In wartime, it is perhaps inevitable that we make demons of the enemy. Yet something basic in us prevents us from acknowledging that we, too, have become demonic. This wisdom, if it comes at all, comes when war ends, when we can see once more that the people we fought were, in the end, only human. The Vietnam War, with its people who lived deep underground in tunnels, with its fighters who knew how to hide in the trunks of trees or to emerge right out of the earth in the middle of jungle trails, has long haunted the American imagination. For many, it is a nightmare that refuses to fade.
Now comes Duong Thu Huong’s “Paradise of the Blind,” the first Vietnamese novel to be released in English, according to the publisher. This astonishingly powerful and overwhelmingly sad novel about a North Vietnamese family torn apart by ideological conflicts peels off the demon’s mask and restores, for us, the human face. Huong’s story is a simple one, but her characters, their joys and suffering, their terrible fates, the chaotic world they inhabit, are not in the least simple. Huong’s Vietnam has undergone so many years of war and upheaval that its people have been both formed and deformed by them.
Hang, the book’s narrator, is passing through customs on her way to becoming an “exported worker” in Russia. She looks back and sees the sweaty and frightened faces of the families of those departing:
“When all the customs procedures had been completed, when the crowd of travelers had passed through the last security booths and were walking toward the Tarmac, you could see, on the faces of those left behind, the relief, the joy, the pride of vicarious success. The vision of a happier future elsewhere, anywhere but here. Smiles of contentment, faces radiant with happiness. Nowhere else in the world does separation bear the hideous face of joy. This was a grotesque face, a deviation from all the rules of human nature.”
In Hang, the 20-year-old who goes to Russia to work in a textile factory so that she can support herself and send money home to her mother, Duong Thu Huong has created a character who is, of necessity, unusually wise. As she looks back over her family history, she comes to believe that happiness and unhappiness are not divinely determined. They are, rather, a matter of chance, of luck. One day, envying a group of happy, prosperous Japanese tourists, she asks herself what sets them apart from her countrymen. She concludes that the difference is only an accident of birth:
“All (their generation) had was a bit of luck. Luck to have been born in peacetime, in a real house, in the right place, under a real roof. . . .”
Moreover, she knows that bad luck, ill fortune of any kind, usually wears a human face. It is Hang’s bad luck that her maternal uncle, Chinh, has that face. Chinh is a particularly idiotic and dangerous sort of Communist whose blind adherence to party rules precipitates a series of family tragedies that ends by sundering ties between Hang’s mother and aunt. Her uncle, a friend tells her, is “like a lot of people I’ve known. They’ve worn themselves out trying to recreate a 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 scramble for it in the mud, to make a profit--at any price. They are their own tragedy--ours as well.”
Hang’s uncle is her tragedy. A passionate, if intellectually and morally limited idealist, he embraces communism. During the land-reform campaign he is put in charge of a rural district near Hanoi where Hang’s mother, father and paternal aunt, Tam, earn their living farming their small plots of land. When Uncle Chinh decides to put the Communist Party above his family and disregards the obligations of the blood tie (which Hang’s mother and Aunt Tam hold sacred until the end of their lives), Chinh denounces his own relatives as landlords, oppressors of the people.
Hang’s father is shamed before his neighbors and flees to the north; he eventually dies there. But his sister, Hang’s Aunt Tam, who also is denounced, remains where she is, and through sheer intelligence and will outlasts the campaign of land reform. During a later campaign, “The Rectification of Errors,” she is reclassified as a peasant and her land is returned to her. Hang’s mother, deprived by her brother Chinh of both husband and land, goes to the slums of Hanoi where she supports herself and her daughter working as a vendor.
Hang grows up knowing herself to be fatherless and unprotected but unaware that her Uncle Chinh is at least indirectly responsible for her father’s death. When her mother finally takes her back to visit the family’s village, Aunt Tam is overjoyed to see her beloved brother’s face reflected in the face of her niece and forms an immediate and passionate attachment to her. From Tam, Hang soon learns of her uncle’s betrayal. From then on, her mother and aunt begin to compete for Hang’s affection and loyalty.
At first, Aunt Tam and Hang’s mother appear completely dissimilar, but both sisters-in-law adore their brothers, venerate the family, and want to see the bloodline continue. This adoration spills over into deep affection for their nieces and nephews, and a commitment to help support them. Tam, who is prosperous, even wealthy, can do this easily. She brings Hang hampers of food, buys her gold chains and gives her money for her education. But to help feed her own brother’s children, Hang’s mother must do more than sell some of the jewelry Tam has given Hang. She also must deprive herself and her own daughter of food. When Tam learns that her sister-in-law starves Hang so that she can feed the children of Chinh, the “assassin” who caused her brother’s death, she breaks with her sister-in-law forever:
“In the end,” says Tam, “everything comes to light in this world. The needle always emerges from the haystack. . . . Even from my village, I know about your life, the price you pay. I don’t reproach you. We all turn to family. After all, blood runs thick. And this love I feel for my brother, how could I deny it to others? But I want you to understand something clearly: Your brother is my family’s mortal enemy. He killed my brother. I forbid you to use my money to feed him. . . . From now on, you no longer have the right to honor my brother’s memory.”
In the end of the novel, as in life, everyone dies, and “Paradise of the Blind” concludes with Hang, so long torn between competing claims of mother and aunt, about to be left alone in the world. She has been recalling these stories of her family while she is in Russia, on the eve of her return to Vietnam. What remains to her is only a dream of a distant land and a vision of a university she may one day enter. She still has the ability--and the will--to dream. Yet it seems as if Duong Thu Huong can do no more than imagine dreams for her, as if she does not dare predict, in such a luckless world, what will actually happen.
This novel clearly shows us the meaning of the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” In “Paradise of the Blind,” Duong Thu Huong has written a truly moving, immediate novel about one Vietnamese family, but this family comes to stand for all the Vietnamese who have suffered through centuries of war. Suffering is Huong’s subject: how the Vietnamese suffer, and how they survive. They do both with majesty, and this simple but beautifully told story of a civil war within a family induces profound sympathy in us, even awe.
Such a book is long overdue. Duong Thu Huong makes us feel what we are often unable or unwilling to acknowledge: When one of us dies, we all die. And somehow, in the end, we ae always, everywhere, the same.