Maybe I shouldn't have resisted. Maybe I'd have a child to raise by now.... I was young and I resisted with every bone in my body. I bit the bastard's neck, and his blood gushed into my mouth, dirty, kind of salty, and warm, like chicken's blood.
Aunt Tam's struggle with her would-be oppressor in Paradise of the Blind epitomizes the endurance of victims in modern Vietnam and their determination to survive with dignity. More a survival novel than a war novel, Paradise, in fact, completely passes over the years of American intervention in Vietnam. While some of author Duong Thu Huong's other works have shown war from the front lines--where she has had personal experience--this novel depicts the war at home and within, north of the DMZ.
Duong Thu Huong presents an indelible portrait of three northern Vietnamese women and the sacrifices men and communist society wrest from them. The main characters of Paradise represent real women in Vietnam--not the extremes portrayed by the passive Phuong of Graham Greene's The Quiet American nor the whores of Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal lacket." Despite their ordinary occupations and status as second-class citizens, though, the women of Paradise are nothing short of extraordinary.
The novel is narrated by Hang, a young woman whose past has predetermined the course of her life. Her past reaches back to the fanatical time of land reform in North Vietnam from 1953 to 1956, when her uncle, Chinh, denounced her father as a "filthy landlord." The sorrowful tale of her parent's separation and family division is one that eludes Hang for most of her childhood; she does not fully understand why she is constantly made to feel ashamed. At one point, Hang cries, "I didn't dare ask [my mother] if, in another ten years, I would live her life, this life. The thought made me shiver."
Hang's search for meaning and love trace a path of joy and tragedy, success and rejection. Her self-discovery is at once unnerving and beautiful, taking the reader to "a pond lost in some godforsaken village, in a place where the honking of cars and the whistling of trains is something mysterious, exotic.... A place where a man whips his wife with a flail if she dares lend a few baskets of grain or a few bricks to relatives in need. A strip of land somewhere in [her] country, in the 1980s..."
Because so much of Hang's story is in her past, Duong interweaves flashbacks with the present time. The reader must visualize the story as the grown Hang travels on a train to Moscow to visit Uncle Chinh. The technique becomes annoying in the almost immediate realization that the past is much more interesting than the present. When Hang recalls the past, she seems to do so in graphic color; the present appears bleak and bland in contrast. Perhaps Duong uses this pattern intentionally, for it correlates to her own life, in which once hopeful and passionate support of communism has faded due to present-day realities.
The most intriguing and powerful character in the story is not Hang, but her father's sister, Aunt Tam. To Hang, Aunt Tam is generous and caring, yet frightening and overbearing; her presence further complicates Hang's short adolescence. The peculiar relationship between Tam and Hang's mother escalates into a rivalry to perpetuate the separate family lines. In Aunt Tam's character, the author manages to capture the essence of bitterness and hope in survival.
The original Paradise of the Blind in Vietnamese, Nhung Thien Duong Mu, was published in Hanoi in 1988 and had considerable circulation before it was banned. The novel, first translated into French, is purported to be the first Vietnamese novel translated and published in America. Based on a comparison of various parts of the translation with the original, it appears the translators remain true to, if not enhance, Duong's provocative voice. Since she began writing at 28, Duong has achieved literary acclaim in Vietnam, but her style and skills still lack polish. Her upbringing is not that of a writer or intellectual; she has gained her knowledge through sensitive and personal observations which she has transformed into powerful images.
The author's credibility arises from the point that she, too, is a survivor of war, communism and men. An appeal to readers' curiosity is, of course, that Duong, unlike other critics of the Hanoi regime, has supported communist ideals and is not an expatriate. Still living in Hanoi with her children, Duong is a veteran of both the Vietnam War and the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979. As a volunteer soldier in the Communist Youth Brigade, she fought in the Central Highlands beginning in 1967. At the same time, Americans her age were receiving their draft notices. Her fervent support of the revolutionary effort gained her a position on the Vietnamese Communist Party, which expelled her in 1989.
All four of Duong's novels as well as some shorter works have been banned in Vietnam, even after the Vietnamese Communist Party announced a more relaxed policy towards writers in 1987. In addition to Paradise, works such as Untitled Novel (translated excerpts available in the March 1993 issue of Grand Street magazine) and Beyond Illusions, and other voicings critical of the Hanoi regime earned her imprisonment in 1991.
But Paradise of the Blind is not laden with heavy and vengeful political criticism. In fact, people who have regarded her works simply as vehicles for political dissent disappoint Duong. She has written a novel of disillusionment--not only with the corruption and ironies of the Communist Party and society, but also disillusionment with the strength of blood ties so embryonic to Vietnamese culture, with childhood on the poverty-stricken outskirts of Hanoi, with women's sacrifices, and with life. An intensely moving novel, Paradise transcends the boundaries of its setting.