The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

The Corpse and the Cannibal: The Abjection of the North Vietnamese Soldier in Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War

The Corpse and the Cannibal: The Abjection of the North Vietnamese Soldier in Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War

By Sydney To

In this essay, I draw upon Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection to analyze two novels written by North Vietnamese veterans: Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. I argue that, in both texts, the abjection of the North Vietnamese soldier is illustrated through the soldier’s irrationally violent reaction to corpses in the wartime landscape. By emphasizing the phenomenological costs of abjection—in which the borders of living / dead, human / thing, and self / other have become blurred—I hope to highlight the pitfalls of vital materialism, a recent critical framework which, by advocating for the leveling of species hierarchies, becomes insufficiently attentive to the still influential hierarchies of race and class; in other words, a celebration of the posthuman seems premature in light of the humans who, in recent history as well as today, have been reduced to the level of objects against their will.

I furthermore argue that the inability of the soldier to separate himself or herself from the abject corpse—as symptomatic of the soldier’s own abjection—invokes the image of the cannibal. The soldiers devour their dead companions, literally and figuratively, insofar as the living fail to recognize the humanity of the dead, and insofar as their survival is only made possible through the deaths of their comrades. So too do the dead devour the living, who have been stripped to what Giorgio Agamben would describe as “bare life,” unable to return to normalized postwar society. On yet another level, this motif of cannibalism is symbolic of how the Vietnam War was not only a war between Vietnam and the U.S. but was also a war between North and South Vietnam, a historical dimension which often goes unacknowledged in Western scholarship and global memory.


The Dissident Writers

Many transpacific Vietnamese studies critics have noted the vanishing of the South Vietnamese soldier. In her essay “Forking Paths,” Nguyên-Vo Thu-Huong describes the triple erasure of the South Vietnamese: silenced and denied official rites of mourning by the new Vietnamese state, delegitimized as puppets of U.S. imperialism by the Left, and tokenized for the sake of multiculturalist American Dream narratives by right-leaning “empire builders” (162). Describing the reception of Vietnamese literature in the West, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud affirms Nguyên-Vo’s critique: “Both the Americans who fought in Viet Nam and those who protested the war showed more interest in the North Vietnamese than in the Vietnamese U.S. allies in the South” (26). In Body Counts, Yến Lê Espiritu observes “the forced disappearance of South Vietnamese soldiers” (125) when various American veteran communities forbade the erection of war memorials for the South Vietnamese soldiers who had been America’s allies. Hue-Tam Ho Tai cautions against criticism which “risks turning them [the southern dead] into the scholarly equivalents of the wandering ghosts who, dying unmourned, constantly haunt the living” (“Afterward: Commemoration and Community,” 228), while Viet Thanh Nguyen advocates for the similar necessity of such an inclusion, for “neither side [Vietnamese or American] show[s] any inclination for remembering the southern Vietnamese, who stink of loss, melancholy, bitterness, and rage” (Nothing Ever Dies, 9). Without denying the importance of excavating the histories of the South Vietnamese, this counter-memory impulse may have ironically concealed the need to also recover an opposite figure: the North Vietnamese soldier. While the histories of southern soldiers are omitted for ideological reasons, the ideological instrumentalization of northern soldiers has also led to the omission of their narratives. It would be a mistake to believe that the Vietnamese state’s grand commemorations of the sacrifices of the northern soldier imply that he or she is properly remembered. One would only need to turn towards the censorship of dissident veteran writers such as Duong Thu Huong and Bao Ninh in order to be convinced otherwise.

These divergent obstacles to proper mourning find a possible allegory in a point made by anthropologist Heonik Kwon in his study of Vietnamese cultural practices surrounding the dead: “The bodies in the mass grave, in this sense, form a material condition whose meaning is opposite to that of people missing in action. The latter complicates domestic ritual with the absence of the body to be reburied; the former with the presence of too many bodies to rebury” (After the Massacre, 94). The corpse within Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War is that which confounds all attempts at its assimilation. The corpse, in order to be assimilated, must consequently be denied.

Ironically, although the living may be disturbed by thoughts of the undead—the zombies and ghosts which should be dead but, in fact, are not—the corpse is even more disturbing because it should be dead and, in fact, is.[1] As Erin Edwards writes, “I refuse to believe the evidence before my eyes, even as my eyes strain to record a final moment with the known person who has already passed into the realm of the unknowable. The corpse confounds epistemology” (13). Utterly dead, the corpse seems fundamentally meaningless. As such, it seems to resist its own integration into the nationalism of the Vietnamese state, whose attempt to give meaning to Vietnamese deaths is simultaneous with its attempt to absorb the meaning which it desires to attribute to such deaths. Shaun Kingsley Malarney writes, “The dead soldier was one of the greatest threats to the legitimacy and authority of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the first three decades of its existence” (“‘The Fatherland Remembers Your Sacrifice,’” 46). Malarney, however, describes not so much the corpse as the dead soldier, who under such a title has already partly returned into the arms of the nation—but the incompleteness of the dead soldier’s return, I argue, is due to the corpse itself. My readings of Novel and Sorrow demonstrate that the corpse also withstands becoming instrumentalized by the soldier.

Conversely, in Novel, it is the soldier who becomes assimilated into the corpse as the result of his or her subjection to variously intersecting demands of Marxism, nationalism, masculinity, and physical as well as psychic survival. The soldier who has become corpse-like has become part of a multitude: deadened, inhuman, grotesque, thing-like. “Bones are a multiplicity,” write Deleuze and Guattari (qtd. in Edwards 9); “The dead are thought in a mess, figured as the decaying body,” writes Jonathan Strauss (273). If the wartime soldier is forced into the process of becoming-corpse, to adapt Deleuze and Guattari’s popular concept, the peacetime soldier’s attempt at unbecoming-corpse and returning to society is not entirely successful either. Both becoming- or unbecoming-corpse, as we will see, are processes that unfold violently. And both scenarios make unacceptable demands upon the soldier: to lose one’s humanity in becoming-corpse, or to lose one’s sight of the history and sacrifices of war in denying the corpse. I analyze these tensions through two dominant scenes. In the first, Novel’s protagonist Quan is forced to cannibalize a human-resembling orangutan in order to re-integrate into the abject multitude of the North Vietnamese soldiers. And in the second, Sorrow’s protagonist Kien witnesses the soldiers’ desecrating abuse of a woman’s naked corpse in an attempt to revive their dulled sense of abjection, but which now seems integral to their humanity and prospective reintegration into postwar society.

My discussion of becoming-corpse seems to easily lend itself to another posthumanist concept: thing-power, as theorized by Jane Bennett. Observing the ways in which the corpse exerts a type of influence upon those within its proximity, Edwards writes: “If we consider the scene of funeral processions, for example, it is hard to deny that the corpse is the central actant—drawing crowds, disrupting flows of traffic, and evoking profound emotion from the people who surround it. From an actor-network point of view, there is a ‘corpse-power’ that moves the living world” (6). If there is such a field as corpse theory, many scholars who would fit into this category are also inclined to conceptualize the corpse in terms of “vibrant matter” (Bennett 3). Alongside Edwards, Strauss suggests, “It is difficult not to imagine that cadavers retain some sort of consciousness as they rot into the dirt, offering the image of a thinking that defies both death and the limits of the subject” (271). David Sherman observes, “The corpse [is] a site of ideological recalcitrance and disorientation. . . In this cultural insolence, the corpse means both more and less than what it is supposed to mean” (5). Finally, even Maurice Blanchot comments upon the capacity of the corpse to estrange the living from ordinary spaces: “The deceased cleaves jealously to his place, joining it profoundly, in such a way that the indifference.  .  .  becomes the profundity of his presence as deceased” (256). If the task of posthumanism is to decenter the human subject, “to experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally. . . [and] to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility” (Bennett 10), then part of this chapter’s ambition is to establish the potential ahistoricity and non-isometric universality of such a prescription. Bennett, acknowledging the potential misuses of vital materialism as a framework, writes, “The fear is that in failing to affirm human uniqueness, such views authorize the treatment of people as mere things,” but shuffles off the critique through the utilitarian judgment that “the Kantian imperative to treat humanity always as an end-in-itself and never merely as a means does not have a stellar record of success in preventing human suffering or promoting human well-being” (11-12). My readings of Novel and Sorrow attempt to give more weight to this “fear” which Bennett describes, and insofar as this chapter might be read as a critique of Bennett and a corrective to existing corpse theory, it does so in two parts. Novel, in portraying the horrors of becoming absorbed into a multitude, discloses the physical and psychological pressures of a posthumanist sensibility in becoming “inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations” (Bennett 13), while Sorrow, in portraying the tragedy of the soldier having endured his own instrumentalization throughout the war, takes some steps in justifying the soldier’s attempt to transcend his status of mere thingness. Bennett’s vital materialism possesses many merits, but it underestimates the importance which has been and is attached to notions of “the human” at various historical and cultural intersections. One such critical intersection was the Vietnam War and its devastated postwar period, when “the human” was especially in need of being reinstated.

In place of thing-power, I turn towards Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic concept of abjection in order to elucidate the various ways in which the soldier uneasily relates to the corpse. Abjection refers to the state in which one’s identity loses shape and the boundaries between the self and the other have become blurred; the abject refers to that which contains the potential to enact this destruction of the self. Kristeva views the corpse as the paradigmatic example of the abject, and the soldier’s becoming-corpse can be understood as the absolute surrender to the abject: “In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection” (4). As Plato illustrates through Leontius, who “opened his eyes wide and rushed toward the corpses, saying: ‘Look for yourselves, you evil wretches; take your fill of the beautiful sight’” (Republic, 439e-440a), the subject sustains contradictory responses towards the abject: excitement and disgust. If Bennett is to be critiqued for her inclination towards universalizing the human subject, then Kristeva is undoubtedly all the more deserving of the same critique, not only for her psychoanalytic premises but for her notorious construction of the white female subject through the Chinese woman as other. Su-lin Yu writes, “Although Kristeva’s effort to construct an imaginary for Western women is rooted in the embodiment of the other women—a kind of subjectivity in which the other is recognized rather than denied—and although she tries to reverse the role of Third-World women, turning the inferior other into positive other, these moves cannot prevent her from exercising the imperialist act of subject constitution” (“Reconstructing Western Female Subjectivity”). Whereas Kristeva understands the abject as that which compels both attraction and repulsion, this chapter’s comparative analysis suggests that the dynamic between these two sensations must also be historicized. The causes and forcefulness behind each sensation are not universal either, but rather, are also historically grounded in competing norms and ideologies. My readings of these two novels demonstrate that war draws out the attractive dimension of the abject corpse while postwar draws out its repulsive dimension. Whereas the soldier must embrace his own abjection in order to endure it, this relation to the corpse also results in the soldier’s exclusion from civilian life. To put it another way, the soldier must forfeit his identity as a soldier if he is to re-integrate into postwar society.

Duong Thu Huong and Bao Ninh are among the most representative writers of Đổi Mới (or Renovation) literature, following the decline of socialist realism. But when the Vietnamese state accommodated this new literary movement by relaxing its restrictions upon writers and artists, a formerly suppressed wave of criticism towards the state and the war’s legacy immediately flooded forth. As with China’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Vietnamese state quickly returned to its formerly restrictive attitudes. Since then, Duong has been condemned by the Vietnamese state and called by Communist Party Secretary Nguyen Van Linh as “that dissident slut,” placed under house arrest for seven months for secretly sending the manuscript of Novel to a foreign publisher, after it had been rejected by all of Hanoi’s publishing houses (McPherson, “Huong Thu Duong”). Duong now lives as an exile in Paris, but her works have won her several literary prizes and continue to be widely circulated and controversial. Meanwhile, Ninh’s Sorrow has not only won the Writers’ Association Prize for Literature in 1991 but has become, according to some, “Vietnam’s most beloved war novel” (Phien, “Photocopies of Photocopies: On Bao Ninh”). But after Sorrow (originally published as Thân Phận Của Tình Yêu, or The Destiny of Love) was translated and published in English in 1994 to wide acclaim, the prize was retracted and the novel was “condemned by party officials and the Hanoi Writer’s Union. Although never imprisoned, Ninh too was subject to years of governmental surveillance” (Janette 52). Regarding Ninh’s withdrawal from the literary scene, often refusing interviews and having published only some short stories since Sorrow, Thomas A. Bass states, “The Vietnamese use a variety of euphemisms to describe this gap in Bao Ninh’s literary career, but the correct term is censorship. . . In fact, he was rewarded for his silence, but he was censored, nonetheless” (qtd. in Inani, “The Long Silence of Bao Ninh”).

Đổi Mới literature is motivated by an intertwined disenchantment with a superficial, neo-capitalist, historically amnesiac, and internationally absurd state of affairs. Illustrating a cynicism towards contemporary society, Mark Philip Bradley describes the Vietnamese revisionist films of the 1980s which “represent the ingratitude, inequity, selfishness, and immorality they attribute to postwar Vietnamese society, in which the state’s wartime promises of socialist revolution remain unfulfilled” (197-98). The Vietnamese state seemed to betray its promises of not only social but economic reform. But Đổi Mới’s new economic policies, Tai writes, “seemed to undermine the very rationale for war and revolution. In the wake of profound economic difficulties and the worldwide decline of Marxism-Leninism, the triumphalist mood of the immediate postwar period had dissipated and the meaning of victory had become clouded” (“Faces of Remembrance and Forgetting,” 180). This economic downturn was only exacerbated by the U.S.’s economic embargo, which was lifted only in 1994. For these Đổi Mới writers, not only the state, but even postwar society at large, seemed to detach itself from memories of the war: Đổi Mới literature, such as Le Hung’s 1991 play Fable for the Year 2000, “pits revolutionary memory against postwar oblivion” (Tai, “Faces of Remembrance and Forgetting,” 189). Finally, Đổi Mới literature must also be read as a response to the Third Indochina War, which began shortly after the end of what is commonly called and what I have in this project called the Vietnam War (the Second Indochina War, or the American War) and had only just ended in 1991. Tuan Ngoc Nguyen writes,

The most typical manifestation of this scepticism and dissatisfaction was the indifference of the artists and writers concerning the exhortations of the Party when the wars with the Khmer Rouge and with China broke out in 1978 and 1979. In literary circles, little attention was paid to the Party’s recommendation to turn each poem, each fiction, and each essay into a bullet shooting at the enemy. Most of the writers and poets acted as though nothing had happened at the borders. No piece of poetry or prose connected to these wars attained fame. (263)

This war is briefly alluded to and ironically condemned in Ninh’s Sorrow: “The city was now coming alive again, this time in a synthetically generated frenzy of patriotism. Another war was about to break out!. . . Long live the army of Vietnam! A good soldier would always be invaluable, they said. That went on for weeks” (74). Tellingly, it was the outbreak of this war which somehow motivated Kien to finally begin writing, just as it had been the background which informed the writing of Đổi Mới authors such as Ninh. As with the wartime promises of a social utopia and socialist economy, the third Indochina War seemed to prove only the meaninglessness of the American War. Benedict Anderson thus opens his study Imagined Communities by noting, “These wars [between Vietnam, Cambodia, and China] are of world-historical importance because they are the first to occur between regimes whose independence and revolutionary credentials are undeniable, and because none of the belligerents has made more than the most perfunctory attempt to justify the bloodshed in terms of a recognizable Marxist theoretical perspective” (1), revealing rather how the delusions of nationalism and its “philosophical poverty and even incoherence” (5) had been the motivation behind each war. This brief survey of Đổi Mới society, I hope, provides a sketch of the historical influences behind this period’s literature, through which the war had still remained a source of trauma and tragic senselessness, while its payoffs appeared to be of depressingly little worth. As Andrew Ng concludes, “For these writers [Duong Thu Huong, Bao Ninh, lê thị diễm thúy], however, victory is fundamentally a hollow nationalist discourse that speaks little of the experiences of ordinary Vietnamese” (83).

There has not been much Anglo-American criticism dedicated to Ninh’s Sorrow or Duong’s Novel, but of the existing studies, many are motivated by the wish to supplement American perspectives of the war and give voice to the other side (Liparulo 2003; Searle 1998; Duong 2012; and Janette 2015). Michele Janette is particularly cautious in this respect, writing, “The prominence of Duong and Ninh in the West is deserved, and yet even as we acknowledge the disillusionment many Vietnamese feel in the wake of reunification, and the validity of their criticisms, we need also to examine our own appetite for this narrative” (56). It is not just this literature’s reception, but its very reproduction in the West which is motivated by anti-communist attitudes, as very few non-dissident novels have been made available for the Western reader.[2] If these dissident novels are a corrective to a Western-centric understanding of the war, they are a very restricted supplement, and also oft-repeated as the recommended supplement. Moreover, the above-cited critics risk assuming that authors such as Ninh and Duong are writing to correct Western preconceptions and assert their own humanity, ironically belying the Western-centrism of their own readings of these authors: “In each [Sorrow and Novel], our former enemy is given a very human face. . . each work also contains, like their American counterparts, incidents of disillusionment, drug use, racism, desertion. . . ” (Searle 225). Even so, my inclusion of these texts also shares these motivations, and while these writers may not be intending to redress the tropes of the American Vietnam War canon, a study of these novels redresses these tropes nonetheless. In particular, these two novels constantly return to an aspect of the war which many non-Vietnamese and Vietnamese have both overlooked when conceptualizing the war as a conflict between America and Vietnam—namely, that the war was also, and perhaps should firstly be conceived as, a civil war. In this respect, the failed reclamation of the corpse must also be understood as the residue of the still-contested claims between North and South Vietnam with regards to the national and heroic legacy of Vietnam.


Eating the Orangutan

In Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name, the abject corpses, animals, and soldiers exemplify civil war’s self-destructive and self-expelling violence. The ever-increasing abjection of the soldierly life is the result of the corruptions of nationalism and Marxism, compounded with the daily pressures of war. Duong parodies the Marxist ideal of universal equality through illustrating this abject desire to be absorbed into a grotesque unity and reduced into nothingness, as well as through the leveling of differences between humans and animals, resulting in scenes of cannibalism and bestiality. Duong’s ideological critique not only relies on these visions of Marxist and nationalist excesses but furthermore foregrounds the internal contradictions of these ideologies. Although “the first quality that the war demanded of a man was self-effacement” (Duong 28), the soldiers are nevertheless motivated by dreams of glory; but glory is further seen to ironically consist in the achievement of an utterly homogenous masculine ideal. And although the soldier’s other “first quality” is the willingness “to accept death” (79), scenes of morbid acts of eating and compelled assimilation into a national body belie the ways in which the soldiers deceive themselves about their own mortality and abject status.

Cannibalism is the soldier’s response to the abject corpse: just as the corpse encroaches upon the soldier’s borders, so too does the cannibal soldier begin to encroach upon the borders of other humans. The image is apt in portraying the civil war and the reckless pursuit of glory, as it refers to the act of eating one’s own in order to expand oneself, not realizing that eating one’s own is tantamount to eating oneself. The civil war is thus a conflict between two factions as much as it is a conflict within a single entity. Novel dramatizes this horror of the national body harming itself by transposing the logic of this aggression upon the NVA army harming itself, and finally, upon the individual subject who becomes at odds with himself. The cannibal can refer to not only the nation, but the individual who absorbs the death of his own kin in order to satisfy his own ambitions. Cannibalism is this internalized violence, and when it occurs on a national scale, the cannibal becomes the tumefied figure which erases all individual differences and annihilates itself without reason. For such a reason does the image of the orangutan loom so large in the novel’s opening pages, emphasizing as it does how the unstable borders between enemy and ally, dead and alive, human and animal, can result in accidental cannibalism, through which the self vanishes at the same time that the other is consumed. The materiality of the cannibal undercuts the ideological foundations of not only pro-communist but also anti-communist positions. Hue-Tam Ho Tai notes, “To write about Duong Thu Huong’s fiction is to write about disenchantment. The story of her evolution as a writer is also the story of her transformation from war heroine to political dissident. This transformation was made all the more painful by the ardor of her former commitment to the Vietnamese Revolution and to Communist ideology” (“Duong Thu Huong and the Literature of Disenchantment,” 82). That Duong does not seek to carve out an anticommunist or a reformed communist politics through her fiction, but only to critique the failings of her communist state, is evident from “her dismay [that Novel] became fodder for anticommunist propaganda among overseas Vietnamese” (Tai, “Duong,” 83). Thus, while Duong’s fiction does link the horrors of war to corrupt ideological forces, the figure of the cannibal emphasizes the former more so than the latter… The cannibal ends up a radically unstable creature, and a Vietnam which is founded upon such cannibalism can only retch up its indigestible self. As Kristeva writes, “Abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize kin… I imagine a child who has swallowed up his parents too soon, who frightens himself on that account, ‘all by himself,’ and, to save himself, rejects and throws up everything that is given to him” (5-6, my emphasis).

The reframing of the Vietnam War as a civil war is important not only from a Western perspective but also from the Vietnamese perspective. As Tai writes, “Acknowledgment that the Vietnam War was a civil war came late in the North. . . In the South, however, the Vietnam War had been portrayed as a civil war all along” (“Faces,” 180-81). That this was a full-blown civil war, not just between North and South, but between North and North, South and South, Vietnamese and Vietnamese, emphasized the senselessness of death. Soldiers sometimes kill their comrades over petty arguments or by accident; deserters are executed; troops are sent to their deaths because of their superiors’ ambitions; some soldiers commit suicide; others lose their sanity or pretend as much; soldiers starve to death after getting lost; many more die of dysentery, malaria, tetanus, and other illnesses; mothers die upon hearing the news of their sons’ deaths; prisoners of war are killed for moving too slowly; one soldier is eaten by a tiger. Discounting these varieties of deaths that result from war, the Vietnamese state establishes only a narrow criterion of deaths that would acknowledge the deceased soldier as a “liệt sĩ.” Malarney, surveying the various ways of describing death in the Vietnamese language, writes,

The ennoblement of death and sacrifice for the Revolution continued after the death of the individual. Instead of merging them into an anonymous mass of war dead, all those who died carrying out the work of the Revolution were officially grouped into the social category of “martyr” or “revolutionary martyr” (liet si). . . The word liet si predated the revolutionary era. Party officials, however, recast it semantically to indicate those who had died for the Revolution or fallen in battle with the enemy. . . Many soldiers who died from other causes in the military or noncombatants who died as a result of enemy action were not classified as martyrs. (51-52)

Relaying the mistaken execution of Nguyen Ton Duyen during the Correction of Errors campaign and the state’s denial of his status as a martyr, Malarney writes, “The honor and nobility that inhere in being a martyr are poignantly evident in the fact that Duyen’s family, to this day, is still trying to have the decision reversed” (52).[3] In Novel, few of the North Vietnamese soldiers’ deaths are the result of battle, and by relaying the innumerable other types of death which befall the soldier, Duong’s novel conveys the inanity of differentiating between the merits of different sorts of deaths. The individuating distinction of being a martyr is made furthermore absurd in light of the abject multitude within which the soldier exists. Novel critiques these assumptions about whose deaths count as sacrifice, or more plainly, as more meaningful to the revolution. By revealing how the war is founded on these “meaningless” deaths which fall short of martyrdom, both Duong and Ninh perform what Kien takes to be “his last adventure as a soldier”: “It is now his task to expose the realities of war and to tear aside conventional images” (50).

As in Ninh’s novel, Duong’s portrayal of the Vietnam War renders the Americans as almost wholly absent. The American presence is referenced only through things such as “an American penknife” (43), “spoons, knives, and forks, all stainless steel, all American-made” (207), or the containers of “Vitamin B12 serum. It’s all American, really good quality” (269). Although Đổi Mới literature characteristically critiques postwar consumer capitalism, Duong reveals how the origin of this consumerism is not the Vietnamese state’s sudden shift in its economic policies but can be located within the material footprints left by U.S. soldiers throughout the war. Otherwise, Americans are referred to in the abstract. They are objects of hatred and the reason why the war has not yet ended, such as when Quan feigns impotency to avoid sleeping with a corpse-collector—“It’s probably all those chemicals. Those American bastards!” (48)—or when he tries to refuse food from a woman who offers him shelter—“That’s not nice. You’re taking uncle do boi’s [NVA soldier’s] rice? Who’s going to go and fight the Americans for you? Huh? Huh?” (198). As his silence towards this woman’s question would suggest, these civilians do not have a grasp of the soldier’s life on the warfront. In Novel, the greatest threats to the NVA soldier are not the American troops but their own acts of self-sabotage and self-destruction. When one of Quan’s officers steps on a mine after wandering beyond the campground, they discover that he had been collecting the American silverware and “risking [his] life for lousy trophies” (207). When Quan discovers his soldiers destroying B12 serums, they explain: “Chief, this stuff is American, so I’m destroying it. . . I don’t know anything. All I know is that it’s American” (270). When he informs them that it is important medicine which they had relied upon in the past, one of the soldiers responds in denial but eventually “[falls] silent”: “No, Chief, you’ve got it wrong. . . They. . . they injected me with Soviet medicine” (270). And as Quan takes shelter from a bombing streak with the woman who had offered him food, it is significant that the inferred American presence might actually be the actions of a South Vietnamese pilot. In an interview, Duong recounts a particular shock: “I discovered the truth that we were also fighting Vietnamese. . . Yes, we were being bombed all the time by the Americans, but they were high in the sky and I never saw them. I only saw Vietnamese” (qtd. in Riding).

This inwardly directed violence is most graphically portrayed in one of the first scenes in Novel, when Quan recalls a night when his soldiers had forced him to taste an orangutan and his failure to vomit up what he had consumed, “the taste of human flesh in [his] mouth” (11). The orangutan’s “uncanny resemblance to human beings” (8) is described at length: the human-like emotions communicated through its eyes, which can “laugh maliciously or flare with hate, pain, or bitterness” (8); the “tiny orangutan paws. . . like the hands of babies” (7); the shared evolutionary lineage—“We had descended from the apes. The horror of it” (7); and finally, the taste itself—“Orangutans are almost human. There’s no tastier flesh” (9). It is this last point which is perhaps most revealing about the abject status of orangutan meat, as the rest of soldiers felt it was evident that the flesh which is closest to one’s own must inevitably be the tastiest, all the more sensuous for being all the more forbidden. Not just the taste, but the very sight of the dead orangutan is abject: “I used to stare furtively at those soups with a mixture of terror and awe” (7, my emphasis). One recalls a footnote in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Second Discourse about the “Orang-Outan,” “so similar to a man that it occurred to some travelers that it may have been the offspring of a woman and a monkey” (136). If the corpse is abject, it is even more abject for being the corpse of an anthropomorphized animal. That Quan is eating not just a monkey, but the orangutan, is a point which is explicitly emphasized in the Vietnamese edition of Novel: “Dộ ộc là loài khỉ lớn, giống người hơn cả trong mọi loài khỉ,” or “The orangutan is a large monkey, more human-like than other monkeys.”

If eating the orangutan constitutes cannibalism, then killing the orangutan constitutes murder. The animal, which is for Kristeva the very picture of abjection, is that which fornicates and kills freely: “The abject confronts us, on the one hand, with those fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal. . . which were representatives of sex and murder” (12). The death of the orangutan, then, reverses the human/animal distinction: the soldier is animalized while the orangutan is humanized through the fact of experiencing its own murder. This same logic also informs the consequent scenes of cannibalism. One is not a soldier until one has resigned to the abject and consumed the orangutan—at which point, one’s humanity is lost. Quan describes the long period of hunger, when “for eight weeks all we ate was rice with a bit of salt, red chilies, and root soup. And so the men had begun to hunt monkey” (8). These two months of endured malnutrition is the only description that suggests anything of the men’s struggle against abjection, understated within the scene. Quan describes how his troop’s desire for the novel and the strange only heightened after the first night of eating the orangutan: “Soon they weren’t just satisfied with the soup. They concocted other delicacies: a kind of monkey salad, minced-monkey dishes” (9). It is this desire to indulge in the increasingly abject which forms the background for the scene in which the soldier Luy accidentally shoots his comrade Phien, having mistaken him for an orangutan. The desire to taste human flesh culminates in Luy’s misrecognition of the human. Furthermore, because both Quan and Luy continually emphasized the accuracy of the latter’s vision—“I’ll [Luy] do the shooting. I never miss” (5); “Chief, you forget that I’ve got the sharpest eyes in this company” (6); “There are some real sharpshooters in my company” (8); “That orangutan won’t get out of here alive. I’ve been watching him” (17)—his misperception is so out of the ordinary that it is intelligible if the reader factors in the subconscious pull towards the abject. Luy’s misrecognition continues even after Phien is shot, when Luy says, “The orangutan, it screamed like a man. I’m so scared,” even if by then, Quan had already understood “this was no animal cry” (19).

The murder of Phien, which cannot be separated from the murder of the orangutans before him, generates another series of violence. Quan, realizing that military law mandates Luy’s execution for his mistake, ponders, “What a bitch, this life: The survivor had closed his eyes, waiting for a bullet, while the dead man stared wide-eyed into space” (22). Quan ultimately spares Luy, not wanting to add bloodshed to bloodshed to bloodshed: “Shut up! I can just see it now: You die and your mother goes and commits suicide. No, I don’t want to hear a word about this incident” (24). Against Luy’s cries for death in order to pacify his guilty conscience, Quan forces Luy to consider yet another liability: “If anyone hears about this, they’ll shoot me first, you understand?” (25). In the end, Luy is left alone, “look[ing] like a ghost” (24). Phien’s corpse is a threat to its witnesses, as well as an indirect threat to Luy’s mother and even Phien’s own family. Near the novel’s end when Quan returns to his company, he learns Luy had fallen into insanity: “They transferred him to a regional military hospital. No one has heard a word about him since” (206). The institutionalization of Luy becomes figured as his symbolic and social death. Ironically, Quan’s refusal to further discuss the accident, as a way of protecting Luy from punishment, becomes a type of punishment unto itself. Driven mad by guilt, Luy thus becomes like the animalized figure of Phien whom he had killed: “He was emaciated and he stank. His eyes had the scared look of a wounded animal” (206). When, “on the eighth day he had refused all food” (206), his refusal can be understood as the remorse over the subconscious desire to murder and consume Phien. And finally, along the lines of a traumatic repetition compulsion, Luy forces himself back into the setting of the jungle’s “darkness” (6) wherein he had shot Phien: “On the tenth day he wasn’t just afraid of men, but of light. He hid under the covers and refused to come out” (206). Following Luy’s failure to consume Phien, it is Phien’s spirit which returns to consume Luy: the almost-cannibal is cannibalized by the ghost. The general misunderstanding of Luy’s insanity becomes a karmic reflection of the misunderstanding of Phien’s death, which Luy and Quan had implicitly framed as having resulted from a desertion attempt. The abject corpses of the orangutan and of Luy result in the breaking down of borders: the corpse is alive and threatening, as “the dead man stared wide-eyed,” while the living ends up ghost-like, corpse-like, dead. The corpse, after all, “is death infecting life” (4), writes Kristeva. Violence accompanies any encounter with the abject: where consumption describes the violence directed outwardly against the abject which threatens to encroach upon one’s borders, regurgitation describes the violence directed inwardly against the abject which has already crept within one’s borders.

An eerily similar story about an orangutan in Leprosy Village is also recounted in Ninh’s Sorrow, also among its opening scenes:

One day “Lofty” Thinh from Squad 1 courageously went into the village and there, in the ashes, shot a big orang-utan. He called in three others to help him drag it back to the squad huts. But, oh God, when it was killed and skinned, the animal looked like a fat woman with ulcerous skin, the eyes, half-white, half-grey, still rolling. The entire squad was horrified and ran away screaming, leaving all their kit behind. . . But none escaped her vengeful, omnipresent soul. Lofty Thinh was soon killed. Gradually the entire platoon was wiped out. Only Kien remained. (7)

As in Duong’s Novel, it is taboo to kill the orangutan—Thinh having “courageously went”—or eat not “it,” but “her.” And as in Novel, a spiral of violence follows upon the heels of abject crimes, as the orangutan’s ghost decimates Kien’s squad. What returns through the figure of Ninh’s orangutan and her “ulcerous skin” are the lepers of “Leprosy Village” (7). Not only had “disease and successive famines. . . erased all life” (7), but even the empty village—as the trace of this erasure—is subjected to further attempts of erasure. Kien observes, “The regiment sprayed gasoline and set the village alight to cleanse it, but after the fire the soldiers were still terrified” (7). This foiled desire to erase the traces of a past erasure, an objectless object, is identical to the desire to eradicate the abject. While the enemy soldier is clearly marked as the other to one’s self, the ailing, impoverished, and emaciated Vietnamese villagers constitute the abject, which “lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the latter’s [the superego’s] rules of the game” (Kristeva 2). The villager, whose deaths are the result of war but do not count as sacrifice, constitutes the abject figure whom the soldier had hoped to transcend through the glories of war, and to whom the soldier will inevitably once again be reduced after the war.[4] Like Luy, the deaths of these soldiers had already been sealed with the murder of the orangutan-person: the horror of abjection had already set in, the contours of their self had already crumbled. What appeared like leprosy only further heightens the abject status of the villagers and the orangutan, its endemic logic supervening upon karmic logic of death infecting life. Maurice Blanchot, articulating a notion congruent with Kristeva’s abjection, writes, “Man is made in his image: this is what the strangeness of the cadaver’s resemblance teaches us. But this formula must first be understood as follows: man is unmade according to his image” (260). Through the orangutan as the distorted image of the human, the soldier discovers himself to be beast, finds that he has already resurrected his primal impulses for sex and murder: he is already becoming one with the orangutan corpses.

The deconstruction of the distinction between human and animal entails also the indistinction between humanity and the natural environment: the encounter with the abject is an encounter with the sheer materiality of one’s own body, a materiality which is continuous with the rest of the world. And whereas the vital materialist encourages this ecological refashioning of the self, the Vietnamese soldier can no longer endure such prolonged states of abjection, conveyed through the abundance of animal and grotesque descriptors within Novel. In the several pages constituting the scene when Luy shoots Phien, Quan and Luy are “wandering like two lost bears [‘gấu’]” (15), Luy has shoulders “curved inward like bat’s wings [gọng xương con dơi]” (16), Luy’s mother is “an elephantine woman [‘con voi cái’]” (23) dressed in “an ao dai the yellowy color of chicken fat [‘mỡ gà’]” (23), the flowers have “stamen like octopus tentacles [‘vòi bạch tuộc’]” (17) and “gave off a heavy, cloying perfume, a mixture of marsh weed and blood [‘mùi tanh của máu’]” (17), the trees are “thick with gnarled bulges, like deformed bodies [‘như bướu của kẻ tật nguyền’]” (18), and Phien is also “like a bear [‘con gấu ngựa,’ or more precisely and also more strangely, ‘bear-horse’] waddling around, searching for honey [‘mật ong’ or ‘the honey of bees’]” (18). Even the translators Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson draw upon additional animal images which are absent from the Vietnamese original to describe this scene: Luy “wolf[ing] down” (16) burnt rice, the flowers of the anxiety tree “shaped like canaries” (18), and Phien becoming known as “that chicken” (24). These blurred borders between various forms of life—between not only the dead and the living, but the animal and the human, as well as the animal and the plant—indicate how the pressures of surviving force the soldier to reorient his relationship with the natural world, both becoming increasingly intertwined and increasingly grotesque. Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “The grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits” (Rabelais and His World, 26).

This grotesqueness of the human edging too close to the animal, to the abject, culminates in scenes of bestiality, when Quan’s childhood friend Bien is rumored to have fornicated with a horse, “since there was never any chance to meet girls, [and so] he went to the stables” (91), or the “half-breed kid” (91) who became known as “that crazy boy fucking a cow” (91-92). Or, when Quan cannot bring himself to sleep with the corpse-collector Vieng who is so hideous, with “her pug nose, her low forehead, her buckteeth” (47), that he thinks upon the ancient king To Vu who had “slept with a monkey. . . [out of] resolve [and] his compassion” (47). As with cannibalism, bestiality also generates further violence, with Bien becoming imprisoned and occasionally “rush[ing] into barbed wire like a mayfly into a fire” (92), and the town “[arming] themselves with knives and sticks” to attack the biracial teenager. If this explosion of both sexual and physical violence, directed not outward but inward, is read as allegorical for the civil war which was the Vietnam War, and if this internal violence is not only seen in abject terms but as also the consequence of an endured abjection, then this analysis must now inquire into the sociohistorical conditions which produce both the abject and its horrifying appeal.

In Duong’s Novel, the ideal soldier is one who no longer resists his own abjection. The strength and courage demanded of the soldier’s duties during wartime is the same strength and courage which is demanded in accepting the abject. We thus understand why Quan’s company was so forceful about feeding him the orangutan, as their own captain could not be the one lacking in courage: “Oh come on, it’s not for lack of appetite, you don’t have the guts, right?” (10), “Go on, Chief, be a man” (10). Further, the soldier, when accepting his wartime responsibilities, is accepting the same thing as when he accepts the abject—he is accepting the absurdity of his own death. Quan says, “To die. To accept death. That was the first quality necessary to the combatant in any army that had fixed its sights on glory” (79). The soldier who most exemplifies this principle is the brutish soldier Hung, “the perfect illustration of the classic Chinese treatise on military strategy: The best soldiers were bandits, robbers, and vagabonds, followed by homeless orphans. These types hurtled toward death with no regrets” (215). In Sorrow, we find a parallel and inhumanly masculine figure in Kien during one battle, when “Kien had truly made fun of death. . . The enemy had fired continuously from behind a tree ahead of him but Kien hadn’t even bothered to duck. He walked on lazily, seemingly oblivious to the fire” (17). If the perfect soldier is the abject soldier, then the abject soldier is no longer at all, but only a killing automaton on the verge of collapse.

In such abjection, the boundaries between existence and non-existence and between friend and foe fade away, and the soldier forgets his own values and ideological motivations: such a soldier is no longer reliable, but dangerous. Remembering a battle in which he had told himself “to accept death” (79) and had lost himself to a suicidal bloodlust, believing that “the art of equilibrium in extermination is the supreme art of war” (80), Quan suddenly becomes aware of a morbid irony—his troops had been unknowingly enmired in friendly fire against “Division Z.702—the darkest of all my memories” (83). Meanwhile, the abjection of Hung’s character exceeds even that of the orangutan eaters: “He could prepare every variety of meat to perfection: deer, wild goat, orangutan, water buffalo pork—all that, of course, but also elephant meat” (217). Known for his abject consumption of taboo animals, Hung’s violent and bipolar personality is also rendered through animal metaphors: “The same fixed, snakelike gaze [‘cái nhìn của loài rắn’]. The type of men who could stroll along, lighthearted, and then suddenly transform themselves, like lynxes [‘con mèo rừng’] stalking their prey” (216)—and the lynx, according to Vietnamese popular knowledge, is “always a sign of disaster” (228). Hung is the portrait of abjection, without respect for laws and limits. As Kristeva writes, the abject person is “immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles. . . a friend who stabs you” (4). Evidently, Hung does end up stabbing a comrade in his rage over being pranked into eating a deep-fried “pig’s vagina. . . stuffed [with] a chili pepper” (Duong 212). Quan makes no further mention of Hung’s punishment, recalling an incident when Quan also could not bring himself to discipline Hung after he had murdered three of their prisoners of war: “But my tongue went numb. Was I somehow complicit, a party to this? … because of all the pain, the disinherited, the hopelessness, the massacres? Perhaps for all that. . . or perhaps because of nothing at all” (224). If the abject conditions of war produce lynxes such as Hung, Quan understands that Hung cannot be held responsible: “if someone shot a lynx—the messenger—the misfortune would be eternal” (228). Hung is merely a symptom of the insensitivity and daily violence which both envelop and are demanded of the soldier. And even Kien’s stunt, though effective in repelling enemy forces, was driven by a death wish, a desire to cease being a soldier: “Kien had not returned fire even when just a few steps from his prey, as though he wanted to give his enemy a chance to survive, to give him more time to change magazines, or time to take sure aim and kill him” (17). These various instances reveal that while the soldier’s capitulation to abjection comes from a desire for life at any cost, it also leads him to an acceptance of a death without any value. Returning finally to the death of Phien, Quan and Luy encounter upon their path the anxiety tree whose fruits bring hallucinatory effects: “All at once you feel the fragility of life, the uncertainty of it all, as you give yourself over to a strange expectancy: a yearning for death. Could it be that apes, too, came here in search of this rare intoxication, this anxious yearning for death?” (18). Luy’s abject desire for orangutan and human flesh must therefore also be understood as not only an abject yearning for life but also the abject yearning for death, which he ultimately receives in the form of madness.

Duong suggests that the soldier’s abjection consists of the death of his individual self and subsequent reincarnation in the war machine. These corruptions of both nationalism and Marxism are foregrounded through the dead orangutan which is force-fed to Quan in a rite to make him into a proper soldier. Quan explains, “We lived in a community. Anyone who stood apart stuck out like a nail that everyone—the cowards and the heroes, the vindictive and the tolerant alike—yearned to pry out. They wanted me to submit to the will of the group, if only to demonstrate its power” (9). Throughout the novel, Quan describes the horrific dreams in which he is “invisible, paralyzed, formless, featureless. My face dissolves, my voice is smothered by the wind” (4). Erin McCoy writes, “His novel is ‘without a name’ because Quan has become a soldier without a name. The individual qualities that make him a compelling narrator, such as his enduring empathy and unwavering devotion to his duty, do not necessarily separate him from his basic role of soldier” (30). Through the suppression of his identity, Quan has disappeared without dying. This contestation between individual and group is representative of Đổi Mới literature: “There has been a major shift away from themes on collective life to those centered around the life of the individual” (Healy 46). Ursula Lies links this trend to Novel’s first-person voice, which was still absent in Ninh’s Sorrow: “In Vietnamese literature, narration in the first person is highly uncommon and only began to develop under the impact of the modern Western novel, mostly of French origin” (177). This disappearance of the individual is expressed through the setting of their feast, “the Gorge of Lost Souls [vực cô hồn]” (1). The physical gorge evokes the sense of being swallowed, while in the Vietnamese spiritual tradition, the ghost or lost soul is characterized by its anonymous death and afterlife. Thus, we are guided to also understand the soldiers of Quan’s company as ghostly in their hunger, their lack of individuation, and their entrapment within this gorge and within this war. They have become ghostly subjects who make ghosts of one another through the violence of mutually cannibalized deaths. The animalized soldier and the instances of cannibalism and bestiality, then, represent the heinous leveling of distinctions between man and animal in Duong’s depiction of a Marxist egalitarianism gone awry. The novel’s critique eventually mounts to apocalyptic terms when Quan imagines the logical conclusion of a war which has created these abject and conglomerate conditions of existence in the name of equality and of Vietnam: “Rearing up from the horizon, a tidal wave drowns everything: mountains, forests, streams, towns, villages; the eastern front, the western front; the soldiers fighting in the name of nationalism; and us, the revolutionary army in the name of socialism. . . . Everything is over. Finished. There is no one left. Absolute equality: nature’s final gift” (62-63).

Ironically, then, it is Phien’s individuality which causes him to be misrecognized. Not only did Phien furtively extricate himself from the group in order to roam the jungle, but moreover, he had spent his time gathering parachute cloth, an item of sartorial self-expression during the war. As someone explains to Quan, “In his village, a scarf made out of parachute cloth is fashionable” (25). That Quan is mistaken as an orangutan is all the more striking, as the original text makes a point of how the orangutan, in contrast to other species of monkeys, “ít đi thành bầy đông đảo [rarely travels in groups].” Upon Phien’s death, Quan thus contemplates the inadequacy of the former’s profile within the military context: “Nguyen Van Phien. Age: 19. Native Village: Neo, Gia Vien commune, Ninh Binh province. Height: 5 feet. Traits: pockmarked face, prominent teeth. Character: patient, gentle” (20-21). The military context limits individuality to these measurable traits, and by standing in excess of his role as an interchangeable soldier, Phien is killed by his own group.

Through the abject sight of Phien as both human and animal, dead and alive, comrade and target, Quan’s own borders are dissolved and he becomes an orangutan. Alongside Luy, Quan becomes consumed and haunted by the image of Phien. When Quan hears Phien’s cry, he describes his own horror as if he had also been injured: “I jumped as if under the flick of a whip… [the howl] piercing through space like a sliver of bamboo through live flesh” (19). Just as Luy had said of Phien, “That orangutan won’t get out of here alive. I’ve been watching him” (17), so too did Quan’s soldiers treat Quan as snared prey, saying, “Okay, boys, this time we won’t let him off” (10), and Luy later forces Quan back into the cage by insistently reviving the latter’s memory of what he had eaten: “I shuddered. I hadn’t forgotten, I just didn’t want to remember. But Luy wouldn’t let me off so easily. He grinned” (6, my emphasis). Quan, in spite of his distinguished rank, is still pressured into conformity by consuming the abject orangutan corpse, which “beckons to us and ends up engulfing us” (Kristeva 4). By forcing Quan to cannibalize the orangutan, the group also cannibalizes Quan.

Gazing upon the orangutan soup, Quan reflects upon the rare presences of meat in his impoverished childhood: “We only ate meat during ceremonies for the dead, or during Tet, the Lunar New Year. In the shadow of these dead souls, we took a little pleasure in existence. The lie [‘càng lừa,’ or in my translation, ‘trickery’ or ‘duplicity’] extended even to the way the meat was served. We admired those who knew how to make the meat go farther by slicing it into fine strips” (7-8). Duong’s unexpected reference to this “càng lừa” makes more sense within the cultural understanding of Vietnamese celebrations, during which these mourned deaths are sometimes more the pretext than the reason for feasting. This duplicity becomes even clearer through the logic of cannibalism: the other must die so that we can eat. Or, put another way, one celebrates one’s own life by celebrating the other’s death—the consequence of the unchecked expansion of the feeding self, of the grotesque collective. Strauss, elaborating upon Kristeva, argues that the abhorrence of abjection consists more in the erasure of the other than of the self: “What horrifies in the corpse is therefore not the loss of one’s own identity, but rather the overbearing plenitude of the self” (279). The act of eating is founded upon a type of self-deception, with regards to the food before us (the orangutan is not human) as well as to our own status as the eaters (we are not cannibals). Hegel furthermore theorizes this self-deception inherent in eating as extending towards our own mortality. If language is the human’s response to the impermanence and nullity of the material world, eating is correlatively the animal’s response: “Despairing of their reality, and completely assured of their nothingness, they [animals] fall to without ceremony and eat them [sensuous things] up” (qtd. in Strauss 260). Hegel describes how language performatively reveals this nothingness at the same time that the speaker constatively denies it—“language, as we see, is the more truthful; in it, we ourselves directly refute what we mean to say” (qtd. in Strauss 260)—so too might an analogous contradiction inform acts of eating. The cannibal takes itself to be consuming something of substance when it is only enacting its own disintegration into abjection, consuming and becoming “not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing” (Kristeva 2). The cannibal thus eats its way towards its own death, all the while convinced that eating is proof of life, just as the soldiers fight their way towards their own deaths, all the while convinced that to die for the nation is to become immortal.

The ideologies of nationalism and Marxism become the answers to the soldier’s anxiety towards annihilation: the soldier would rather be subsumed into a collective than disappear entirely upon death. Anderson argues that the emergence of nationalism must be historically contextualized alongside the traditional religious systems which had preceded it and had been threatened by the rise of Enlightenment thinking: “What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. . . Few things were (are) better suited to this end than an idea of nation” (11). We might then return to Kristeva in order to make note of her qualifications regarding the corpse: “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection” (4). Within the ideological frameworks of nationalism and Marxism, there are no longer any corpses, but only martyrs. When war and death are no longer abject, neither is cannibalism nor bestiality, Duong seems to suggest. After Quan had rejected the advances of Vieng the corpse-collector, who elicited within him “throbbing terror, a fascinating desire” (46), he felt an awareness of what his contemporaries would have demanded of him: “I felt enslaved by centuries of prejudice and ignorance. Dreams of purity—outdated values, lost in an existence steeped in mud and blood” (48). If the Vietnam War is, in part, a contestation over which side is the true inheritor of Vietnam’s legacy, then the war becomes meaningless if it demands that the soldier cut himself off from the sources of tradition in order to endure his abjection.

But Quan eventually realizes that his contemporaries are also suspect to their own types of dreams when, on a train, he overhears a fat Marxist relaying to his companion the gullibility of the common people: “So you think we’re atheists? No way! We demolished the temples and emptied the pagodas so we could hang up portraits of Marx, enthrone a new divinity for the masses” (163). They continue: “the word ‘Comrade’ can mean many things. From a linguistic point of view, it’s a lie. From a historical point of view, it’s an adaptation. And from a practical angle, well, it’s just a leader’s trick” (159). Realizing the meaninglessness of the concept of “comrade,” Quan also realizes the meaningless of any concept of the “people” after hearing Kha’s nihilistic speech:

Ah, but do the people really exist? … I’ve thought a lot. I also listen to everything that’s said. You see, the people, they do exist from time to time, but they’re only a shadow. When they need rice, the people are the buffalo that pulls the plow. When they need soldiers, they cover the people with armor, put guns in the people’s hands. When all is said and done, at the festivals, when it comes time for the banquets, they put the people on an altar, and feed them incense and ashes. But the real food, that’s always for them. (274-75)

We might thus reverse Hegel’s “theory of human thought as annihilation” (Strauss 259): it is not language and thought which reveals the material world to be empty, but the materialism of the soldiers’ corpses which proves language and ideology to be empty. As the fat Marxist quips, “Words are like everything else in life: They’re born, they live, they age, they die” (161). The soldier is propelled outside of language by the sight of the corpse, which “does not signify death. . . No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live” (3). The corpse, then, reveals the true cost of war, stripped of the makeup and masks of language and ideology. And so too does Duong’s portrayal of the soldier, as becoming-corpse, serve to illustrate the cost of the war and the horrific deaths and amalgamated existences that form the underbelly of the otherwise shiny ideologies of Marxism and nationalism. The soldiers who constitute a self-cannibalizing multitude are nothing more than an inhuman site of death, upon which the elite and the wealthy profit: “I spotted a nest of fleas. Sated, they slept soundly. The war was a paradise for them. They lived well, always satisfied. We offered them unlimited blood” (69). So too does Kien think to himself, on the eve of the Third Indochina War: “The ones who loved war were not the young men but the others like the politicians, middle-aged men with fat bellies and short legs. Not the ordinary people” (75). If the soldier is made into a corpse, a source of death infecting life, then Novel reveals that the corpse is not left to be, but is profited upon by the fleas of the elite, a source of life infecting death. War is this channel by which the soldier’s abjection is exploited for the pleasures of the elite.

If Quan realizes that there is no such thing as a “comrade” or “the people,” he also realizes that his existence within the grotesque mass of soldiers contradicts North Vietnam’s promises of glory and immortality. Like the elites whom Quan overhears, the individual soldiers also attempt to profit off of the collective war effort, but do so at their own expense, as each is still entangled within this collective. As Kristeva sees it, abjection is “the shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery” (2). Ironically, they continue to be united in their respective quests for distinction: “We had renounced everything for glory. It was this guilt that bound us to one another as tightly as the memory of our days tending water buffalo together” (31-32); “Glory only lasts so long. . . We’re all in the same herd of sheep” (288). The distinction of glory, the text further suggests, is no distinction at all. While listening to another commander ridiculing his brother’s desire to be a doctor, Quan thinks upon his own brother, Quang, and critiques the commander’s narrow and homogenous ideal of manhood, but his words fall upon deaf ears: “You can be a man without being a soldier, you know” (75). Later learning of Quang’s death, and remembering that his father had pushed Quang into enlistment, Quan reflects upon the absurdity of it all: “My little brother had been intelligent. There would have been a place for him in a society at peace. From the depths of his ignorance, my father’s ambition had overcome him: He too had wanted to reserve his place at the victory banquet” (124). His father is less of an individual with unique ties of kinship and friendship but is rather “the perfect embodiment of the people who have been indoctrinated by the authorities and have turned into their self-monitored instruments” (Jabarouti, et al., “Fiction and Philosophy”).

The horror of the civil war comes from not simply cannibalism, but the cannibalism of one’s own brother: the image of Quang’s birth and his two kicking feet which reappears at the moment Quan eats the orangutan. He describes how the orangutan’s “hands are smooth and white, like the hands of a two-year-old child” (8), and is reminded of Quang: “It has nothing to do with that. . . nothing to do with. . . But again I saw my brother’s tiny feet kicking at the air” (15). Against the grandly tragic “theme of brothers meeting on the battlefield after a long separation and realizing that they were committed to fight on opposite sides. . . [which] had become a popular trope in literature and television” (Tai, “Faces,” 181), Novel presents us with a much grimmer image of violence between brothers, occurring even as they fight on the same side. Quan cannot help but recognize how he is complicit in his own brother’s demise by the very way in which the war plays out, the living becoming entangled with the sacrifices of the dead: his survival is Quang’s death, his meal is Quang’s body. As symbolized through their nearly homophonic names, Quang’s death becomes Quan’s death, Quang’s body becomes Quan’s body, and in his failure to vomit up the orangutan—“But nothing came up. It was done. I had eaten it; nothing could change that” (10-11)—which amounts to the failure to “give birth to [himself] amid the violence of sobs, of vomit” (Kristeva 3). Quan is no longer entirely an individual nor yet perfectly part of the soldiers’ collective, but is nonetheless enmired in his guilty and abject relation to the mass deaths of his fellow soldiers and kin. From consuming the human to consuming one’s comrade to consuming one’s brother, Duong’s dramatization of the civil war is pushed to its logical terminus: Quan consumes himself.


V-Day Desecrations

Through the abject corpse, Duong’s Novel Without a Name emphasizes the Vietnam War as a civil war between not only Northern and Southern forces, but within segments of the Northern army as well, within the family unity, and finally within the individual soldier himself. This traumatic splitting of the soldier, which Duong represents as the consequence of cannibalism, also persists upon the postwar landscape of Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. In an interview, Ninh says, “I was tired of popular notions [in Viet Nam] that the war is over, that Viet Nam won, and that it is the greatest country in the world. . . The truth is that there is nothing to celebrate after war” (qtd. in Tuon 2). Hence, Nguyên-Vo Thu-Huong also evokes the cannibal in order to condemn how the civil war’s consequences continue to radiate across the diasporic community, arguing that the disappearance of the other becomes linked to the disappearance of oneself: “Mourning only ourselves. . . we seem to have consumed only ourselves. . . cannibalizing all of these [various] histories into the single story that becomes us” (171-72). If Novel reveals the many Northern Vietnamese dead who are unjustly denied the title of liệt sĩ, Sorrow suggests further that the title’s honor becomes irrelevant: even the sacrifices of liệt sĩ and surviving veterans will be forgotten or ignored in the postwar landscape. What emerges in the following airport scene is how the soldiers have already begun internalizing postwar norms, refusing to acknowledge each other’s wartime experiences and refusing to give due acknowledgment to the massive deaths required in creating this postwar society. Echoing Quan’s disdain for the cannibalistic failure to recognize that the soldier’s survival comes at the cost of consuming comrades, Kien’s friend shouts, “What? Peace? Damn it, peace is a tree that thrives only on the blood and bones of fallen comrades” (42).

The impossibility of the soldiers’ transition from war to peace becomes evident through their variously violent responses to the presence of corpses on Victory Day in the Tan Son Nhat airport. What all of these responses have in common, however, is that the corpse is seen neither as simply abject nor non-abject. By the end of the war, the soldiers are no longer able to recognize the abjection of the corpse, while simultaneously knowing that they must be able to recognize its abjection if they are to be able to return to normal society. If the abject threatens the human, it is also that which reassures us of a humanity that can possibly be threatened. As Kristeva writes, “On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture” (2). The line which differentiates between the soldier and the non-soldier, drawn according to their receptivity to the corpse’s abjection, is the same line which, in the postwar, differentiates between those who still belong in wartime conditions and those who are fit for peacetime conditions. Whereas wartime soldiers in Novel such as Quan had been instrumentalized as living corpses and had resigned themselves to their own abjection, the peacetime soldiers in Sorrow instrumentalize the corpse as the abject other in an attempt at unbecoming-corpse. And as with my previous section, I want to resist the theoretical turn towards thing-power or corpse-power. By beginning with the assumption that the caesura between the soldier and the corpse has always been permeable and unstable, a vital materialist perspective would only find that the soldier’s attempt to reclaim his humanity is already delegitimized from the outset.[5] Although the soldier may be accused of a humanist longing to re-assert his or her own privileged position on the hierarchy of beings and things, this charge loses its forcefulness when directed against those already so low down on the echelon. My analysis of the V-Day scene focuses upon these instances of the soldier’s forced overreaction to the abject nature of the corpse as symptomatic of the soldier’s ambivalent relation towards his forfeited humanity.

Sorrow presents an image of V-Day which is contradictory to what many imagined V-Day would look like, especially those who had fought hardest on its behalf. Kien tells us, “In later years, when he heard stories of V-Day or watched the scenes of the fall of Saigon on film, with cheering, flags, flowers, triumphant soldiers, and joyful people, his heart would ache with sadness and envy. He and his friends had not felt that soaring, brilliant happiness he saw on film” (107). Rather, Kien describes V-Day and its ensuing peace in starkly violent terms: “Peace had rushed in brutally, leaving them dazed and staggering in its wake” (107). The pressure of peace is likened to the pressure of war: although the soldiers had fought for peace, they also experience the arrival of peace as something being forced upon them. And if the end of the world is often understood as that which follows massive war, as Duong would have it (Novel, 63), Ninh suggests that it can also be seen as that which follows peace. Celebration, then, is perhaps an inappropriate name for the soldiers’ experience: “At times the noise of machine guns and the sight of the red, blue, and violet signal flares fired into the air at random created a surreal atmosphere. It was like an apocalypse, then an earthquake. Kien shuddered, sending the end of an era. . . War had been their whole world” (107). The end of violence is hence announced through further acts of violence, the only language with which these soldiers are familiar.

Violence against the corpse takes a different tone from the violence towards the random objects around the soldier, as “glasses, pots, cups, wine bottles, were all broken or shot up” (106). Previewing the corpse of the anonymous woman in Sorrow, which is this section’s dominant figure, is a different corpse that is desecrated on the eve of V-Day in Novel. Quan sees “a white jeep abandoned by the puppet army. . . the driver was dead, slumped over the wheel” (281). Amidst the calls from other soldiers, “Hey, tank comrades, crush it for us! … Crush it comrades! … Bravo, bravo!” (281), Quan turns away as the tank commanders drive over the jeep and its dead driver. As we will also see in Sorrow, the corpse does not elicit horror or sorrow so much as it elicits violence. It is as if their southern enemies do not cease being threats even in their death and in the postwar: such behavior towards the corpse is revealing of the soldier’s perspective of a nation still split and a battle still ongoing. Like Ninh’s, Duong’s scenes of V-Day are at variance with its more popular and circulated images, and in particular, the iconic photograph of the North Vietnam tank crashing through the Presidential Palace in Saigon. In contrast to the photograph’s clean, modernized, and heroic capture of Saigon, Quan observes the tank as a vehicle for sadistically crushing their enemies’ dead bodies. Likewise, a fellow veteran tells Kien, “Ever seen a tank running over bodies? You’d think we’d flatten them so much we’d never feel them. Well, I’ve got news for you guys. No matter how soft they were they’d lift the tank up a bit. . . My tank tracks were choked up with skin and hair and blood. And the fucking maggots!” (153). Just as the corpse subverts the utopian narratives of Marxism and nationalism, so too does it subvert the sanitized appearance of a technowar. The airport setting in Sorrow acquires a similar significance: in contrast to the tank’s purposeful movement or the airplane’s conclusive take-off, Kien is stuck in the airport among a mob of fellow soldiers, existing in a state of limbo and unable to reach normalized postwar society.


                Photograph untitled. Credited to Associated Press.

On V-Day, Kien observes the collapsed bodies of soldiers all around him, either sleeping or dead: “Kien lurched tiredly past a row of ARVN bodies, commandos in uniforms still wet from the rain, and stepped onto the polished granite stairs of the terminal. Everywhere soldiers were lying deeply asleep” (101). He too falls asleep, and when he wakes up, an armored-car soldier looks at him with disgust: “Shit, don’t you know you’ve been sleeping next to a corpse? Couldn’t you smell her?” (101). This is the first of four scenes of conflicts generated through this anonymous woman’s corpse, “a naked woman, her breasts firm and standing upright, her legs stretched out and open like scissors, her long hair covering her face” (101). As when Quan was cornered by Vieng the corpse collector in Novel, the soldier’s sense of abjection towards the corpse is only intensified by his encounter with female sexuality. But like every other soldier, Kien had grown accustomed to corpses within his environment and is corpse-like in his sleepless exhaustion.

Even more so, the soldiers are corpse-like in their frequent and traumatic proximity to death. Kien is reminded of this proximity as he celebrates V-Day alone: “Of the entire scout platoon sent into the airport, only he had survived” (100). If we conceive of the soldier as part and parcel of the abject collective of his fellow soldiers, then Kien can be said to have also died alongside his comrades. As Kien states, “Dying and surviving were separated by a thin line; they were killed one at a time, or all together; they were killed instantly, or were wounded and bled to death in agony; they could live but suffer the nightmares of white blasts which destroyed their souls and stripped their personalities bare” (89). The person who finds Kien’s manuscript at the end of Ninh’s novel questions whether he should conceive of the writer as an individual or as part of a composite which is mostly dead and anonymous: “As for the author, although he wrote ‘I,’ who was he in that scout platoon? Was he any of those ghosts, or of those remains dug up in the jungle?” (23). Although the armored-car soldier had shared Kien’s traumatic experiences, it is because Kien is such an abject reminder of the war that the armored-car soldier refuses to relate to Kien. Rather, he becomes insistent upon the reinstatement of the cultural-religious significance of the corpse: “Now the war’s finished it’ll be bad luck for us to touch a corpse” (102). If it is bad luck to touch a corpse, the conditions of war provide no exemption, as is evident from the ghost of the orangutan which had wiped out Kien’s platoon. No change has occurred in the corpse between wartime and peacetime—rather, it is the soldier who must suddenly change how he relates to the corpse.

The armored-car soldier’s statement leads to two contradictions. First, Kien, agreeing with the armored-car soldier, offers to drag the corpse out of sight but is stopped—“Leave her. Just don’t touch her” (102)—because one should not touch a corpse. Neither soldier able to do anything, this new period of peace is seen as symbolically stuck with the corpse. Second, the armored-car soldier himself verbally disrespects the corpse which he had just argued must now be treated differently, when Kien continues wondering about the nature of the corpse: “Shut up! Gabbing on about stinking corpses while we’re trying to eat” (102). As with the orangutan corpses, the presence of the woman’s corpse interrupts life-affirming processes such as consumption—but it is telling that the armored-car soldier, in spite of his admonition, continues his meal nonetheless. The armored-car soldier can only pretend to respect the sacredness of the corpse as he continues to regard it as he had during wartime: a filthy object whose presence must simply be endured and ignored. Kristeva notes the link between the abject and the sacred, “each one [structuration of abjection] determining a specific form of the sacred” (17): deconstructively, the sacred and the abject or profane are mutually opposed and mutually constitutive. Kien evidently does not recognize the abjection of the corpse, frustrating the armored-car soldier who wants to revive his sense of abjection with respect to the corpse—to revive the safeguards and the primers of his culture. This becomes impossible when Kien continues to talk about the corpse, and the armored-car soldier finds that he too must acknowledge the corpse in chastising Kien for acknowledging the corpse. The corpse, then, exerts not only a physical but also a psychic presence.

Through their conversation, we notice the fragility of the soldier’s reintegration into peacetime norms, especially as those very veterans who most relate to one another, such as Kien and the armored-car commander, will inevitably pull one another back into the memories and habits of wartime. Hence the simultaneous need for and the dangers of places where veterans gather, such as the small cafe which “became unofficially known as the Veterans’ Club” (151). On one night at the Veterans’ Club, Kien begins “ramming Leather Jacket’s bloody head into a sewer outlet,” but is discharged by the police: “They said they had no wish to charge him. They’d seen enough of the veterans” (156). In postwar, veterans not only effectively exist in segregation, but are also provided with exemptions from the law, evincing how they continue to live by different norms from non-veterans. Andrew Ng writes: “In psychoanalytic parlance, it seems that Kien’s ‘known environment’ no longer knows, or has chosen not to recognize, him” (95). For the soldiers, the normal becomes abject, while the abject becomes normal: “The prewar peace and the postwar peace were in such contrast. It is the whispers of friends and ordinary people now attempting ordinary peacetime pursuits which are the most horrifying” (63). Having lived beside corpses for so long, it is not the corpse’s presence but its disappearance which breaks down the soldier’s sense of the world. In postwar society, the soldier who fails to recognize the abject becomes, for the rest of society, the abject object.

As with the first conflict, the second conflict, beginning with “a huge helmeted soldier tripping over the girl’s body and dropping a crate of Saigon 33 beer” (102), also suggests that the corpse is not abject, and that this non-abjection is a source of his anxiety. Causing the helmeted soldier to shatter the crated beer, the corpse’s physical presence symbolically spoils Victory Day. That he had furthermore tripped over the corpse emphasizes his own blindness towards the corpse. Read as a parable, a celebration will soon prove ruinous when the living refuse to recognize the dead. Ninh’s depiction of V-Day is tragically antithetical to the annual ceremonies for the dead, as Quan remembers them, in which one can only celebrate life by acknowledging the deceased. Seeing the helmeted soldier trip, “the armored-car crew just laughed” (102), suggesting that they had witnessed nothing profane in a tripped-over corpse. Kien narrates, “The big soldier, embarrassed, got up and kicked at the body angrily, screaming at the dead girl: ‘You fucking prostitute, lying there showing it for everyone to see. Dare trip me up, damn your ancestors! To hell with you!’” (102). His rage is the result of a conflation of wartime and peace norms and is unintelligible outside of the fact that these two eras have become entangled. The corpse is just a neutral object during wartime and would not elicit that degree of anger for being naked or for being in someone’s way. The corpse only elicits this anger because he imposes peacetime norms of female modesty upon the corpse, and yet even this leads to an aporia, as there are no codes of conduct for corpses, which are more or less invisible in peaceful society. Rather, it is the living who are responsible for washing, clothing, and generally preparing the corpse: a continual neutralization and ritual envelopment of the corpse. The helmeted soldier’s regard for the corpse’s abjection is seen to be the more exaggerated form of the armored-car soldier: the overreaction to the corpse is compensatory for how normalized the corpse had become during the war. In contrast to the armored-car soldier, who tries to entertain superstitions about the corpse while no longer believing in them, the helmeted soldier tries to enforce social norms which he no longer believes in and which the corpse has rendered inappropriate.

The helmeted soldier’s desire of unbecoming-corpse—extricating himself from the masses of the war dead and transcending his status as mere thing—requires that he heighten his own sense of abjection towards the corpse. But the paradoxical nature of the abject catches the helmeted soldier in a double-bind. This is not because, in relating to the abject, he cannot heighten his sense of repulsion without simultaneously heightening his sense of attraction towards the abject; as I have been arguing, the dynamics between these sensations are historically and culturally produced, and the helmeted soldier’s present desire is to cultivate an abjection of repulsion, as opposed to the abjection of attraction during wartime. The trouble, rather, is the very feeling of abjection which he desires to heighten within himself makes the abject corpse seem all the more dangerous to him and increasingly alive. The desire cannot be simply to make the corpse seem other again, for the corpse was never simply other. Furthermore, to relate to the corpse as simple other is to exist in a relation which is as comfortable and as neutral as relating to the corpse as part of oneself—but it is this very fact of the soldier’s comfort with corpses which is so discomfiting to the civilian, his lack of horror which is so horrifying. As Kristeva explains, “The object, however, through its opposition, settles me within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which, as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it” (Kristeva 1-2): hence, the soldier’s sadomasochistic desire to evoke within himself a sense of abjection towards the corpse once again, after having been molded into an automaton of the war machine which no longer possesses the emotional responses which are appropriate to the human subject. In the soldier’s overreaction to the corpse, however, he seems to resurrect the corpse in his own mind, feeling his own agency drained from him once again in the face of an overwhelmingly abject entity. Although the sense of abjection means that the deconstruction of the human has already begun, the failure to perceive abjection means that the human has already been deconstructed. To revive this abjection is to endure, once again and artificially, this violent decomposition of the self.

An alternative conception of the corpse thus emerges which is distinct from the wartime conception of the corpse as a neutral object and the peacetime conception of the corpse as an abject or sacred object: the corpse is perceived as alive. That the helmeted soldier blames and punishes the corpse suggests that he regards the woman’s corpse as still capable of ensuring the decency of its own appearance. So too does Kien, while watching the helmeted soldier, perceive the corpse as still alive to a certain degree, “her mouth open as if she was about to cry out” (102). Like the soldiers in Novel who can only eat the orangutan by deceiving themselves as to what they consume, so too does the helmeted soldier’s attempt to move beyond the war rely upon a degree of self-deception: that one should not bother with the dead, that the dead must be responsible for themselves. Paradoxically, he rejects the corpse by reviving it, and as such, denies his entanglement with the war by reliving the war. Through his attack upon the woman’s corpse, he sees himself as continuing his assault upon an enemy target until he finally “[walks] away jauntily, swinging his arms as if he were a hero” (102).

The helmeted soldier’s desecration of the woman’s corpse is representative of the national forgetting of the North Vietnamese woman soldier’s role in the war effort. Tai writes, “Representations of women-as-mothers vastly outnumber depictions of women’s war-related activities. Female soldiers are most often portrayed in off-duty moments: with a rifle over a shoulder but also a child nursing at the breast, a reminder that women took up weapons to defend their young” (“Faces,” 178). It is likely that the woman had been on the side of the North Vietnamese, as she had been found dead and naked amidst the presence of southern commanders when the ARVN invaded the airport. Her stripped condition evinces the sexual abuse which had preceded her death, but the soldiers densely overlook this inference: “‘I wonder why she’s naked,’ said Kien. ‘Beats me. We’d just shot those bastards over there and when we came in she was already lying there like that’” (102). Kien is the only one who seems to pay any attention to her. To the armored-car soldier’s ever-increasing dismay, he wonders aloud: “Strange. The commandos are already stinking, yet she’s still fresh” (102). The perceived freshness of her corpse, then, might be the same freshness which belongs to saints and holy figures after passing, signaling their faith and virtue—or in the context of war, her loyalty to the Northern war effort. Against this, the classification of the woman as a prostitute places her among the dead southern soldiers, and as such, the helmeted soldier “lifted the dead girl, and threw her out into the sunshine next to another pile of dead southern commandos” (102). As Mark Philip Bradley writes, “During the war, the prostitute often served as a symbol of the corruption and immorality the North Vietnamese state attributed to the South Vietnamese government” (213). The helmeted soldier’s desecration is revealing of yet another gendered dimension of the war: unlike the corpse, the prostitute’s body retains its abject status. As Strauss writes, the prostitute is “abject, animal, asocial, and impersonal, living in an indistinguishable mass with others of her own kind” (162). The unstable borders of the female subject fills the men with a sense of disgust. If the abjection of the female subject stands in excess of her own death, then postwar society’s acknowledgment of the wartime sacrifices made by women presents itself as an even more difficult task than the acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by the dead. Ninh’s Sorrow, then, also aligns itself with Duong’s critique of an atrocious civil war as not only between North and South, but also with regards to each side’s abandonment of its own—with women bearing the brunt of this cost. Nguyên-Vo puts it succinctly: “Women and children on either side did not make it onto the altar” (171).

The naked woman’s abject state is evocative of another tragic female character, Hoa, who sacrifices herself to be raped by Americans so that Kien and the rest of their company can escape. After they make it into safety, Kien notices: “Not one of them asked about Hoa. At first he found it disagreeably strange. Then, with its acceptance, he too began to forget about her” (192). Here, too, the acknowledgment of female sacrifices remains insufficient. As in The Sympathizer, female pain is once again presented in terms of male grief, and furthermore, as the paradigmatic site of this grief. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s reading of Sorrow is unsettlingly accurate in this regard: “Despite his [Kien’s] lethal ability, he will not save Hoa. . . Rape is the hidden trauma, its climactic revelation destroying the masculine fiction that war is a soldier’s adventure and a man’s experience” (Nothing, 32). Finally, the unmourned and desecrated body of the naked woman evokes the opening image of Novel: “We found six naked corpses. Women. Their breasts and genitals had been cut off and strewn on the grass around them. They were northern girls” (2). After seeing them, Quan murmurs a prayer: “Do not haunt us any longer. . . When victory comes, when peace comes to our country, we will carry you back to the land of your ancestors” (2). Even in his attempt to mourn these six girls, however, Quan finds that their bodies have only increased in abjection: “So this was how graceful, girlish bodies rotted, decomposing into swollen old corpses, puffy as dead toads. . . [Maggots] crawled over the corpses in waves, plunging in and out of them in a drunken orgy” (3). Quan’s original promise is unfulfilled, and on V-Day, this group of girls is evoked in Quan’s reflections: “Even as the cannons announced our victory, crows shriek in circles above our cemeteries, violating corpses we didn’t have time to bury” (286).

A third conflict unfolds: just as the helmeted soldier’s treatment of the corpse suggests the intertwining of war and peace attitudes, so too does the armored-car commander (different from the armored-car soldier of the first conflict) reveal a similar conflation of these two eras when, in anger, he nearly shoots the helmeted soldier. Kien, however, had “rushed over and pushed the barrel of the gun up. . . the bullets went skyward and fell harmlessly to earth around them” (103). The commander’s outburst possesses the same normative structure as the helmeted soldier’s outburst. Both are enraged by actions that are judged as crimes only according to peace norms (female nudity vs. desecration of the corpse), while both attempt to punish the crime according to war norms (desecration of the corpse vs. execution of the helmeted soldier). Ninh further suggests that, whether or not the corpse is the neutral object of wartime or the sacred object of peacetime, its desecration warrants neither the helmeted soldier’s death nor the consequences it would have had for the commander. Kien asks, “Just because of that you wanted to kill him?” (103), and the commander eventually admits, “If you hadn’t stopped me, I’d have shot him and been nailed as a murderer, and that would have been senseless” (104). Like the helmeted soldier, the extreme violence of the commander’s reaction is only intelligible insofar as he had perceived the corpse as somewhat still alive, and able to claim particular rights against its subjection to abuse. While in Phan Thanh Hao’s translation, he states, “I just couldn’t watch that asshole treating a body like that” (104), the Vietnamese text presents the corpse’s vital nature much more forcefully: “Thế nhưng thấy cái thằng khốn nạn nó hành hạ thân thể một con người như thế không chịu nổi [I just couldn’t watch that asshole abusing that person like that]” (my italics). Here, his reference to the woman as “một con người [person]” is in contrast with his later designation of the woman as “thi thể,” meaning “corpse” or “body.” In contrast to the helmeted soldier whose overreaction comes from his failure to sufficiently recognize the corpse’s abjection, the commander’s overreaction comes from his exhaustion of having constantly fended off the corpse’s abjection. Evocative of Sorrow’s earlier discussed V-Day tank scene, he tells Kien: “Sorry for the outburst. It’s just that we’re fed up with corpses [‘xác chết’]. We’ve had human flesh [‘mẩu người’] in the armored-car tracks and we’ve had to drive through rivers to wash the bits off and wash away the stink. But I just couldn’t watch that asshole treating a body [‘một con người,’ or ‘person’] like that, and a woman, too” (104). Finally, the armored-car commander can also be linked back to the armored-car soldier, for whom Kien’s non-recognition of the corpse’s abjection is not only morally offensive but psychologically traumatic, returning the soldiers to a war whose end they should be presently celebrating. Even Kien understands: “It was especially important, therefore, to avoid if possible focusing on the dead” (94).

The commander manages to escape the helmeted soldier’s double bind by acknowledging his shared identity with the corpse. Perhaps impossibly, he balances a sense of abjection with an acceptance of the abject, his refusal to violently reject the corpse coming from the understanding that it would only further intertwine him with the corpse. This dual recognition of both himself and the abject corpse, both as abject and both as vital, runs in tandem with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s emphasis upon “a sober, simultaneous vision that recognizes everyone’s unrealized humanity and latent inhumanity” (Nothing, 265). The commander’s conclusion, “We weren’t any better, sleeping and eating by the corpse” (104), is a criticism of the helmeted soldier, who presumes himself to be better than the dead in spite of their endless entanglement with the dead. Phan’s English translation, however, deletes a portion of the Vietnamese text surrounding this conclusion:

Chúng mình mà lại chẳng gỗ đá thế hay sao? Ăn uống ngủ nghê ngay cạnh một thi thể con người mà cứ như không. Lại còn biện luận lính hay dân. . . Chính cái thằng cục súc hồi chiều nó đã cảnh tỉnh cho chúng ta: Hãy coi chừng mà xem lại nhân tính.

Are we not wood or stone? Sleeping and eating beside corpses, we are no longer people. Yet, we still argue about whether we are soldiers or civilians. . . That asshole this afternoon awoke us to a realization: Watch out for but re-examine humanity. (my translation)[6]

The commander’s language is exceedingly ambiguous in the Vietnamese, and although the translator-editor team of the English text attempts to clarify the meaning of the commander’s speech, they also wind up creating new confusions. The ambiguity of the commander’s language, I suggest, is essential to his ability to shift between antithetical self-positionings, as he humbly likens himself to a corpse, acknowledging his mere thingness, while nevertheless continuing to criticize the helmeted soldier from a humanist standpoint. When the helmeted soldier states, “We still argue about whether we are soldiers or civilians,” one can take him to mean that it would be absurd to insist on the possibility of becoming a civilian again after what they had endured as soldiers, having lived in a dehumanized state among corpses. One can also interpret the commander as saying that it would be absurd to insist that they had even been soldiers, rather than inhuman entities closer in nature to corpses, wood, and stone. While the first interpretation is a critique of postwar society’s hostility to the soldier, the latter also contains a critique of the war’s dehumanizing and de-individualizing pressures. This constitutes the commander’s radical acceptance of his own abjection and the abject’s permanent presence alongside and within him. However, he also immediately reverses this logic, when he describes how the helmeted soldier had made him “cảnh tỉnh,” or “awake.” No longer is he sleeping like a corpse—rather, his ability to extract a moral lesson from the event signals his transcendence of the abject and his ability to view the world with a sense of detachment once again. He concludes by saying that one must safeguard [“coi chừng”] one’s humanity [“nhân tính,” which also means “human dignity” or “human decency”], re-examining [“xem lại”] it in order to remind oneself of its importance and its fragility. Through this reversal, the abject corpse becomes that against which one’s human status acquires, rather than loses, its value.

Hearing the commander’s advice, it is Kien’s turn to be irritated—this is the fourth and final conflict that originates from the woman’s corpse. “Nhân tính [Humanity]!” he repeats sarcastically.[7] Through Kien’s perspective, the meaning of the commander’s advice might be completely reversed. If the helmeted soldier’s action is evidence of what “humanity” can be capable of, the ambiguous Vietnamese might equally be translated as: “Beware of and rethink humanity.” Even the conjunction “mà” is ambiguous, as the word can mean “and,” but more often means “but.” In which case, the commander’s advice becomes vastly destabilized under its many possible re-combinations (beware of humanity but remember its value; beware of humanity and remember its value; safeguard your humanity but rethink its meaning; etc.). For such a reason does Kien end up scoffing at the concept “nhân tính,” which has become emptied of both meaning and value after the war, recalling Quan’s disdain for the words “comrade” and “the people.” Kien’s indignation, moreover, is founded upon the memory of his friend Oanh, who had been shot down earlier that day because he had “treat[ed] the dead sympathetically” (106). In contrast, one might say that the commander has already forgotten about the corpse whom the helmeted soldier had desecrated, displacing it through moral reflection about his own corpse-like nature and the importance of human dignity. Edwards describes how the ability to theorize the corpse depends upon the corpse’s potential hypervisibility: “As Foucault explains in The Birth of the Clinic, the corpse occupies a privileged position in Enlightenment epistemology… Foucault implies an epistemology through excorporation—knowledge as that which comes out of, but also simultaneously erases, the body” (11-12). As earlier alluded to, this erasure occurs when the captain shifts from indignation towards how the commander had treated the woman as a person (“Thế nhưng thấy cái thằng khốn nạn nó hành hạ thân thể một con người [person] như thế không chịu nổi”) to the philosophical observation of how all of the soldiers are no better than corpses (“Ăn uống ngủ nghê ngay cạnh một thi thể [corpse] con người mà cứ như không”). Like the other soldiers, the armored-car commander’s urgent desire to return to peacetime moral codes depends upon a rejection of the corpse. The commander’s erasure culminates in the commander’s emphasis on “nhân tính,” which implicitly excludes the corpse of the alleged prostitute, no longer human and no longer possessing humanity. Regarding this important concept of “nhân tính,” Bradley writes, “In the immediate postwar period, party rhetoric called for the eradication of prostitution in the South because it was inimical to what it termed the ‘human dignity’ of women” (213). The female subject once again figures, naked and dehumanized, as the embodiment of loss that enables male subjects such as the commander and Quan to reflect upon their own threatened humanity. But Kien diverges from the others in his recognition that soldiers such as himself will only ever be corpses, abandoned after the war—and in the final pages of Sorrow, Kien disappears from the text and leaves behind only his manuscript to a nameless reader.

Kien is indifferent to the helmeted soldier’s violence upon the woman’s corpse, just as he was indifferent to the armored-car soldier’s insults because he is empathetic to their newfound unease towards the corpse. Like the helmeted soldier, Kien had also just assaulted a woman’s corpse in rage and frustration after she had killed Oanh: he remembers “shooting repeatedly, until he stood face to face and shot her again, in revenge. But although she had been blasted back by five rounds she still leaned on her arm on the floor, raising her head, as if she had decided to sit up” (106). His annoyance towards the commander, rather, comes from the latter’s attempt to preach about a common humanity in a corpse-littered airport: the commander has already forgotten about the war, how they had just earlier been like those corpses, and how those corpses had once been alive as well. Kien, too, reflects upon the woman’s corpse: “This was a human being who had been killed and humiliated, someone even he had looked down on. Those who died and those who lived on shared a common fate in this war” (108). But unlike the commander, the corpse remains in his memory and he finds no redemption in its image. Kien’s postwar career as a corpse-collector in “the Missing in Action Remains-Gathering Team” (3) consequently acquires a triple meaning: to mourn the deaths of those whose bodies were abandoned; to restore the memory of the war to an amnesia or willfully blind postwar; and to resign himself to the fact that he belongs among dead more than among the living, falling asleep with “the remains of soldiers laid out in rows beneath Kien’s hammock” (4), just as he had done on V-Day. His fellow truck driver tells him, “My friend, our era is over. After this hard-won victory fighters like you, Kien, will never be normal again. . . What did the dead ones tell you in your dreams last night? Call that normal?” (42-43).


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[1] A linguistic analysis of these concepts also emphasizes the absence of agency in the corpse. While the ghost translates as “wandering soul” or “con ma [animal ghost]” in Vietnamese, and the zombie translates as “thây ma [ghost-corpse]” or “xác sống [living corpse],” corpse simply translates as “xác [shell].”

[2] Tuan Ngoc Nguyen contextualizes the fact that Ninh and Duong are perhaps the most acclaimed Vietnamese writers in the West by observing the historical moment of their writing: first, “most of these writers are still obsessed with politics. . . After being suppressed for a long time, people had a passionate need to express themselves in terms of their innermost being” (294), and second, Đổi Mới’s recent embrace of free market strategies resulted in both a mass production and global reception of these texts, and “for the first time, at least after 1975. . . Vietnamese culture [was becoming] a global phenomenon” (287).

[3] Malarney distinguishes between the title of “hi sinh,” or “sacrifice,” and that of “liệt sĩ,” or “martyr.” The former category captures death more broadly than the former, as Nguyen Ton Duyen’s death is granted as hi sinh even if he does not amount to a liệt sĩ, but the construction of hi sinh is exclusive nonetheless. This chapter’s critique is applicable to the exclusiveness of both concepts, but will focus on liệt sĩ not only for the sake of simplicity, but also because it is the more exclusive and the more privileged title.

[4] The villager might be likened to Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer figure, who is defined by “the unpunishability of his killing and the ban on his sacrifice” and thus resides “outside both human and divine law” (Homo Sacer, 73). Given this status of the villager, Heonik Kwon comments upon the hypocrisy of a people’s war which does not recognize the sacrifices of the people after the war: “It is illogical to unite civilians and the military in wartime and then divide them when memorializing the war” (After the Massacre, 68). Perhaps for this reason, the soldiers attempt to deny that they are homo sacer, asserting the meaningfulness of their sacrifices, while abjecting the villager as the true homo sacer figure.

[5] Giorgio Agamben describes “the anthropological machines” which “are able to function only by establishing a zone of indifference at their centers, within which—like a ‘missing link’ which is always lacking because it is already virtually present—the articulation between human and animal, man and nonman, speaking being and living being, must take place. Like every space of exception, this zone is, in truth, perfectly empty, and the truly human being who should occur there is only the place of a ceaselessly updated decision in which the caesurae and their rearticulation are always dislocated and displaced anew” (The Open, 37-38). The anthropological machine does not necessarily render meaningless the concept of the “human,” but reveals how it shifts according to historical and cultural pressures. I view these soldiers of the postwar period as marking the caesura with the corpse, in order to be distant enough from this caesura, while still remaining unsettled by it. This fact of being unsettled is significant because, drawing together Kristeva and Agamben, the caesura is abject insofar as both are thought of as “the border [which] has become an object”: “If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything” (Kristeva 3-4).

[6] The translator Phan Thanh Hao evidently interprets this last sentence as: “That slob gave us a sort of warning: Don’t criticize others. Be sure of yourself first” (104).

[7] Phan instead translates, “Be sure of yourself first, what a joke!” (104), and later somehow rephrases this as, “the armored-car commander’s advice to treat the dead sympathetically” (106) in a paragraph which does not exist in Ninh’s original Vietnamese text.