that-be who would soon conspire to crush his happiness and ravage his life.

Such language is also typical of the way Huong crawls inside her characters' heads, providing their thoughts in claustrophobic bursts of italics before subjecting them to the machinations of gossipy neighbors and a nosy Mother Nature.

In the end, No Man's Land stakes out its thematic territory on that lonely patch of ground between duty and desire: the family, in other words. In her essay "Family," Marilynne Robinson (of Housekeeping and Gilead fame) puts something like Mien's dilemma into American terms:

Siblings founder, spouses age. We founder. We age. That is when loyalty should matter. But invoking it now is about as potent a gesture as flashing a fat roll of rubles. I think this may contribute enormously to the sadness so many of us feel at the heart of contemporary society.

American readers, even those who lament with Robinson our distressing lack of loyalty to one another, could hardly be blamed for flinching when Mien gives it up to Bon. For them, for us, this is a barbaric injustice and No Man's Land a long and not entirely satisfying campaign to set matters straight. No Man's Land was not written for us, though. It was written for Vietnamese, who come at the problem from exactly the opposite perspective: What kind of trouble gets kicked up when we are too loyal, rather than not loyal enough?

It helps to think of No Man's Land as a provocative variation on Nguyen Du's masterpiece of Vietnamese poetry, The Tale of Kieu. Written at the beginning of the 19th century by a stressed-out mandarin whose beloved emperor had just been toppled, it tells the story of Kieu, a young woman who falls for the hunk next door. The hunk takes a long trip and, in his absence, Kieu's father and brother end up in jail. The beautiful and talented Kieu must forsake her love (consummated just in time) in order to help her family, which in those days meant long stints as a prostitute, singer and servant. As in No Man's Land, there are violent battles, intervening loves and plenty of sex. In the end, though, patience and loyalty pay off. After a 15-year absence (one year longer than the time Bon was off to war), Kieu and the hunk reunite in a gorgeous, bittersweet wedding.

In their own room they traded toasts still shy
of their new bond, yet moved by their old love.
Since he, a lotus sprout, first met with her,
a fresh peach bud, fifteen full years had fled.
To fall in love, to part, to reunite --
both felt mixed grief and joy as rose the moon.

Compare that to Mien's less sweet and more bitter reunion with Bon, whom she had first met when he saved her from drowning.

Mien shuddered .... She would have to leave the gentle world of her life here, and travel back in time to live with a strange shadow amid the ashes of a love that had grown by the roots of an old banyan tree some fourteen years ago. She knew she could drown there a second time. But she had no choice; she knew that she had to jump, to accept the hand that fate had dealt her.

Suddenly boss-less and under pressure to show some love to the new regime, Nguyen Du used Kieu to make the broader political point that even during times of upheaval, the principles of fidelity and chastity must be defended at all costs. By contrast, Huong tells us that the family relationship -- the brainstem of Confucian thought -- has become "like a brand seared on the face of slaves or prisoners in primitive times." In today's Vietnam, sitting nervously at the crossroads of East and West, communism and capitalism, this is as profoundly political an idea as any insult she could hurl at the Supreme People's Organ of Control. | April 2005


Brendan Wolfe is a writer and editor living in Iowa City, Iowa.