Literature and War Readalong May 29 2015: Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without A Name

Two years ago we read Bao Ninh’s moving novel on the war in Vietnam The Sorrow of War. Quite a few of those who participated and others who read our posts stated that they would be interested in reading novels by Vietnamese authors. That’s why I chose to include Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê, another famous novel on the war in Vietnam. It was written by one of Vietnam’s most prominent authors: Duong Thu Huong. She is well-respected outside of her native country. If you read French you’ll find translations of many of her books. Duong Thu Huong is not only a great writer but a courageous one. Many of her novels have been forbidden in Vietnam and she was imprisoned for her political views.

Duong Thu Huong

This link will lead you to the website of Swiss publisher Unionsverlag. Unionsverlag is a pioner when it comes to world literature. On their website you’ll find newspaper articles and interviews on and with Duong Thu Houng – in English.

Here are the first sentences (which I had to translated from my German copy)

I heard the wind howl all through the night, out there, over the ravine of the lost souls.

It sounded like a constant moan, like sobbing, then again like cheeky whistling, like the neighing of a mare during copulation. The roof of the pile dwelling trembled, the bamboo poles burst and whistled every time like reed pipes. They played the mournful melody of a country burial. Our nightlight flickered as if it was going to die down. I stretched my neck from under the quilt, blew out the light, and hoped that the shadow of the night would cover up all the senses . . .

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Duong Thu Huong (Vietnam 1995), War in Vietnam, Novel, 304 pages.

Vietnamese novelist Huong, who has been imprisoned for her political beliefs, presents the story of a disillusioned soldier in a book that was banned in her native country.

A piercing, unforgettable tale of the horror and spiritual weariness of war, Novel Without a Name will shatter every preconception Americans have about what happened in the jungles of Vietnam. With Duong Thu Huong, whose Paradise of the Blind was published to high critical acclaim in 1993, Vietnam has found a voice both lyrical and stark, powerful enough to capture the conflict that left millions dead and spiritually destroyed her generation. Banned in the author’s native country for its scathing dissection of the day-to-day realities of life for the Vietnamese during the final years of the “Vietnam War, ” Novel Without a Name invites comparison with All Quiet on the Western Front and other classic works of war fiction. The war is seen through the eyes of Quan, a North Vietnamese bo doi (soldier of the people) who joined the army at eighteen, full of idealism and love for the Communist party and its cause of national liberation. But ten years later, after leading his platoon through almost a decade of unimaginable horror and deprivation, Quan is disillusioned by his odyssey of loss and struggle. Furloughed back to his village in search of a fellow soldier, Quan undertakes a harrowing, solitary journey through the tortuous jungles of central Vietnam and his own unspeakable memories.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 29 May 2015.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Do You Remember the First Book You Bought?

Nuvat the Brave

I still remember that day as if it had been yesterday. I was nine years old and already an avid reader. I had a little bit of money, pocket money I hadn’t spent on comics and some of the sour gums I liked to eat. It was strange to go to school on a Saturday afternoon. Usually that’s when school was off, but it was a special day, a special occasion, and I was keen on spending what little money I had saved.  I still see the entrance of the school, smell the linoleum floor, and heavy chalky air. No other school ever smelled as chalky as this. The display tables took up all the space of the entrance hall and my heart began to beat incredibly fast as soon as I was close to them. I wouldn’t be able to buy a lot. I had to choose carefully and wisely. It wouldn’t be enough money to buy more than one or two books.

The used book sale was a charity event. Children had brought the books they didn’t want anymore, and the school library had contributed those, which were not circulated any longer. There wasn’t a lot I loved more than books, not even at the age of nine. My mother always bought me the latest children’s books and the old classics. Whenever she heard that someone sold the books of their older children, she bought those too. That was wonderful and I loved it, still nothing could compare to that day and the used book sale in my elementary school because that day I bought my very first book.

I still have it somewhere in the attic. It’s torn, the spine is broken, the pages are loose, but the linen cover is still intensely blue and the little Inuit boy in his canoe is still standing upright on the front cover promising a tale of adventure and a world I didn’t know, a world long gone by now. The title was simple, embossed in bold, black letters: “Nuvat the Brave“ by Radko Doone —or rather “Nuvats grosse Fahrt“ in its German translation. It was one of the books the library discarded, an old book that no child had ever checked out.

The book wasn’t only the first book I bought, it opened a door to something, which I have been passionate about ever since – foreign cultures, the promise of strange and haunting tales, other life styles and mysterious rites and habits. A whole wide, wondrous world for me to discover.

Which was the first book you bought?

Stanley Meisler: Shocking Paris (2015)

Shocking Paris

It’s rare that I accept review copies these days, but a book about the so-called School of Paris wasn’t something to pass up. I don’t regret accepting Shocking Paris as I’ve read it in a couple of days, something I rarely do with nonfiction. I really liked it a great deal. It was as fascinating as it was informative.

Stanley Meisler is a distant relative of Chaim Soutine, which may explain his interest in a painter who isn’t as well-known in the US as in Europe. Soutine isn’t the only writer Meisler writes about. His topic is the School of Paris – a group of influential, mostly Eastern Jewish painters, who were living and working in Paris from the years just before WWI until WWII. Most of them lived and worked in Montparnasse in the famous La Ruche residence. Back then Montmartre had already lost its importance for painters and was slowly turning into the tourist trap it still is.

While Chaim Soutine is his main topic, we read about many other painters, notably Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian Jew, and Marc Chagall, still one of the most famous painters.

The early chapters were particularly interesting because they describe how revolutionary it was that young Jewish men and women became artists and the struggle they faced because painting was against their religion. That certainly explains why so many left for Paris where important artists like Picasso resided. It also explains, as Meisler states, why there are no important Jewish painters prior to the 20th century.

Soutine

Soutine

Above—two paintings by Chaim Soutine

I’ve never been a fan of Soutine’s paintings, but it’s obvious that he was influential. You can see his influence in the works of painters like Francis Bacon and even Jackson Pollock.

The landscapes he painted were always distorted, the people made ugly. And he had a special fondness for depicting bloody meat. Another typical trait was how thick the paint is on his paintings. Many appear three-dimensional thanks to those thick layers of paint.

Modigliani

Above—painting by Amedeo Modigliani

Modigliani, who was his close friend until he died too early in 1920, was a much more colourful person. Soutine was not only notoriously shy but awkward. He didn’t know how to make friends. According to Meisler, he rarely washed or changed his clothes and must have been rather revolting at times. He was also peculiar in so far as he destroyed many of his paintings. Either because someone said something he didn’t like about them or because he wasn’t satisfied anymore.

Chagall 2

Chagall1

Above—two paintings by Marc Chagall

Shocking Paris was a fascinating book for many reasons. It was interesting to read about the School of Paris and the anti-Semitism they were facing, long before WWII. Chaim Soutine is one of only a few Jewish painters who didn’t change his name. It was equally interesting to read about the war and how Soutine managed to escape deportation. There’s a long chapter about Varian Fry, a young American, who helped many writers and painters to escape to the US. I’ve come across his name several times before. Some of the most famous people he helped were—Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Max Ernst, André Breton, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler and many more.

Soutine spent parts of the war, hidden in Paris. Later he fled to the country with his lover Marie Berthe Aurenche, the ex-wife of max Ernst. His health had been bad for many years. He suffered from stomach ulcers and finally died in 1943 because he couldn’t be treated in time. He’s buried on the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris.

Early in the book Meisler writes that he avoided conjecture. Soutine was a complicated man and many of the things people say about him are contradicting. He wasn’t someone who spoke or wrote about his art or himself, like Chagall did. Nor was he good-looking and larger than life like Modigliani. Nonetheless, it’s always tempting to try to spice up a biographical account by adding anecdotes and using conjecture. Meisler doesn’t do that. The account is interesting but sober that’s why I wished the book had another title. I find it lurid. And misleading. At the time people were shocked that so many foreigners, especially Jews, occupied such an important place in the Parisian art scene, but there’s nothing truly shocking between these pages. I’m afraid the wrong reader might pick up this book. That’s too bad because it’s engaging and well-researched and focusses on painters and a movement which isn’t well-known outside of France.

I highly recommend this book, not only to art fans and people interested in Soutine and Chagall, but also to those interested in WWII, Paris and the history of France (there’s a lot – highly critical parts – about Vichy France).

Thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for the review copy.

Chantal Thomas: Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine (2002)

Farewell, my Queen

I’ve always been fascinated by Marie Antoinette and I tend to like the choices for the French Prix Femina. Chantal Thomas’ novel Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine  won the prize in 2002 and has been been made into a movie in 2012. Chantal Thomas is an academic, specialized in the  XVIIIe century. Farewell, my Queen was her first novel.

What appealed to me was that she chose to tell the story from the point of view of Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, the queen’s reader. The book begins in 1810, in Vienna. Agathe-Sidonie is 65 years old and looking back on her life at Versailles, especially, her three last days there— July 14, July 15 and July 16 1789. At the end of the last day, most of the close entourage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI will have fled Versailles. The queen is left behind although she’s in great danger. Agathe-Sidonie is told to flee with the de Polignacs.

Marie Ant.

Focussing on three days, describing the many rituals, the rooms and apartments of the people living at Versailles, and contrasting Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon and at Versailles, give an incredible insight into the life of this ill-fated woman. Her fears and joys are rendered vividly, her character comes to life. Agathe-Sidonie is not part of the entourage, she’s just a better sort of servant, which allows Chantal Thomas to play with proximity and distance, the effect of which is quite arresting. At times, we see the queen from afar, the way her people saw her, at times, when Agathe-Sidonie reads to her, or sits in her rooms, all but forgotten, we get a very intimate look at the poor queen.

While I think the French Revolution was more than justified, I was still moved by this account, by the growing fear of the courtiers. Many of the scenes take place during the night and, since most of the servants abandoned the court, they take place in obscurity, which enhances the feeling of doom and danger.

Marie Antoinette

What I liked best is how Chantal Thomas used the descriptions of light and weather to underline emotions. I equally loved her use of imagery and symbols. One of the most beautiful was evoked when Agathe-Sidonie looks back and thinks of the season of the queen’s balls. Marie Antoinette was very fond of fashion. Of course that was one of the things she was blamed for the most. Before the season of the balls she would order numerous new dresses, one per ball. Those dresses would be hidden from everyone’s eyes until the day of the ball, but the inhabitants of Versailles could see them being transported back and forth from the tailor’s rooms to the queen’s rooms. The dresses were wrapped in white taffeta, and called by many “the shadows of the queen”. When Agathe -Sidonie remembers this, the queen herself has become a mere shadow.

I wondered often why people were so fascinated by Marie Antoinette. When you read Farewell, my Queen, you get a pretty good idea why. She must have been very gentle, joyful, playful, and affectionate. She loved beautiful things and everything around her had to be perfect. I felt pity for this girl who came to the court at the age of 15 and was disgraced and guillotined at 37.

It’s chilling to read about the last moments at Versailles, and how even her most intimate friends like the Duchess de Polignac fled the palace. Because Agathe-Sidonie loved the queen and her life at Versailles, the book is very nostalgic.

Farewell, my Queen is unlike any other Marie Antoinette novel I’ve read. It could only have been written by someone who has done extensive research. Still, it’s moving and nostalgic and really beautiful. It’s almost as good as my favourite historical novel L’allée du Roi  – The King’s Way by Françoise Chandernagor, which tells the story of Mme de Maintenon. The two novels complement each other, as we see Versailles still under construction in The King’s Way and abandoned in the later book.

I’m tempted to watch the movie but I’m afraid it took a lot of liberties and is very different from the book.

Kim Echlin: The Disappeared (2009) Literature and War Readalong March 2015

The Disappeared

Friends of mine visited Cambodia. They loved the country for its beauty, but they told me that it wasn’t an easy country for travelling as you’re not allowed to move as freely as you’d like because of the danger of the land-mines. A friend of mine is half-Cambodian. He was born in Europe, after the war, but spent a couple of months in Cambodia where he joined a bomb disposal unit. He came back changed and traumatized.  He wouldn’t speak for months. Thirty years of war ravaged the country and left the deadly long-lasting legacy of millions of land-mines. Cambodia is among the ten countries with the most landmines. Currently there are still 8 – 10 million. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of disability. Since 1979 there are some 40 amputations per week. To clear Cambodia of its land mines could take up to 100 years.

The war as such isn’t easy to understand. First there were the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, later the Vietnamese invasion. Mostly these wars were genocides. Depending on which side was in  power it would try to wipe out the other side using torture, rape, mutilation and shootings.

I usually don’t start a book review with so much back information but I felt it was needed in this case, although it’s still not nearly enough.

Kim Echlin’s novel The Disappeared begins right after the Khmer Rouge have fled the country. Anne Greves is in Phnom Pen looking for her lover Serey. She met him in Montreal ten years ago when she was only sixteen. Serey, a student and musician, fled Cambodia during the rise of the Khmer Rouge. He has no news of his family. The two young people begin a passionate love affair until Serey returns to Cambodia. Anne hopes he will keep in touch but he doesn’t. She waits and waits and the years go by. She has other lovers but she can’t forget Serey. Meanwhile she has learned the Khmer language and decides to travel to Cambodia and search for Serey in all the clubs of Phnom Pen.

When she finds him she discovers he too couldn’t forget her and they become lovers again until the day Serey disappears once more.

The Disappeared is a stunning novel. Beautiful and harrowing. Through the eyes of Anne we discover the beauty, tragedy, and horror of Cambodia. Thanks to her lover, and because she speaks the language, she is able to immerse herself fully. While the Pol Pot regime is over, Cambodia is still in a state of war, people are still hunted, tortured an executed.

The book is written like a lament. Often Anne addresses her lover.

I see your long silence as I see war, an urge to conquer. You used silence to guard your territory and told yourself you were protecting me. I was outside the wall, an intoxicating foreign land to occupy. I wondered what other secrets you guarded. Our disappeared were everywhere, irresistible, in waking, in sleeping, a reason for violence, a reason for forgiveness, destroying the peace we tried to possess, creeping between us as we dreamed, leaving us haunted by the knowledge that history is not redeemed by either peace or war but only fingered to shreds and left to our children. But I could not leave you, and I could not forget, and I did not know what to do, and always loved you beyond love.

Serey stands for millions of disappeared people. Most relatives never find out what happened to their loved ones, but Anne, fuelled by her passion and because she’s a foreigner who cannot fully comprehend the risk she’s taking, doesn’t let go until she’s found out what happened to the man she loves.

Many of the chapters are like short vignettes. Some contain not much more than lists of atrocities. War is awful but genocide is even much more horrible. To read about what is done to women and children, even babies, is hard to stomach.

Nonetheless it’s a beautiful, captivating book. Anne is passionate about her man and his country, discovering everything, breathlessly. This gives the reader the feel of being on a trip through a foreign country, led by a highly knowledgable guide. It is foreign but you feel like you’re quickly becoming a part of it.

The language is the language of a poet although Kim Echlin doesn’t write poetry. It’s lyrical and full of powerful images.

Kim Echlin managed something admirable. She captured the universality of grief, loss, and war, but at the same time she brought to life a country’s story that we’re either not familiar with or not interested in. In this, the novel is a call for compassion.

Why do some people live a comfortable life and others live one that is horror-filled? What part of ourselves do we shave off so we can keep on eating while others starve? If women, children, and old people were being murdered a hundred miles from here, would we not run to help? Why do we stop this decision of the heart when the distance is three thousand miles instead of a hundred?

The book explores the question of how much we can really understand of a foreign country. I liked that Anne never accepted to stay an outsider. She wanted to be part even if that meant that she put herself in danger.

The Disappeared isn’t easy to read but I loved this haunting book. It’s an amazing achievement, an intense, lucid, lyrical, and compassionate novel about a devastating conflict and a love that surpasses everything.

I’m going to end this post with one of my favorite scenes from the book. It takes place in Montreal. I think it shows what a wonderfully expressive writer Kim Echlin is and illustrates her style, how she renders dialogue.

We rode your bike to the great river. Stars and water and night. Down the riverbank, wrapped in darkness. You led me along a dock where boats were moored in narrow slips and we jumped onto the deck of a sloop called Rosalind. You took a small key from your jeans pocket and unlocked the cabin door. I followed you down the three steep steps into a tiny galley and you opened a cupboard door and took out a box of floating candles. You said, At home it is Sampeas Preah Khe, the night we pray to the moon. My grandmother always lit a hundred candles and sent them out on the black river.

Why?

To honor the river and the Buddha.

You handed me a book of matches and I lit them with you, one by one. We sent out the ninety-ninth and hundredth out together and wathched the trail of small flames drifting away. You said, My grandmother told me in the old days young people did this and prayed for love.

Other reviews

 My Book Strings

Vishy (Vishy’s Blog)

 

 

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The Disappeared is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2015. The next book is the Vietnamese novel Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Huon Thu huong. Discussion starts on Friday 29 May, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Kate Saunders: Five Children on the Western Front (2014)

Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front is a delightful story inspired by E. Nesbit’s famous children’s book Five Children and It. I’m still surprised how much I loved this book. I’m not always keen on sequels of classics, but since I haven’t read Nesbit’s tale yet, I couldn’t compare. And I’m aware that the main character of the book “It” – or Psammead -, the sand fairy, is Nesbit’s creation and not Saunders’, nonetheless her book offers many new elements.

When the five children were younger, they had many adventures with a furry, snooty creature they discovered in a gravel pit. The sand fairy was able to grant wishes and those wishes, which were always over at sunset, transported them back and forth in time. Often with hilarious consequences.

But since then many years have gone by. Cyril, Anthea and Robert are in their twenties, Jane is about sixteen, and the youngest, the Lamb, is eleven and not even the youngest anymore. There’s a sixth child, the nine year-old Edie.

The younger kids were often jealous of their siblings’ adventures with the sand fairy and are overjoyed when they discover the grumpy creature in their gravel pit. It’s the beginning of WWI and the sand fairy is stuck in their world. He cannot go home, he cannot make any wishes. Or only accidental ones. The kids take him home and hide him in a sand bath on the attic.

Like in the first book they have many hilarious adventures. They are even more mysterious this time because the sand fairy can’t control them. Some of the adventures are more troubling than funny. Cyril has enlisted and is soon followed by Robert. More than one wish transports them to the trenches where they become witnesses of the horrors.

The beginning of the book was so lovely and light, I was a bit afraid it wasn’t showing the proper respect for the war, but it turned darker and darker, showing the danger, the seriousness and the consequences of the war. Death and facial disfigurement are as much part of the tale as the changing times— women who leave their homes to become nurses, the first opportunities for women to study medicine.

I’m amazed that Kate Suanders was able to combine two such different moods. The characters are so endearing and their affection for each other is heartwarming. I didn’t want the book to end and will certainly read Nesbit’s story. The sand fairy is such a great creation. He has telescopic eyes, the ears of a bat, long, gangly limbs and a rotund body. He’s smug, nosey, grumpy, selfish and mean. There’s a reason why he returned during the war. He’s done a lot of bad things in his lifetime and has to make amends.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 09.58.57

Kate Saunders wrote an interesting afterword in which she writes how she got the idea. She loved Five Children and It as a child and, later in life, realized that these Edwardian children would be part of the generation that had to go to war and was so heavily decimated. Losing her own son at the age of nineteen, helped her give the book emotional depth.

I really recommend this novel. It’s charming and sad. I thought she did well not to modernize it. The children sound like children of the time, which gives the story a nostalgic feel.

I only hope I won’t think differently about it once I’ve read E. Nesbit’s story.

Have you read E. Nesbit? Which of her books do you like best?

Guest Interview at Postcards From Asia

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I was very honoured when one of my favourite bloggers, Delia from Postcards from Asia, asked me if I would like to take part in her guest post series.

In her interviews she asks questions about favourite books, books that we’d take to a desert island, books that made us cry . . .

If you’re interested you can find the interview here.

I always enjoy reading Delia’s thoughtful posts and the events we organized together were some of the best blogging experiences I had. I hope we’ll do that again soon.