(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Since Duong Thu Huong’s novels were first translated into French, English, and other languages in the late 1980’s, she has been by far the most widely read and acclaimed writer from her native Vietnam. The success of her works lies in her ability to successfully intertwine themes that are both personal and political. It is hard to escape the omnipresent historical and biographical elements of her books; yet it would be misleading to interpret her novels by giving too much attention to these matters. She has lived her life amid the backdrop of the Vietnamese War; hence, this war is her subject matter. Similarly, the biographical elements of her life sometimes find their way into her fiction in heavy-handed ways. Nevertheless, the impetus of her efforts is neither historical nor biographical.

Of more importance are the political elements in her work, which are never far from the background of her plots and the lives of her characters. Originally, she used and developed her talents as a writer to promote the Communist cause in press releases from the front lines during the short Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Her writings during the early 1980’s were primarily her work for the Vietnam Film Company, a government organization.

However, by the time she wrote her first novel, Hành trình ngày tho âu, she had begun to expose weaknesses and failures of the Communist government after its takeover of Vietnam in 1975. She realized that the government, primarily because of its corruption and violations of human rights, was systematically making life worse for all citizens. In this first book, which is a novel of initiation, a twelve-year-old girl travels across the country to find her father, who is fighting in the war, to seek his help for a social problem—the abuse of one of her friends. The girl comes to see that justice cannot be found because of the war and the policies of the government, which are alluded to but not overtly condemned. Duong more forthrightly tackles this conflict between loyalty to government and loyalty to justice in her second work, Beyond Illusions, in which a young married couple is divided in the course of action for its life. Linh, the wife and Duong persona, is committed to doing what is right, despite the consequences. Her husband, Nguyen, on the other hand, betrays justice and human rights in order to secure favors for himself and to protect his family. Both novels were extremely popular in Vietnam during the 1980’s, and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold.

With the publication of Paradise of the Blind in 1988, however, Duong came into serious trouble with the government. While she followed her usual method of criticizing the government by criticizing individual members of the government, her exposé of the weaknesses of land reform was not visibly directed at the corruption of individual Communist Party members so much as at the established policy of the entire government. Accordingly, the work was banned in Vietnam, while becoming an international best-seller in Europe and North America. Readers will note that the comments about land reform in the novel are few in number and of little substance; nevertheless, the Communist government would not permit the novel’s circulation.

In Novel Without a Name, Duong again increased the scope and magnanimity of her attack on the government by writing what is basically an antiwar novel, but of course the war is the American war in Vietnam. She came to question the purpose of removing the capitalists and democrats from South Vietnam when the result was increased economic disaster and the loss of human rights for all citizens, whether in North or South Vietnam. The novel is told from the point of view of a young soldier in the army who is fighting for North Vietnam and comes to understand the futility of his efforts, even after his country’s victory. Duong creates another novel with a similar theme in Luu Ly (1997; Memories of a Pure Spring, 2000), which is the most biographical of her works and recalls many of her own experiences in Vietnam’s wars against the United States and China.

Ostensibly, she left war and politics behind in Chon vang (1999; No Man’s Land, 2005) by turning to the personal and internal conflicts of women. The main character, Mien, is happily married and living on a farm with her husband, when a previous husband whom she thought dead returns after an absence of fourteen years. Politics have not been completely omitted, however, as the returning husband represents the life that Mien could have had, in contrast to her current husband, who embodies the life she is living. In something of a national, disparate allegory, questioning what might have happened if South Vietnam had won the war, Duong suggests that things would be horrid, no matter which country won....

(The entire section is 1997 words.)