Paradise of the Blind (1988) is Duong Thu Huong’s second serious novel, following a series of popular short stories, a novel for youngsters, Itinerary of Childhood, and Beyond Illusions of which some 120,000 were printed in Vietnam following its publication in 1987. Although she had been subject to condemnation by Party officials and even had banning orders placed prior to Paradise of the Blind its publication brought down the hammer.

Despite a call for openness and encouragement to denounce corruption in the 1986 Doi Moi campaign, Duong’s novel, with fictional treatment and criticism of the 1953-56 land reform campaign in North Vietnam, was too much it seems. Not only was the novel banned, it was recalled.

It’s an odd banning since the ‘Rectification of Errors’ campaign had already admitted to the mistakes of the Land Reform movement decades before Duong wrote her novel, the power of which in any case is its description of the civil war within a family, and the crushing burden of tradition and belief, not of communist or governmental pressures.

The family war starts when the narrator’s uncle, who had gone off to fight the French with the Viet Bac, long before her birth, comes back after the Geneva peace accords of 1954.  Appointed a cadre in the communist land reform campaign he descends on his own village like a ‘squall, devastating fields and rice paddies, sowing only chaos and misery….”

Oddly for us, however, the story starts in Russia.  A telegram for help arrives from an uncle, though we don’t know anything about him for many pages, to the narrator. In a long flashback to a time before her birth the narrator tells of her mother and father and the fierce, crippling land reform movement, followed by the almost as fierce ‘rectification of errors’ in which former victims turned the tables on their tormentors.   We are introduced to her mother, Que, her father, Ton — whom she never knew– and her Aunt Tam, her father’s elder sister who, over the course of the novel, becomes her tough, go-it-alone guardian angel. The section ends, as many of them do, with a cryptic but forward-leading sentence:  “This was ten years before my birth.”

And we are back on the train in Russia.

But we have to stop for a moment to admire the authorial audacity.  We have just read ten pages or so, including quoted sentences between people, of a time ten years before the narrator’s, Hang’s, birth, and we don’t blink.  We accept the sleight of pen.  We even accept the long description of one of the ‘pillars of land reform’ who it turns out will never appear again. The description adds color and authenticity to the Vietnamese peasantry and makes a case for the stupidity of the land reform movement– she, ‘a pillar,’ being as stupid and vengeful as can be conceived. But she isn’t a link to a future turn of the story.

The threads of Hang’s life in Russia and in Vietnam, emerge and recede.  We don’t know why she is in Russia for many many pages.  We hear of “exported workers” from Vietnam, “shut away in our boxlike rooms, savoring our homesickness, fermenting in our sadness.”  We learn of the narrator’s opening up to experience, away from Vietnam, in a discovery through music, a Russian voice ‘that enchanted me.   Like a call it beckoned me to a kind of love–to revolt, the most essential force in human existence… if only my mother could feel this revolt…”

The real details are of her growing up years in a poor neighborhood of Hanoi, the cries of the dawn sticky-rice vendors, “the first music of my childhood.”  The return of the cruel uncle Chinh and her mother’s unwavering devotion to him, for all the grief he had caused. And this is, I suspect the emotional drive for the author.  The mother’s devotion to her brother, Uncle Chinh, is so strong, her guilt over having ‘failed in her duty as an elder sister’ so overpowering that she neglects her own child.

Although Uncle Chinh and his wife are still party functionaries, a decade or more after his role in the land reform movement, they live in very impoverished, communal style flats.  Their two children are near starving.  Que, Hang’s mother, scrimps and saves to bring them gifts, even as Hang herself has next to nothing. She brings it in secret, and they eat it in secret:

“This is the way they lived here, vigilant, spying on each other, each keeping watch over his neighbor.  One mouthful too many, and the others might turn you in as a threat to the collective.

And here the twist.  Aunt Tam, Hang’s father’s elder sister, though she reviles Que for her support of her brother, after the misery he caused in their village, devotes her life to ensuring Hang will have something.  She appears from time to time at their shanty in Hanoi.  Hang goes for visits to the village.  The descriptions of Tam’s work, driven by the anger of what her family lost as ‘middle peasants’ during the land reform, are vivid.

“Every morning, at three o’clock, I got up to cook a potato stew,  I ate half and took the other half with me to the rice fields.  I even picked for others.  By noon I would feel tortured by hunger, but I fought it, eating only once.  I never stopped picking.  Then winter came and it was unbelievably cold…at eleven o’clock you could still find me at the millstone, grinding rice flour. … [her hands] looked like ancient, tangled roots.  I could see her thick, course nails scored with deep furrows and her shriveled skin flecked with age spots.”

One chapter tells us about Hang’s father’s life (again mysteriously known) after he fled the village, because of “relations with landowning classes,’ and a ‘suspicious attitude.’    We finally learn how she was fathered by him, ten years after leaving her mother.  It’s a sweet story, a brief return from exile in the mountains with a Hmong wife and family,  “like ashes rising under the caress of a slight wind, their love rose again…”

As his story unfolds we learn something of the beliefs and superstitions of rural Vietnam.   A cyclo driver entrusts money to the fleeing father  “When the grass has grown green around my grave, burn some fake gold, a few packets of paper money, a few sticks of incense.  Scatter flowers so my soul will remember the fragrance.”  And one of the main themes of the novel, of the fierce, perhaps crippling, obligation to ancestors, as when Aunt Tam says to the narrator, perhaps 8 year old:

“A long time ago, your grandfather was a schoolteacher in this village.  Everyone knew and admired him.  Your father was also a decent, gifted man.  By the age of twelve, he read French fluently.  You must study conscientiously so you will never dishonor their memory.  Do you hear me?”

Even in a novel of poverty and hunger, Duong is never far from food, most luxuriously described for a celebration, however small:  “tiny sticky-rice cakes and hemp cakes small as jackfruit pits and wrapped in five or seven layers of banana leaves.  Next to the crab-noodle and snail-soup stands, a cabbage soup vendor hawked his specialty: steamed river spinach.  Behind him, another vendor sold roast corn basted with honey.” Or at Tet, the week long New Year festival, “Thanh’s green tea, Bac’s special five-spice mixture.  Thai Binh’s spicy cakes — all top-quality brands– jasmine tea, aglaiata flower tea, candied lotus seeds, butter cookies, croquettes, hemp cakes and cakes stained pink with rose-apple juice and smoked over a rice-husk fire.. ”

Though not as rich in image and language as Novel Without a Name, The Paradise of the Blind has a good share. “The houses seemed to flow out of the hillside, each one different than the next, exuding a timeless softness, like the memory of an old love.”  Or, about a famous Russian singer of the 1980s,   “Weak willed men couldn’t resist this inferno. She reduced them to ash.”  She continues, after a disgusting, interrupted assault by the uncle of a friend, listening to one of her songs, that “crackled forth like the wing of a bird lost in the limitless blue of space, like a spark from an inferno…. So this was life, this strange muddle, this flower plucked from a swamp.”

And a small sprinkling of Vietnamese aphorisms is welcome,  which the translators, thankfully, left close to the original as in this one, the Vietnamese ‘grasshopper and ant’ story: “A rich man loves to work, a poor man loves to eat.”  Or this, ‘apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’ ‘Each basket tips towards her owner.’

What western writer would think to write, “Clouds floated like puffs of jade along the horizon…an endless jade-colored necklace fallen to earth.” Or later, the clouds “glowed like the color of plum blossoms…”

So we have a novel told with a deft modernity, looping memories inside of  experiences, alongside other memories that eventually connect but do not stand in easy sequence to one another.  We learn an immense amount about family obligation and about a small, powerfully rippling, slice of history.  Yet there is something peculiar, as well.

Hang is born in about 1965.  She goes to Russia as an exported worker in about 1985. The land reform and rectification of errors of the mid 1950s are a palpable literary and novelistic causal force.  And yet, in this span of time there is no mention of the American War.  How can this be?  The Rolling Thunder bombing campaign of the north — Hang was born in a working class slum of Hanoi– took place from 1965-1968.  Duong herself, the author, was 18. In 1967 she was in a women’s youth brigade fighting and entertaining at the front.  How can events so catastrophic, in the very area of the novel, not be mentioned?

I suspect that Duong’s banning by the party, had less to do with her condemnation of the events of the 1950s and more to do with descriptions and criticisms, and lack of them, of the 1960s and 80s  In Russia a Vietnamese student smuggler, dubbed The Bohmian, and the one nice man of the novel, says to Hang:

Your uncle is like a lot of people I’ve known.  They’ve worn themselves out trying to to re-create heaven on earth.  But their intelligence wasn’t up to it.  They don’t know what their heaven is made of, let alone how to get there.  When they woke up, they had just enough time to grab a few crumbs of real life, to scramble of it in the mud, to make a profit –at any price.  They are their own tragedy.  Ours, as well.
The party may have encouraged openness during the Doi Moi campaign beginning in 1986, but this, really(!), was a bit much.  Duong has Uncle Chinh and his wife, still party functionaries, living in grinding poverty.  They hide food from their comrades. They change from being teachers of Marx and Lenin to petty smugglers.  But it isn’t the hardships of party life that concern Duong the most.  The aching wound of the book, is the constant, overwhelming oppressive hand of tradition and the past.  The natural love of a mother for an only child, and daughter, is overwhelmed by Que’s need to devote herself to her brother, to overcome her guilt at failing her filial obligations.   Aunt Tam, who has poured her life’s energy into yes, making herself wealthy, but into domineering devotion to her niece, is also bound by, and wants to bind Hang, to the past.  She wants her to stay in the village and keep honor for her ancestors.  Duong Thu Huong, who earned her party spurs in years of soldiering, and finally threw them aside, uses that most Marxian of phrases to look on her country —
The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.
Though the Paradise of the title is undoubtedly meant to comment bitterly on the communist idea of creating a workers paradise, the novel is not a critique of the party itself, in the manner of other disabused communists like Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon.  The badly conceived and badly executed land reform and ‘rectification of errors’ of course fall under withering examination — and they shape the course of behavior for the rest of the novel.  However, this criticism occupies about one quarter of the book, if that.   What we really learn are the wounds of utter dreariness and poverty,
“…my friends, people of my generation, faces gnawed with worry, shattered faces, twisted, ravaged, sooty, frantic faces.  Our faces were always taut, lean with fear.  The fear that we might not be able to pay for food, or not sent it in tame, the fear of learning than an aging father or mother had passed away while waiting for our miserable subsidies … we had darting, calculating faces. You had to think of everything  weigh everything. All the time.”
We see the lives of three women trying to keep body and soul together, against the failed promises of communal purpose and shared well-being, faithful to entirely un-communist values.   While the party, the government, can be blamed for the poverty — as can the American war and embargo which go unmentioned– that isn’t Duong’s purpose. [For her stunning novel of the war, see Novel Without A Name.] What she spends time showing, in the poverty, is the poverty of how people treat each other.
The party has nothing to do with Que’s failure of tenderness or her diversion of food from her daughter’s belly to those in her brother’s family; it has nothing to do with Hang’s being ordered out of the house; it has nothing to do with Aunt Tam’s obsessive wealth gathering, or intent to bind Hang with it.
As all the threads of the storytelling finally converge we leave Russia with Hang and the news of her Aunt Tam’s coming death.  She arrives in time to give her a final bath and do her hair, to see in her eyes a reflection of the world she had created, to hear her make her decision known.
This was her legacy to me, I thought.  Its price was a life deprived of youth and love, a victory born of the renunciation of existence.
‘Stay here…under the roof of your ancestors.”
Having done the proper 90 days for her Aunt’s funeral, having tasted un-familial freedom, even in Moscow, Hang sells the gold and prepares to go.
“I saw my village, this cesspool of ambition…and the vision of a woman twisting from the end of a rope.   Forgive me, my aunt: I’m going to sell this house and leave this all behind.  We can honor the wishes of the dead with a few flowers on a grave somewhere.  I can’t squander my life tending these faded flowers, these shadows, the legacy of past crimes.
I sat down … and dreamed of different worlds, of the cool shade of a university auditorium, or a distant port where an airplane could land and take off…
This is a novel about the faint flickering of hope against a great exhaustion of love.  It is, as Duong puts it in a striking image of beauty in the middle of filth:
“At the center of those stifling landscapes, on a green carpet of weed, those purple flowers always glistened, radiant in the middle of the filth: the atrocious ornament of a life snuffed out.”
 “This purple became an obsession  both a childhood delight and an adolescent nightmare.  In my memory, it is at once both the purest balm and the most overpowering poison of my existence.”

Duckweed Flower

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