There are six types of philosophical symbolism in the novel A Novel without a Name by Duong Thu Huong. Some extracts from the novel show meaninglessness of the war, the people trapped in the socialist ideology, the way the Vietnamese look up to things that represent America, the atrocities of war, the loss of life due to the war and the insanity that creeps in the mind of the soldiers. In brief, the philosophical symbolisms from the novel represent the message of meaninglessness of the war which the author tries to represent in the novel.
This can clearly be seen in the novel’s title, A Novel without a Name which means the Vietnam War is meaningless. Rather than giving the novel a name, by leaving it nameless, it entails that the war that the Vietnamese fought was useless, therefore no title would befit it.
An example from the novel which demonstrates the meaninglessness of the war is at the beginning of the novel where the soldiers found the mutilated bodies of the women and they found that they kept the yarn to tie their hair and the betel nuts to clean their teeth (Duong 3).
The women had believed that they would see their men again (Duong 3). This represents the futile dreams that the women kept in the time of war in Vietnam. The war has destroyed many people’s lives and dreams of hope. Further in the novel, the anxiety tree which bears mushy yellow fruits which makes people faint and sink into bizarre dreams represents the meaninglessness of war (Duong 18).
After eating the fruit of the anxiety tree one experience a strange feeling of a yearning for death and this is similar with the war, the war only leads people into misery and yearns for death in order to escape the atrocities. Same as the act of eating the fruit of the anxiety tree, war is meaningless.
In the incident from the novel where Luy accidently shoots Phien, there is a statement “The survivor had closed his eyes, waiting for a bullet, while the dead man stared wide-eyed into space” (Duong 22). This means the living, amidst the war fears death whereas the dead seem to have found freedom and this contradicts with reality. This only happens during times of war and shows how pointless war is in humanity and in life.
Another example from the novel which shows the meaninglessness of war is when Quan found the skeleton of a young man in the forest and he says that they had both loved the only female image in their lives, their mother and that they had remained children (Duong 57). The soldiers fighting for the war have never had the chance to fall in love or experience their youth and growing up. Their lives have been eaten up by war.
When Quan meets Bien at his asylum cell, Bien sings a song of lamentation and this too shows that the war only leads to unhappiness (Duong 89). Bien’s suffering as he feigns insanity also shows the negative effect of war which leads the soldiers to resort to extremes in order to survive. There are also songs that remind the soldiers of their peaceful countryside, the home that they might not return to (Duong 52).
The novel also mentions that a cock will fight to death over a single crowing (Duong 108). This phrase symbolises how Quan and Bien are compared to each other and shows the competitiveness that arises due to war. This only shows that war brings unnecessary comparison between people, especially soldiers and entails a meaningless war.
The war also brings about the worst of man as Quan has an aggressive side. He is called “Quan the impassive” and this can be seen in the rage he felt when he knew his father was responsible for his brother’s entry as a soldier and death (Duong 121). Quan felt his whole body ready to snap, to pounce, to commit some irreparable crime (Duong 121). Quang, Quan’s brother’s death is taken lightly, just as the lightness of the envelope that was sent to inform his death (Duong 122). The war makes death as a usual phenomenon, where none is taken seriously or given much attention to.
Despite the negative views on Communism perceived by the world, Duong Thu Huong cleverly shows that there are people, same as any human being are trapped within the ideology. There are various symbolisms for the humanity of the people who could not escape the ideology within the novel. One of the instances from the novel to demonstrate this is when Quan is the only soldier who refuses to eat the orangutan soup. It is said that the whole troop of soldiers would hunt orang-utans except for Quan (Duong 9).
Many instances in the novel demonstrate the protagonist’s humanity. Quan is a loving soldier who loves his mother and brother dearly. This can be seen where he reminisce the birth of his brother as one of his happy memories with his mother and brother (Duong 15). Quan’s love for his mother can also be seen when he found the skeleton of a dead soldier (Duong 51). As Quan saw the word “Mother” in the dead man’s diary, the same memory came to him (Duong 57). There was a similarity between the dead man and Quan as they both suffered through the war and had only one female image, their mother and this demonstrates the gentle and fragile hearts of the soldiers who are trapped within the ideology of socialism (Duong 57).
A female soldier, Vieng, whose duty is to bury the dead soldiers shows that she too possess feminine qualities (Duong 47). Quan however, rejects to having a moment of happiness amidst the war (Duong 48). This shows that Quan still stayed true to his humanity and morale. Quan also remembers and takes into consideration that there are people concerned about their families. This can be seen when he offers Dao Tien to send letters and things to his family (Duong 105). Furthermore, when Quan found the man’s skeleton, he promised that he would visit the mother of the man’s tomb and read his diary for her (Duong 58). These excerpts demonstrate that Quan is a concerned soldier, a human being despite being a soldier. The fragility in Quan is also symbolised by his act when he hugs Bien and cries as he did for his mother’s death (Duong 106). As Quan highly looks up to his mother for being very dedicated and loving, he despises the image of his father who is envious and cruel due to war (Duong 115). Quan despises the fact that he and his brother Quang resemble their father in image and is envious of any child who looks like their mother (Duong 115).
The little girl who rescued and nursed Quan back to health symbolises Quan’s second mother (Duong 61). This shows the loving family of the little girl. The little girl and her grandfather took care of Quan as their own family despite their poverty (Duong 64). Her grandfather said that she did the right thing by nursing Quan back to health and this shows that she was brought up well, a contrast against the backdrop of war (Duong 65).
Dao Tien, a commander also refuses to eat the exotic food that has to be utilised during war (Duong 86). Unlike his sister, Dao Tien is horrified of fried grasshoppers and he dreams of becoming a mandarin someday and getting the best place at the village banquet (Duong 86). Dao Tien dreams of being someone big one day and shows a side to his humanity by not resorting to eat unusual food during times of war.
Mr. and Madame Buu symbolise people unlike the stereotype brought by the ideology. Unlike other people, they are openly affectionate in public and this surprised all those around them (Duong 96). Mr. Buu also respects his wife and gives her a high standing in the household as she could sit down and drink with her husband (Duong 130). This contradicts with the social standing of the women in their community where their place is in the kitchen. Bien, their son also imagines and dreams beyond what others dream and this represents a way of thinking that surpass the confined thinking of a soldier (Duong 100).
Despite the war, the Vietnamese can be seen collecting fragments of things that come from America. The parachute, for example, constantly appears in the novel and symbolises America. The women whose mutilated bodies were found by the soldiers in the beginning of the novel were recognised to have come from the north from their scarves which were made out of parachute cloths (Duong 2). Phien, a soldier who is accidentally shot by Luy collects parachutes to trade for real fabric after the war ends (Duong 25). When Quan was rescued by the old man and his granddaughter, they are shown to live in a shelter where the floors were covered with parachutes and tarpaulins (Duong 66). Dao Tien sends a comb made out of aircraft metal for his daughter, a scarf made from parachute netting for his wife and an American ballpoint pen for his son (Duong 105).
There are various examples in the novel which demonstrate the atrocities of war. This is an entailment of the weaknesses of the communist ideology. A brief definition of communism is the effort to create a classless, moneyless and stateless society through the revolutionary socialist movement which is structured upon the common ownership of the means of production, social, political and economic ideology (“Communism”). The term communism is used interchangeably with socialism, which is the transition in becoming a communist society. An example from the novel which shows the weakness of the socialist ideology is when Quan, while in his journey to Zone K to find Bien, and bask in a moment of thinking in the jungle (Duong 36). Quan, having survived the war and known its calamities, says that words are slippery as eels (Duong 36). This symbolises the promises of the socialist ideology that sometimes may be deceptive and this Quan sees to be true from his life of ten years in the jungle, fighting the war.
An atrocity of war can be seen when Quan found the skeleton of a dead soldier and ponders upon his horrible death (Duong 53). The soldier died of hunger, feeling his blood thicken like glue, fading from red to grey and his breath going chill (Duong 53). War made many people suffer of such death and symbolises the failed promises of the ideology. Also in the part where Quan found the soldier’s skeleton, when Quan went through the soldier’s possessions, he saw the soldier’s picture, a young man whose face sparkles with optimism and Quan remembers that he too has a similar picture taken on the day of his enlistment (Duong 55). The optimistic photos symbolise the hope the Vietnamese had before the war which clashes with the reality which comes after it. Both Quan and the dead soldier, together with other soldiers come to realise that the hope is futile as they know the harsh realities of war and its atrocities after spending almost all their lives living the war. In the novel, Quan also realises that he and the dead soldier had remained children as they both worshipped the only female image in their lives which is their mother (Duong 57). The phrase “We had remained children” symbolise how war has stopped them in their normal lives and never had the chance to have a married life.
There are instances in the novel which shows the weaknesses of the ideology in Vietnam. In a section from the novel, it is mentioned that the Vietnam War is fought between the nationalism and socialism has all their believers follow the ideologies like herds of dreamy, militant sheep (Duong 62). In a way, this phrase symbolises how the people follow the ideologies blindly, without contemplating and taking into consideration the views of the people. The novel also mentions the false news in the Party newspaper which Quan came to realise after becoming a soldier. During the war at the B3 front during the Tet offensive, Quan had buried countless numbers of his companions and the Communist Party daily had celebrated the victories of that incident (Duong 83). Quan then does not believe in the news brought by the Party and had ripped the newspaper into shreds and throwing them into a stream (Duong 83). Therefore, the Party newspaper symbolises the blindness and ignorance against the realities gave most of those who still believe in the ideology energy to fight (Duong 84).
Another atrocity of war from the novel is the fleas which Quan spots in the shelter where he was rescued by the old man and his granddaughter (Duong 69). The fleas symbolise the poverty which entails the war where they rejoice during war with unlimited amount of blood and the people could not be too concerned with the fleas as their time is taken by war (Duong 69). The fleas symbolise the poverty which comes from war and the people oversee the poverty by focusing on surviving the war itself. People live their lives in poverty and without comfort because of war. In one part of the novel, Quan watches Bien eat hungrily, he felt something like regret (Duong 109). War has changed Bien from being the rosy-cheeked boy who could carry a hundred baskets of paddy rice on his back and dreamt (Duong 109). Quan’s regret when he saw Bien eating hungrily symbolises their youth being taken away by war (Duong 109).
The native soil is what represents what most soldiers adored and cherished, but for Quan whose mother had long been dead and father who was always a stranger to him, did not share the same adoration on the native soil (Duong 110). This represents the loss of the sense to fight for the country, yet Quan could not escape his fate. This is another atrocity of war that is symbolised in the novel.
Quan’s father symbolises the negative effects of war on men. Quan reminisce the time his father came back and tortured his mother mentally. Quan’s mother tries to explain why she had her cousin accompany her to get food one day and his father bangs the table and silences her (Duong 112). His father is remembered as a brute, and a cruel, hateful presence (Duong 113). Then it is revealed in the novel that Quan’s father is completely engulfed in jealousy and this might be because of the ideology which has seeped into his mind, making him wary of his own wife (Duong 114). This effect can be seen as his father has neither the strength nor motivation to do much with his life (117). The fact that he only follows what his neighbours are doing is what is keeping him alive (Duong 117). Quan’s father’s perseverance is like that of a water buffalo and this represents those who follow the ideology blindly without question or contemplation (Duong 117).
Mr. Buu symbolises someone who does not believe in the ideology and this can be seen when he says that in the earlier times there are few honest and civilised leaders and now, all are ignorant of the basic morals (Duong 133). The people who give orders under the name of Marxism-Lenninism took their land and cultivation and even their women (Duong 133). In a way, Duong Thu Huong channels the weaknesses of the ideology through the character of Mr. Buu. Furthermore, when Quan tells Mr. Buu about what really happened to Bien and Quan realises that there is a part of him that continued on living while another part of him waited, watched, dazed and agonised from the war and this was released when he told Mr. Buu of the truth about the war (Duong 136).
The train Quan rode symbolises the wartime and the poverty and misery brought about by war (Duong 154). People shoved and scrambled to get on the train and the train is filthy and old (Duong 154). This represents at war where people only fight for themselves, for survival and the harsh realities and conditions of the country at times of war. The old man Quan met on the train also symbolises the poverty which entails the war as the man hungrily ate the piece of stale bread and is happy with the simple gestures such as Quan’s help to find a place for his sack of bowls (Duong 155).
Another major part of the novel which shows the weakness of the ideology is during the conversation of the two idealists (Duong 158). The ideology somehow influences the people to be wary of their wives and this can be seen when one of the men say that the wife is the husband’s unofficial enemy (Duong 158). The conversation of the two men reveal that the ideology is only a lie where the people under the Party are not exactly comrades like had been promised (Duong 159). The people are merely servants, tricked by the Party. Their conversation also reveals how many people have abandoned everything for an ideal, the promises of Communism in Vietnam (Duong 160). The idealists also tricked the people into doing what they want, building the civilisation without lifting a finger themselves (Duong 162). The idealists also used or rather, altered the ideology to replace religion in the hearts of the people and doing this is easier than trying to civilise them (Duong 162). They have also called the ideology as an opiate religion where the idealists would need the opiate more than anyone else (Duong 163). The religion of the people in Vietnam is replaced by Marxism where the people would hang pictures of Marx instilling divinity to the masses (Duong 163). Here it can be seen that there is an absence of religion among the people of Vietnam. Furthermore, there is a revelation that Karl Marx himself was not a noble man (Duong 164). The two men say that Marx hung out in brothels and had a few children out of wedlock (Duong 164). Therefore, from their conversation it can be seen that the little fat man symbolise the idealists and the hypocrisy of the Communist ideology in Vietnam.
Another classification of symbolism that can be found in the novel is the loss of lives due to the Vietnam War. The death of the young soldier whose skeleton Quan found symbolises a terrible death. Dying of hunger, the soldier must have felt his blood thicken like glue, fading from red to grey and his breath going chill from death (Duong 53). Also a symbolisation after Quan found the dead soldier’s skeleton is how Quan has accepted death after his experiences in war. Quan realises his similarity with the dead soldier as they both love their mother (Duong 58). After promising to the dead soldier that he will visit the man’s mother’s grave, Quan says that despite them, at least his mother c