A best-seller in the month or so in Vietname before it was banned in 1988, as the preceding two novels by Duong Thu Huong (1947-) had been, Những thiên đường mù then became the first Vietnamese novel published in English in the US, as Paradise of the Blind. Though a volunteer who served in the front lines in “the War Against the Americans” for seven year and a volunteer again in defending Vietnam from Chinese invasion in 1979, she was expelled from the Vietnam Communist Party in 1989, imprisoned without trial for seven months in 1991 (and again when Tiểu thuyết vô đề was published abroad as Novel without a Name in 1995).
I read Novel without a Name first: it is a gripping autobiographical novel of her war experience. Much of Paradise of the Blind is set in the Soviet Union, the patron of the victorious communist regime in Vietnam. The backstory which looms very large is set in Duong’s native northern Vietnam province, Thai Binh, during the Viet Minh times, when brutal land reform modeled on Mao’s was instituted while the Viet Minh was fighting the re-establishment of French colonialism.
The parents of the novel’s protagonist Hang had a brief time of happiness until Hang’s maternal uncle Chinh returned in 1956. A communist zealot, he forbade his sister (Que) to associate with her husband (Ton) because of his class background (which was peasant with a small landholding, not rentier). A few years later the Special Section for the Rectification of Errors comes to the village and though she was a victim torn from her husband, because she is Chinh’s brother, Que was targeted for revenge.
Que became a street vendor and when her brother pops in again, now a mid-level official, he denounces her as a petty capitalist. It turns out that he is there to take his share of the sale of their parents’ house.
At the time (early 1980s) of the novel, Hang travels across the Soviet Union to Moscow, where her uncle is ill. The ideologue is involved in the black market and needs the help of his niece who is fluent in Russian.
Between the portrayal of corruption in the Homeland of Socialism (the USSR) and in victorious communist Vietnam, it is not surprising that the book was (and remains) banned in Vietnam. The fear and despair of Novel without a Name demystified the triumph of wars against France and the US and is, I think, of more interest to Americans as a view from the other side, where danger was also constant (but without being able to call in any air support) than wheres bitter tale of corruption in two communist states take place.
the author is 2014, Creative Commons photo by Ertezou
The stories of those on the winning North Vietnamese side who lived in poverty are even less upbeat than those of the losing (South) Vietnamese side who managed to get out to refugee status (or lengthy “re-education”). Sacrifices and hopes for a free Vietnam, capitalist or communist, were for naught and reading about the sorrows of war and peace is depressing. The mix of true-believer in communism uncle and pragmatic aunt recurs in Uyen Nicole Duong’s family saga (Daughters of the River Huong and Mimi And Her Mirror) and the (amoral?) familialism is also very evident in writings by the children of South Vietnamese émigrés, Andrew Lam, Andrew Pham, and GB Tran. Unlike Duong herself, her protagonist Hang eventually rejects her past (in the accommodations of her mother, uncle, or aunt), which is not to say she is relieved of the burdens of the past, including her laboring in the Soviet Union (I have not mentioned her romance with a sort of Bohemian there…)
As a record of the tumultuous and indirect road to modernity (and the ubiquity of corruption regardless of ruling ideology) the book is valuable, but it is easier to admire than to like. It adds a feminist twist to the genre of “the god that failed” narratives from just before the Soviet Union devolved into a post-ideological thugocracy, a trajectory Vietnam has been following.
©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray