The great tragedy of the Vietnam War, we tell ourselves, was its waste—all those young American lives lost in a lost cause. But not even victory redeems every sacrifice, as Vietnamese novelist Duong Thu Huong shows in her tragic novel No Man's Land. In the years following the war, the beautiful Mien is happily married to a prosperous plantation owner until a phantom from the past staggers into their idyllic mountain village. Bon is Mien's first husband, a North Vietnamese veteran; long thought dead, he has returned to take her as "his one piece of happiness," compensation for his grievous suffering during the war. With the eyes of the party upon her, Mien returns to the impoverished Bon, a traumatized shell of a man she no longer loves, thus setting up the kind of romantic triangle plotted to produce maximum pain on all sides. One can tell from the start that this tale won't have a happy ending for everyone, and not just because it begins with "a strange, violent storm"—perilously close to "a dark and stormy night."
Huong is Vietnam's finest novelist, and despite her status as an enemy of the state, she continues to live in Hanoi. A former party member who led a Communist Youth Brigade sent to the front during the war to boost soldiers' morale, she was briefly imprisoned in 1991 for early works like Beyond Illusions (1987) and Novel Without a Name (1990), deeply personal novels that exposed the betrayal and hypocrisy at the heart of the Vietnamese regime. Politics on this level, however, are curiously absent from the doomed romanticism of No Man's Land, though the war casts its long shadow over Bon, who has been left enfeebled and virtually impotent from exposure to Agent Orange. The absence of personal outrage that fueled Huong's earlier works is keenly felt; too often No Man's Land becomes mired in prose as florid as Vietnam's climate, and Huong has a curious habit of placing her most dramatic events—a tortured birth, an attempted murder—offstage. But despite these limitations (and those of her translators), Huong endows her characters with life and a Buddhist appreciation for the impermanence of happiness. In her reckoning of love's toll, she reminds us that Vietnam was—and still is—more than just a war.