Paradise of the Blind
Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, originally published in 1988, is the first Vietnamese novel translated into English and published in North America. Part of a very popular fictional trilogy about the difficulties and disappointments of average Vietnamese working people, this novel sold forty thousand copies in Vietnam before the government abruptly banned it. Duong’s previous book, published in Vietnam, sold more than one hundred thousand copies. Clearly, this former leader of a Communist youth brigade fighting the South Vietnamese in 1967 and among the first women to join the battle on the northern frontier against China’s 1979 attack upon Vietnam became a dangerous voice in the late 1980’s, as she expressed the people’s growing disillusionment with the government’s inhumanity and inability to lead them politically and spiritually. Arrested in April of 1991 on unsubstantiated charges, Duong was defended by PEN, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations. She was released from prison seven months later. Undaunted, she continued to write. Paradise of the Blind is a story of one family’s survival during the years of chaos as Vietnam fought not only its enemies but its own people as well.
Surprisingly, the novel opens in the 1980’s in the provinces of the Soviet Union, where the central character, Hang, has been sent as an “exported worker” to live in a dormitory among thousands of other emigre’s from Communist satellite countries, crowded four to a room, freezing, hungry, homesick, and bored when they are not engaged in the drudgery of factory work. The events of Hang’s life leading to this place and time are recounted as she rides countless hours on a train to Moscow in deference to her uncle, a corrupt Communist party cadre who has been the cause of her mother’s dislocation from her native village and separation from her husband and who, with his family, has survived ironically only through his sister’s capitalist entrepreneurial efforts which he vehemently and hypocritically condemns.
Duong’s novel depicts a Vietnam caught up from the 1950’s through the 1980’s in turmoil and chaos. When not fighting the French, the Americans, and one another, the people of the northern provinces are victimized by Communist land reform. Villager “landlords” such as Hang’s father, a schoolteacher who inherited his family’s modest home and small amount of land, had to flee to the more remote northern provinces or were sentenced to forced labor camps, while others such as Aunt Tam, a landowner who at harvest time hired a few neighbors to work alongside her in her tiny rice paddy, were dispossessed of their houses and property, which were then occupied by village good-for-nothings subsequently appointed party leaders. Only when the Viet Minh government recognized the anger and misery such actions caused was “reform” abandoned, followed by a national “Rectification of Errors”: Peasant landholders were given back their property, and the Maoist government moved on to the next in its series of ideological campaigns. Duong’s novel personalizes the misery of the working class during these times of political confusion.
Paradise of the Blind is essentially a coming-of-age novel set against a backdrop of Southeast Asian politics and culture. Only through the process of confronting her social and economic circumstances—directly resulting from her uncle’s Communist ideology and authority-as well as her family is the protagonist, Hang, able to declare her independence from it all to claim her true self. Acknowledging the influence her family, her class, her ancestors’ village, and her tradition have had upon her, yet distancing herself from them, Hang comes to self-knowledge and fulfillment.
Not until she is ten years old does Hang learn the circumstances that brought her and her mother to the back-alley shanty in Hanoi where they live with other street vendors, all making their paltry livings selling rice, vermicelli, noodles, tea, and sweets. She has suffered the shame of her...
(The entire section is 1677 words.)