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The novels of Duong Thu Huong

I am currently immersed in the novels of the Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong that have appeared in English (Beyond Illusions, Memories of a Pure Spring, Paradise of the Blind, Novel Without a Name). Born in 1947, she was one of three survivors of a group of forty Communist Youth League volunteers who sang and danced for the troops at the front in the American war. She was published and honored in Vietnam during the period of liberalization in the late 1980s, but then she was suddenly banned, expelled from the party in 1990, and imprisoned without charge for seven months in 1991.

In 1997 she was interviewed (through a translator) by the writer Robert Stone at the PEN Center in New York. You can find videos of the interview on YouTube here. She confirms that she cast the deciding vote for her own expulsion at the meeting of her party organization. She also says that her neighbors are propagandized to regard her as an enemy of the state. Nevertheless, she is left at liberty and has evidently been allowed to make at least one trip abroad -- an ambiguous position that suggests she has protectors as well as opponents in high places.

In her novels as well as in the interview, Duong Thu Huong promotes an ethic of uncompromising integrity that seems inhumanly fanatical as well as unrealistic. Linh, the heroine of Beyond Illusions, recoils in disgust from her devoted journalist husband who has abandoned the revolutionary ideals they once shared in order to gain promotion at work and provide well for her and their child, so that she should eat well during pregnancy, so that the little girl should not "long in vain for a pair of new shoes." Any "normal" person who has made such "compromises" -- no less "necessary" in the West than in the East -- will sympathize with the husband and with the child devastated by her parents' divorce. That at least was my initial reaction. Then I thought: what kind of world would we be living in now if everyone for the last hundred years or so had indulged in such ruthless integrity? We would surely have achieved genuine worldwide democracy and communism long ago and our species would not be facing self-induced extinction. So much for our love for our children! New shoes, yes, but a horrifying future.

Duong Thu Huong is sincere and courageous, but like most dissidents in the "communist" countries she seems naive about the West -- although this is a natural reaction to the simplistic propaganda she has been force-fed throughout her life. She recounts how after "liberation" she went to Saigon and found cafes, bookstores, laughing people. Why did they need "liberating" at such a horrendous price? True, the price paid was excessive, especially considering what they were "liberated" into, but there was plenty of misery under the glittering surface, in the villages and sweatshops. Otherwise why did so many people join the Vietcong?

Apart from their value as literature (no doubt partly lost in translation), Duong Thu Huong's books are a mine of insights into Vietnamese "communist" society, which has never received the academic attention devoted to its Soviet, East European, and Chinese counterparts. To some extent her work compensates for the apparent absence of serious middle-level books on the society and economy. At least I have not yet located such books, but only superficial journalistic accounts and highly specialized (and extremely expensive) studies.


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