Just the very title of this book must have troubled the Hanoi politburo hacks but the way PARADISE OF THE BLIND ends frightened them so profoundly they banned it and put its author in jail. Reading Duong Thu Huong''s lyrical novel about life in post-war Vietnam I...
Just the very title of this book must have troubled the Hanoi politburo hacks but the way PARADISE OF THE BLIND ends frightened them so profoundly they banned it and put its author in jail.
Reading Duong Thu Huong''s lyrical novel about life in post-war Vietnam I am reminded of a line from Nguyen Du''s classic narrative poem, THE TALE OF KIEU, particularly Kieu''s song, "Cruel Fate," which mourns "all women in soul-rending strains." I am also reminded of the resiliency of Vietnamese women, of all women in general, especially those who come from Confucian societies. Well, Duong has taken a leaf from the great poet with PARADISE OF THE BLIND.
Although PARADISE is translated into colloquial modern English (kudos to Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson for this), a radical departure from the classic six-eight verse of Nguyen Du, still, the descriptive power of Duong''s prose comes through with the "indestructible purity of a countryside at peace" even when she''s describing "purple flowers radiant in the middle of the filth...the purest balm and the most overpowering poison of my existence." The metaphor of flowers for people, the yin and yang, the balance of life, conjures a powerful image that is often found in Vietnamese literature and Hang, Duong''s heroine and the narrator of this tale, is one of the most compelling of those "flowers." We follow her through this story as she tries to find the balance of her own life. Note that often in Vietnamese literature that balance is only found at great cost to the seeker which Duong reflects on in Chapter Eight, when she writes, "Separation, this ancient pain, perhaps the greatest of all human sadnesses."
Food is another metaphor Duong uses skillfully. Food is the element that connects all the characters in this story, from the middle-aged Russian man on a train to Moscow who gives Hang a piece of fruit, to elaborate banquets hosted by Aunt Tam, Hang''s patron and mentor, to the simple fare of Hang''s poor, widowed mother.
And over all hangs the oppressive pall of socialist bureaucracy. To us Duong''s criticisms sound much less vitriolic than our own so we may be surprised they landed her in jail. But remember, communists have little sense of humor. Remember the "Beggar''s Opera," that line that goes, "When you censure the age be cautious and sage lest the courtiers offended should be. If you mention vice or bribe, tis so pat to all the tribe, each cries `That was leveled at me!''" Well, look for Aunt Tam''s putdown of her village vice president in Chapter Nine, indisputably an all-time classic. And don''t be surprised to find out that Vietnamese people can be very "earthy" when the occasion calls for it.
The reader should bear in mind that Confucianism, with its emphasis on obedience to hierarchy, is much more compatible with Communism than the Western idea of democracy that emphasizes individual choice and action. To us it may not seem an epiphany when Hang decides, against her aunt''s dying wish, to sell their home with its altar to their ancestors, and hit out on her own. But by that decision to leave the past where it is Hang not only rebels against the Confucian system but the Communist system as well. No wonder Hanoi doesn''t want ideas like this to spread among the Vietnamese people!