Strife from Without and Within: Two Novels by Duong Thu Huong

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

"Those American bastards!"

Rarely does one come across an exclamation like this, especially in so revered a Western institution as the Penguin book. But it forms a kind of refrain in Duong Thu Huong's Novel Without a Name, an account from the North Vietnamese perspective of what Huong calls the "anti-American resistance." The cry is first uttered by a female soldier when she realizes -- in trying and failing to seduce Quan, a male soldier and the book's protagonist -- that Quan has become impotent because of "all those chemicals" - presumably defoliants. Another woman dreams wistfully of the future after "those American bastards leave."

I first heard of Duong Thu Huong when asked to review her first novel, Beyond Illusions, written in 1987 but not available in America until 2002. Much - too much, it seemed to me - was made by past reviewers and blurb-writers of the fact that Huong had been imprisoned for her political beliefs (democratic, pluralistic) and that her books (treacherous, acerbic) had been banned. Not that I don't condemn censorship or totalitarian regimes. But there seemed to be something of a self-aggrandizing subtext that I did not like: Pity the poor author to have been born under the red flag, and be glad that you live in the land of the free.

Novel Without a Name has a rather more complicated message, including the idea that war is terrible unto madness. The book begins with a line that could have come from Hemingway: "I listened all night to the wind howl through the Gorge of Lost Souls." But when it comes to depicting horrors, Huong is far more unflinching than Hemingway. Quan encounters six "naked corpses. Women....The soldiers had raped them before killing them....So this was how graceful, girlish bodies rotted...." Quan notices that the women's possessions were limited to "a few pieces of red and blue yarn, a few betel nuts. The yarn to tie their hair, the betel nuts to clean their teeth. They must have believed that they would see their men again...." He discovers his boyhood friend Bien rotting in a compound for the insane. Sitting in his own excrement, Bien bangs his head against a wall, and the compound supervisor notes, "The nails. He always aims for the nails."

Novel, like The Red Badge of Courage, relates one man's aimless wanderings from one surreal wasteland to another, through "uninhabited regions, places where the bombs had scared off all the animals." Quan lapses in and out of fantastical dreams betraying his loss of innocence, his disillusionment with the ideologies driving the war effort, with "all the bearded, balding geniuses" - Marx, Lenin - "with all their resolutions adhered to by all the herds of dreamy militant sheep." He comes across an entire unit dedicated to the grim task of chopping wood and assembling it into coffins. Ever practical, the soldiers sleep in the coffins at night.

The novel is also an account - unprecedented in my reading - of what it is like to starve. The smallest portions of tasteless and protein-poor food take on an almost religious value. Early in the novel, Quan refuses soup made from orangutan; even the hands are cooked. Food is stolen, fought over, used as a kind of currency. Soldiers are hunters and butchers and chefs. Nor is food the only cherished commodity: one man's gifts to his family include an "American ballpoint pen with three different colors for his son." American readers will know the pen; they may never appreciate how treasured it could be.

The book, like the war, ends with the Communists victorious, and with Quan still alive. But the ending is far from celebratory. Nearly everyone Quan loves has perished, and the book abounds with doubt of the war's value. When one of Quan's subordinates orders Quan's unit to wantonly destroy a captured storage facility containing valuable American medicines and appliances, Quan is livid. The man responsible explains that the seized goods would only end up in the hands of Party leaders, not in the hands of the people. "You see," he says, "the people, they do exist from time to time, but they're only a shadow. When they need soldiers, they cover the people with armor, put guns in people's hands....But the real food, that's always for them."

Of the American bastards, only one makes an appearance in the flesh, and this two years after the war has ended. Otherwise, America is represented only by its bombs, its ballpoint pens. The American is a POW, and Quan and his soldiers discuss coldly what to do with him. Throw him in prison? Shoot him? Set him loose in the jungle in the knowledge that someone else will kill him? Nobly, Quan realizes that he and the American are alike: they are both dupes. "Perhaps this man had left it all behind to put on a soldier's uniform, to defend freedom....drunk on a vision of himself marching till dawn with medals across his chest...." Quan shows the man mercy. In this may be seen the germ of that great forgiveness the Vietnamese have shown toward the "foreign invaders", a forgiveness that visitors to Vietnam invariably note with astonishment.

Flash forward. The war is over. Malaise has set in, as has the fallout of a series of disastrous land reforms undertaken by the Communist government. Families are torn apart by their diverging allegiances - to Party, people, property - and by their sympathies either with a glorified feudal past or a glorified communal future. In this setting Huong places Paradise of the Blind, purportedly the first Vietnamese novel to be published in America.

Paradise is purgatorio to Novel's inferno. In wartime Vietnam, people go hungry because American bombs have driven peasants to abandon their rice fields. In peacetime Vietnam, people go hungry because of corruption, shortsighted and destructive economic reforms, and an official policy against free enterprise, however humble. In Novel, people are killed instantly, viscerally; in Paradise, people die slowly, emotionally. The dreams that had been their sustenance on the battlefield have evaporated.

Narrated by Hang, a young girl, Paradise follows the trials and internal conflicts of her family: Que, her mother, a struggling vendor; her aunt Tam, a "rich peasant" and Hang's benefactress; her uncle Chinh, a Party man and ideological educator; and Hang's father, an exile whom Hang never knows. Tam believes Chinh to have been responsible for the exile of her brother - Hang's father - and seeks her revenge by showering Hang with gifts and encouraging her to excel in her studies. Hang succeeds and attends university, but her mother suffers a crippling accident, requiring Hang to forego her studies and work in a textile factory in the Soviet Union.

Food had been an obsession in Novel because of its scarcity. In Paradise, food is arguably the main character, as paragraphs and pages are filled with descriptions of feasts and even recipes. But this is not to say that food is ever abundant. Chinh faces day after day of spartan repasts, and he must swallow his pride and his politics to accept food from his sister - Hang's mother. The food must be secreted into his "Communal Residence", lest the other residents gossip and accuse.

Huong has no patience with the Communists' cause. The jargon of the cadres is always placed mockingly within quotes: "relations with landowning classes", "sabotaging the revolution", "exploiters". She describes the cadres' efforts to turn the peasants against the landowners, and when the reality cannot be achieved, appearances suffice. "Listen to our denunciation of their crimes," the peasants are told. "Then shout a slogan: 'Down with the landowning classes!' Raise your fist like this and scream: 'Down, down!'"

In Moscow, Hang meets a group of young Vietnamese who ridicule the slogans. Raising their glasses to drink, they say, "To our glorious combat for the salvation of the fatherland and our family...." One can almost hear the false bombast. At university, students beg for some of Hang's food: "Communism, you know, solidarity and all that." This is as brilliant as it is bitter.

In Huong's Vietnam, life is stark, and hope dear. When the "Vice President" seizes the land of a certain Madame Hai and builds a house on it, the Madame splits his head open with a hammer, douses the house in gasoline, sets the house ablaze, and hangs herself. The fury is Faulkneresque, and as the book closes and Hang contemplates her village, "this cesspool of ambition", she recalls "the vision of a woman twisting from the end of a rope."

Huong's message is, however, not one of unqualified despair. Her goal seems rather to show how things in Vietnam really are, rather than idealize the present, bank on a brighter future, or cling to a lost and fabricated past. Telling the truth, however dire, is a form of hope, for it assumes that one's hearers are still capable of progress, if only they will move, as Huong has it, "beyond illusions." This may be a lot to ask from a people who resisted numerous outside invaders only to become the prey of their own leaders. Turning the famous Marxist slogan on its head, one of Huong's characters exclaims, "If religion is an opiate, then nobody needs the opiate as much as we do!" Huong does without. She thrives on ugly realities, and if the success of her novels in Vietnam is any indication, the Vietnamese are prepared to face these realities with her, on the way to their country's salvation - slogan-free.

- The End -

Books reviewed in this article:
Duong Thu Huong, Novel Without a Name [Penguin, New York, 1995].
Duong Thu Huong, Paradise of the Blind [Penguin, New York, 1993].

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Read Kenneth Champeon's review of Beyond Illusions.

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