Classical Tragedy, Modern Vietnam

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 7, 2003 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

The classical definition of tragedy is very different from its modern usage. A plane crash is declared a tragedy in the headlines of newspapers and on the evening news. But it does not have the classical tragic effect. Instead, we turn the page, change the channel.

In a classical tragedy, a combination of ill fortune and personal peccadilloes ultimately brings a noble soul to sorrow or ruin. The life of Prince Hamlet is tragic and leaves us purged. A plane crash is only absurd and leaves us dull.

In modern literature, the true tragedy is rare. The hero must live and prosper, because Hollywood heroes always do. Good people do not die or suffer; they ride off into the sunset. The universe is just. Not tragedy, but romance reigns - romance in the original sense of a work featuring fantastic events, a gleeful reunion of sundered lovers or families, and a heartwarming sunset coda.

Memories of a Pure Spring by Vietnamese novelist Duong Thu Huong is a tragedy in the classical vein: it is cathartic, terrible to behold; it inspires "pity or fear", as Aristotle said all good dramas must. But Huong does not need a Troy or an Elsinore as her setting, an Agamemnon or a Hamlet as her hero. Her post-war Vietnam and its fairly ordinary citizens suffice.

Suong is an orphan endowed with a unique gift, the gift of song. Hung, an admired nationalist composer and Communist party cadre, recognizes her talent and rescues her from what Marx called the "idiocy of rural life." With Hung's training, Suong becomes Vietnam's most cherished songbird. They marry, have a child, and spread their fame throughout the land by acting as part of a troupe charged with boosting the morale of soldiers fighting the Vietnam War.

But the war ends, and its horrors and deprivations are replaced by a dreary existence under the watchful eyes of a grasping, petty, and ignorant regime, faced with the impossible task of erecting the promised utopia out of warfare's ruins. People are escaping the country in droves -- the "boat people" so-called. Hung, who had been so prolific during the war, loses his Muse. "Now I have everything," he thinks. "But I have nothing to write about."

One day, seeking inspiration, he heads to the ocean. There he gets caught in a stampede of boat people, and must choose between joining them or being killed as a potential informer. He joins them, gets caught, is publicly denounced as a "traitor" and a "counterrevolutionary", and is thrown into a hellish Vietnamese reeducation camp, which makes monsters of men.

Thus begins noble Hung's decline. He begins to resemble a wounded bird stuck in a traffic jam. Every time it seems that Hung will take flight, he is newly wounded. A sympathetic reader will root for him, but in vain. Hung employs various devices -- alcohol, opium, prostitutes -- to dull his pain, but these only sever his few indispensable familial ties. Ultimately he must choose, like a modern-day Cato, between disgrace and a willful death.

Published in 2000, Memories is Huong's latest novel. It is also her bleakest. Where her other works are illuminated by the glory of Vietnamese cooking or by the stubborn optimism of her characters, Memories has little light. As day after day finds Hung starving for opium, stricken with an incurable strain of syphilis, he compares himself to swarming termites. "As soon as they trace their first circle of freedom in the air," he muses, "the angel of death is already gathering them in their vast net." His friend Lam, a rare vision of cheery resilience, takes a different view, a la Dorothy Parker. "It's not easy to live," he tells Hung, "but it's just as hard to die."

As in her other works, Huong's resentment is equally apportioned between the departed American armies and the ascendant Communist cadres. Of the latter, the composer Hung thinks, "Bunch of idiots! They don't even know how to talk! They never finished primary school but they move their tongues faster than a serpent snaps its tail." The cadres are excessively proud of all things Vietnamese. When a deputy chief proclaims Vietnamese rolling tobacco to be the best, Hung thinks, "It's always the same refrain. Our country, eternally beautiful, richly endowed." As for the Americans, Hung recalls a song written about "the poisoning of Communist prisoners by the American-sponsored South Vietnamese regime", or the "puppets". The song says, "Don't forget the hate." A particularly poignant scene depicts the birth of Suong's baby in range of American gunboats. Soon after, mortars pound the underground shelter protecting the new family.

Huong's descriptions of injustice are unsparing, but occasionally resigned. As a vengeful cadre robs Hung of his job, the composer thinks, "Success belongs to the usurpers. It's been like that since time immemorial, and it will always be like this [sic]." One of her characters notes bitterly that he who has the guns has the power. (Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi expresses a contrary view: the Burmese military regime will collapse, because guns are all it has.) Suong willingly submits to the regime in return for goods and favors.

So is Memories just an exercise in self-pity? Does Huong offer a way out besides death, if the fruit of hard work is alienated so arbitrarily? The only viable option Huong consistently offers is the act of creating life or art. In this, she echoes Nietzsche, whose will to power (Macht) derives etymologically from a will to create (machen). While the artists in Memories are generally boozy, shiftless megalomaniacs, Suong is presented as an example of how artistic talents can be a source of power greater than that of kings or cadres.

When Hung is imprisoned, Lam persuades Suong to perform for the wardens of the reeducation camp to win an early freedom for her husband. The ruse succeeds: Hung serves only a small fraction of his sentence. But even this is lethal. He never composes again, and thus life loses its savor, for "once you've tasted the joy of creating, all other joy seems like a poor wine."

Duong Thu Huong herself spent seven months in Vietnamese prison for her political beliefs. Thus Memories may stand as a record of a fate she might have shared with Hung. Fortunately for literature, Huong, like Suong, continues to give lovely voice to pain that would devour a weaker, lesser soul. Looking over Huong's oeuvre, especially Memories, I would not be surprised if a Nobel Prize for Literature were on her horizon. You heard it here first.

- The End -

Review of Duong Thu Huong, Memories of a Pure Spring [Picador, London, 2000].

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