I have read many, many novels about the history of Europe, but my exploration of Asian history is still in its infancy. Under the Banyan Tree led me to Duong Thu Huong and this is the first of her novels published in the United States, and so my entry point into her writing. Her biography bears further exploration for those interested in history and the paths of authors.
Paradise of the Blind begins near the end and moves back and forth from Hang’s childhood to the novel’s endpoint in her early twenties. Hang’s family is complicated. She is fatherless, but doted on by her father’s sister, Aunt Tam. Hang’s mother sells small goods in the city while Aunt Tam maintains the family home in the village. Hang moves between her present as a factory worker in the Soviet Union and her childhood torn between the two women she loved most and who most loved her, Aunt Tam and her mother. Both women, however, sacrificed their lives for the memories of their brothers. Aunt Tam worked herself to the bone, and she is described as skeletal, to return her “bourgeois” family to their ancestral home. Hang’s mother works herself to a skeleton to feed her Communist party official brother and his wife and sons. Hang slowly learns the story of her mother and father’s romance and her uncle’s role in its, and her father’s, demise. All is sacrificed, hard work and hope, to put flesh and more flesh on the frame of the greedy and corrupt uncle, who appreciates none of it. Uncle Chinh is Communist Vietnam and the patriarchal Vietnamese culture. Aged and wrinkled by her early twenties, robbed of her chance at education and a brighter future in order to support her mother, Hang finally sees her uncle for who he always was, ignorant, confused, and immoral, and finds the strength to walk away.
Duong Thu Huong’s prose is beautiful and haunted and dark. Near the end of the novel, Hang compares her people with Japanese tourists in Russia. She says, “Our faces were always taut, lean with fear. The fear that we might not be able to pay for food, or not send it in time, the fear of learning that an aging father or mother had passed away while waiting for our miserable subsidies…..We had darting, calculating faces: You had to think of everything, weigh everything. All the time. You had to think to survive, to feed your loved ones, to hustle for a day’s wages sharecropping or sweeping on a train. you had to think too of the life that stretched out ahead, the pain that still waited for you, of a future as obscure and unfathomable as sea fog” (229).
And so continues the path begun by The Lizard King. The story of the Easts.