What a strange, wonderful, befuddling book, the first novel of one of Vietnam’s most important contemporary writers, Duong Thu Huong—of course I’d never heard of her, given the provincial habits of Americans regarding writers in translation. (This one is also thanks to the clerk at McNally Jackson. Always trust a man who starts ranting and muttering when you ask him a question about a book, is the lesson here!) I read Paradise of the Blind through, then turned around and started it again, partially for the beauty, and partially because the culture and concerns were so alien, I’d just started figuring it out when the book ended.
The protagonist, Hang, describes herself as “a pale young woman with a lost, worried expression, stooped shoulders, and cheap maroon wool suit. A frightened human being of about eighty-two pounds.” She’s an “exported worker” in Moscow, and the novel takes place mostly in flashbacks, as she takes a train across Russia to visit a communist-party uncle sometime in the 19080s.
Her story, as she starts it, “had all happened long before I was born,” by which she means that her family’s fate was determined long before her birth, when the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communist government in the 50s forced land reform on the villages, split families, persecuted prosperous peasants, and created divisions in Vietnamese society still reverberating 30 years later. Hang’s family tree is a diagram of those divisions. One aunt is a rich peasant, who was stripped of her property during land reform, but came back much richer, and vehemently set on revenge. Her mother is a small-businesswoman (selling snacks on the street), despised by both the aunt and the communists. The mother’s life was destroyed by her brother’s (Hang’s uncle’s) ties to the communist party, yet the mother continues to love, support and serve him—because he’s older, and a man, as her culture demands. “‘Unhappiness forges a woman, makes her selfless, compassionate,'” the mother tells Hang.
Hang is caught between these forces, frightened by the competing demands of her mother and aunt, but unable to resist them thanks to the culture of self-sacrifice she’s grown up in. For most of the book she’s on a train, being passively whisked on an errand for her uncle, despite that she hates him. The tension in her story is between behaving as a traditional Vietnamese woman should, and making choices for herself. She says at the end of chapter two:
“It was then that I understood why the voice [of a Russian singer] had enchanted me. Like a call, it beckoned me to a kind of love—to revolt, the most essential force in human existence. I wrapped my arms around myself and huddled in a corner of the compartment. If only my mother could feel this revolt, if only her heart could gather a spark from this inferno.”
(I’m just realizing now that this passage is also a subtle way of explaining why the Vietnamese were attracted to communism, as an agent of cultural change.)
As an American reader 30 years later, coming from one of the most individualistic and rootless cultures on earth, I found it hard to empathize with Hang. Her sensitivity, her weeping, her self-loathing and self-sacrifice were alien, and off-putting. “Get off that train! Don’t go!,” I wanted to shout at her. But at the same time, my very negative reaction demanded a closer look. My heart denied her obligations because imagining living with them was too painful. So when I stopped, read, listened, and accurately absorbed the forces arrayed against her, she became not weak and annoying, but tough and brave.
Duong, the author, was a political dissident in Vietnam, and some of the bravery on display is her own. The Paradise of the Blind is Vietnam, in her telling. Even this title displays the subtlety and reverberating dissonance that makes her prose, and the entire story, so excellent. I find that my brain jumps to “paradise.” The word sets up an expectation that we’re reading about someplace good. And then “blind” is layered. There’s a blind old man in the book who is not an evil character, but simply blind, and in fact a continuous and thus comforting presence in Hang’s slum neighborhood. But if we can overcome the positivity bias set up by the word “paradise,” a place that is paradise only for those who cannot accurately see it, is in fact no paradise at all.
And it’s precisely this that the young Vietnamese must struggle against—a society where all that has been set up to be good, true, idyllic and valued must be exposed and questioned, most especially the Vietnamese traditional heartland, the countryside, the most idealized and thus most difficult to examine.
Hang describes the countryside where her mother is from as “stifling” at times and of “terrifying, unnerving beauty, like a revelation,” at others.
Village life can be described like this:
“An ordinary pond, like the kind at home. A pond lost in some godforsaken village, in a place where the honking of cars and the whistling of trains is something mysterious, exotic. A place where young women bend like slaves at their husbands’ feet. A place where a man whips his wife with a flail if she dares lend a few baskets of grain or a few bricks to relatives in need. A strip of land somewhere in my country, in the 1980s…”
Or like this:
“On clear August nights, the rhythm of pestles pounding young rice rose from every courtyard in the village. The shrill jeer of women’s laughter was enough to shatter these millions of white flowers. As the intoxicating fragrance of cactus floated over the gardens, the villagers studied the moon: what did it mean, this red halo, this silvery sparkle of clouds biting into the intense blue of the sky? In winter, in the deep chill of the night, they could wake in an instant, tear themselves from the warmth of their beds, and run to the cowshed to light a fire or drag a bushel of straw to the buffalo. There are always those who are conscientious and loving, who worship what they do. Devotion like this is impossible to explain. No matter, for it was this love that ensured the survival of an entire way of life.”
Hang is from both those places, the brutal and backwards countryside, and the one tended with love. Understanding her is a gift. The book is a revelation. And I could basically read that prose forever.