Paradise of the Blind-Duong Thu Huong

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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.

Finished 12/28/13

The Beauty of Humanity Movement–Camilla Gibb

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Novels reach us in all kinds of ways.  This one reached me through a trip out of town and a browse through an unfamiliar bookstore’s bargain shelves.  The cover and title are beautiful and, because it was a bargain price, I thought a purchase could not be wrong.  This purchase was an unexpected gem.

Hu’ng makes pho the old way.  He is called Old Man Hu’ng by his customers.  His restaurant is wherever he can find space and avoid the authorities:  the footprint of a new hotel pool, the construction site of a shopping mall, the sides of the roads.  His customers find him by word of mouth and smell.  Two customers, Binh and Tu, are his family through Hu’ng’s connection with Binh’s father, Dao, a revolutionary poet who was betrayed by the revolution for which he called.

Hu’ng’s restaurant is in the marginal spaces of Hanoi and he lives in a similar space, a shantytown around a lake that had been contaminated in the heyday of the Communist regime.  He and his neighbor, Lan, once in love, have not spoken in decades.  Binh and his wife, Anh, live the quiet lives of North Vietnamese raised in the post-revolution era, but their son, Tu, wants more and, to get it, he has become a tour guide for American tourists, mostly Vietnam War veterans.

They have a comfortable routine that is disrupted by the arrival of a beautiful Viet Kieu woman, Maggie, searching for memories of her artist father, who was broken in a re-education camp.  At first, Hu’ng cannot help her, but her arrival sets in motion the return of a flood of memories for Hu’ng and a flood of new dreams for Tu.

Gibb does not romanticize the Communist era, unlike the art Tu guides Maggie to scout in workshops across Hanoi, but Hu’ng’s memories reveal the warmth between people that made the harsh reality of Communist life livable.  The beauty of humanity.  The bonds between the working-class people surrounding Hu’ng’s pho stand in stark contrast to the naked self-interest of those interacting with the West and prostituting Vietnam’s history and culture for personal gain.

Gibb’s characters are appealing in their flaws, even the minor characters, like Tu’s musician/driver friend, Phu’o’ng, who ends up a minor celebrity through the Westernized television show, Vietnam Idol.  Her quiet skill is such that her previous novel, Sweetness in the Belly, is on my “must read” list.

Finished 9/28/13