Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895
Even the title of Duong’s third novel, Paradise of the Blind, is itself an attack on the Communist government which took over Vietnam after the country’s war with the United States ended in 1975. The novel has no “paradise” but exists only as a dystopia, and not one of the characters is blind. The title refers to Communist leaders, who publicly spoke of and pretended to create what they called a “peasants’ paradise” or a “workers’ paradise,” but were clearly failing in Vietnam, as they were in other Communist countries. There is no paradise; there are only blind people promoting a paradise based on a flawed political theory, which can never succeed.
Duong constructs this novel as a political allegory around the three main characters. Hang, the young girl who is experiencing a coming-of-age, represents postwar Vietnam, and the two women who control her represent the political struggle occurring in Vietnam after the Vietnam War. Hang’s mother, Que, is the traditional Vietnamese who has “lost” after acquiescing to the circumstances of the war by giving herself over to the will of the Communists. She does this literally in the plot when she sends her husband off into hiding. The other woman, Aunt Tam, the sister of Hang’s exiled father, represents capitalism and democracy, but she also cannot succeed; she can only maneuver and buy into the corruption and bribery of the political and economic system in various ways as the plot enfolds.
At the end of the novel, Que loses her leg in a freak accident that is not her fault, and is left handicapped forever. Tam simply dies from hard work and her inability to make peace and survive within the Communist system. Both women spend their lives hating each other and maneuvering for the love and attention of Hang, and in so doing they destroy any chance Hang has for a successful, happy, and peaceful future. Such is the state of Vietnam.
Similarly, the two main male characters in the novel are also allegorical figures. Hang’s father, Ton, is an honorable, French-educated, intelligent, handsome, and resourceful schoolteacher. He is the French-American male power figure who would change the country’s government into a democracy with freedom, human rights, and capitalism. In contrast with him, his brother-in-law, Que’s brother Chinh, is a Communist who espouses a great ideology but behaves with little morality. He fails to take care of his family, and he ruins Que’s chance for happiness by forcing her to drive her own husband, Ton, into exile in the north. Here, Ton takes refuge among the Hmong, a traditional Vietnamese tribal minority, who take him in and provide shelter and safety. Ton eventually kills himself after a failed attempt to take care of his wife and daughter. His death represents the passing possibility of Vietnam’s political identity and success as a Western-style democracy.
Uncle Chinh, the Communist character, turns into the villain of the novel, with little or no goodness to his credit. Living in Russia, he survives there as something of a lackey and servant to foreign students at a university. After Hang completes her college education, paid for entirely by Aunt Tam, she, too, visits Russia as a “guest worker,” where she is summoned to see her uncle. Here he betrays her and leaves her in a room with a group of Russian men, who presumably rape her after he exits, though the narrative does not explicitly record this. Though absent from most of Hang’s daily life, Chinh is always somewhere in the background, causing trouble, and he surfaces only when he needs something from...
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Tam, which usually turns out to be the money that she has earned, penny by penny, as a street vendor. Duong’s meaning is entirely clear: Uncle Chinh represents the greed and corruption of the Communist government.
Duong does not provide a chronological narrative of all of these events. Rather, the novel begins late in the action, when Hang is living in Russia and is summoned to visit Uncle Chinh. Hang visits him out of obedience to the traditional Vietnamese values of families, but she does so to her own detriment. Again, the political commentary shows how following the ways of the past will damn Vietnam as effectively as trying to make Communism work or resurrecting the ideals of the French and Americans. As Hang travels within Russia to find her uncle, Duong provides numerous flashbacks of Hang’s childhood in order to reveal the political intrigue surrounding the main character.
Vietnamese government censors objected to this novel, but their concern was probably not with its underlying political allegory. In her first two novels, Duong had written of the problems in the country, and her Communist characters did not fare well, but she was not subjected to censorship. However, in the first chapters of Paradise of the Blind, she explicitly focuses on one particular aspect of Communist ideology: land reform. Duong reveals several important ways in which everyone was victimized by this so-called reform and how no one benefited from it. It is noteworthy that the government itself gave up on land reform about the same time that the novel appeared. The Communists were evidently willing to change a misguided policy, but they were not willing for their policy to be publicly criticized in Duong’s novel.