THE WOMEN ON THE ISLAND
By Ho Anh Thai
University of Washington Press
$30, 176 pages
Just as Americans, seized by anger and patriotism, feel their individual concerns being dwarfed by a national emergency, here comes a Vietnamese novel about the opposite process: the reemergence of individual desires in a people who for decades had subordinated everything to the collective struggle.
The women, who work in a forestry production brigade on Cat Bac Island, off Haiphong, in the 1980s enlisted in their teens to maintain the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They endured bombing and strafing, hunger and disease. Now they are middle-aged.
Like the post-World War II Soviet women in Solzhenitsyn's "Cancer Ward," they are a generation of widows and the never-married. Despite their heroism, society has no place for them, and they've begun, however faintly, to resent this.
They want to bear children and are no longer picky about who the fathers might be.
Their interest is aroused by the news that a young, good-looking man has begun working at an experimental sea-turtle breeding station on a nearby island. He is Tuong, a former Hanoi art student implicated in a scam carried out by criminal friends he mistook for fellow bohemians.
Sobered by a jail term and public disgrace, he's grateful when Hoa, manager of a state-run export company that includes the forestry brigade and the breeding station, offers him a job.
Before long, though, Tuong hears about the women on Cat Bac, and isolation revives his randiness.
Hoa would be the hero of "The Women on the Island" if the novel were a conventional example of socialist realism. He's decent, upright and capable.
But times are changing, and Hoa has discovered that "once you get involved in trading and purchasing ... sometimes you're going to have to be pragmatic, sometimes mischievous, sometimes innocuous. I often have to do things which, deep inside, I don't want to do."
Hoa means to do good for his country by doing well in business, but his mainspring is personal ambition, and he's critical of the old-line bureaucrats and hangers-on who lack this quality.
On the other hand, he's willing to hire people, such as Tuong, who have shady backgrounds but display individual drive--a practice that prompts a campaign by jealous rivals to oust Hoa from his post.
Ho Anh Thai ("Behind the Red Mist") was born in 1960 and came of age after the "American War" was over. He clearly sides with the forces of change. He disapproves of Tuong's behavior--the artist becomes a one-man sperm bank for the women on the island--but Tuong himself is treated sympathetically, as are the women.
"What do I need with my virginity," a brigade member exclaims at a meeting intended to chastise one of her younger comrades for getting pregnant out of wedlock, "when all it does is bring me loneliness? The collective can help me strengthen my will power, it can console me a bit. But the collective can't bring me private happiness."
The conflict at the heart of Thai's novel affects its very structure. Thai switches from one person's story to another's in order to show the phenomenon of reborn individualism from different points of view, yet the individuals, especially Tuong, are more interesting than the social issue.
We wish the novel would develop their stories further rather than dropping them once the author's point is made.
It's in subtler ways that "The Women on the Island" shows Thai's openness to fresh thinking and Western literary influences. The philosophical model in the book is Hoa's Uncle Chinh, who draws his equanimity--the kind of balance Vietnamese society as a whole is urged to seek--not from communism or capitalism but from Zen.
And the prelude and coda to the main story use Latin American magical-realist effects to tell of guerrillas on Cat Bac Island fighting French colonialists in the 1880s, stifling individual desires in the name of a war that would last longer than anyone imagined.