I hadn’t read a literary work with such care for the characters and a narrative that weaves humanity’s impulses, tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses with everyday forces of nature. Mien, Hoan, Bon, Xa, and the communities in which they reside are written richly and compellingly. Their often unpredictable actions build layers of smoke, and their relationships billow, collide, fade, erase, and explode.
I didn’t not know until after reading No Man’s Land (translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong) that Vietnamese author Duong Thu Huong was one of three survivors in a communist youth brigade in the war with the invaders from the United States. This provides perspective for one character in particular, Bon, who returns to his village a war hero after fourteen years of absence. He has come to claim his wife, Mien, who he knew in marriage for only a summer when they were seventeen. But Mein is remarried and has a son, and she doesn’t even recognize Bon. The first chapter ends with a forced kiss from Bon—nothing but lust in his eyes. While readers can understand Mein’s torture as she has to return to Bon out of duty, Bon is an equally empathizable character. We struggle as he struggles to understand the world has changed, and he is merely a ghost—just like the ghost of the man he killed that visits him in the jungle years earlier.
While this book is about, in Huong’s own words, the courage to die but not to live, this book is also more subtly about delusions, lovers, and the beloved. At some point, each character tries to comprehend the incomprehensible. Why am I not loved? Why is this happening to me?
A convenient thing to blame is the allure of almost pointless Vietnamese traditions and values. The community feels immense pride and basks in it and the rituals it brings—even when it brings them misfortune. Which is why it is such a release when Mien finally chooses to abandon them. When she leaves Bon to return to Hoan, she is prepared with a “flood of words that are no intellectuals’”—ready to defend her right to live the way she wants to. But interestingly, part of this rebellion is still caring for Bon, even if it means rejection from Hoan.
We follow Mien as she changes her life to live, unhappily, with Bon. Bon knows what he is destroying, but he never lets himself finish thoughts that would lead to this conclusion of unhappiness. His persistence is both admirable and sad. It is clear, again and again, that the impact of war is almost too strong to bear. But the tension does not explode into complete destruction. There is hope in forgetting and in not having an equal share. A few community members have a discussion on this very issue—it is easier and better to forget that another is more fortunate than you, not to force a change. But is this even possible? There are limits to progress. Not unless, to quote the final words of the novel, there is a world without humans.
By Treasa Bane, Librarian at University of Wisconsin-Baraboo / Sauk County