The book, Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong, was first published in Vietnamese in Hanoi in 1991 and the credits tell me that it is a work of fiction and that any resemblances to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. I will allow there must be some transpositions, creative imaginings and repositionings in any novel but I do not believe that in this book any resemblances to any persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. This is a book ‘you couldn’t make up’ from imagination. The truth will out and in this novel it does come out, whatever safety guises are in place.
I didn’t know that Vietnam had to export its young people to work in Russian factories, living in dormitories and enduring a dreary work-rest-sleep-work-rest-sleep existence, rather like HG Well’s sad little hero Mr Polly in Victorian England. In ‘exchange’, it seems, Vietnam got help with ‘reconstruction’. Anyway that is the life of Hang, the heroine of this novel ‘Paradise of the Blind’, who narrates her story while travelling to Moscow o see her sick uncle, a middle-ranking communist official. He has not been much concerned about her or her mother in the past, so Hang resents being forced to make the long journey to Moscow because of her mother’s deep commitment to preserving family ties. This feeling for ‘family’ and loyalty to one’s family group comes across strongly throughout the book. Most of the book is in the form of her recollections while she is travelling and brings us back to Hang’s childhood in her small Vietnamese home village.
As a book, it sprawls a bit. We see everything through the eyes of Hang and therefore it could be that we get an unfair view of the other people in the book. However, one senses truth everywhere in the book. The absurdities of the campaign against the ‘Landlord Class’, most of whom were landlords in the most miniscule way, are clearly described. The absurdities of ‘communal ownership’ are also treated, and the many ways in which vendettas and old scores were settled under the guise of ‘progress’ are described, not in a detailed analysis but, as it were, in passing, giving the impression that there was nothing remakable about the various cruelties and that they were simply a part of the whole post-war communist experience. Which indeed they were.
This is one of those books that one might say ‘writes itself’, without much in the way of crafting from the writer itself. But this view is always unjust to writers who have gone through the mill of social hell. Yes, the narrative does get a bit tedious here and there (the long descritions of food and meals, for instance) and repetitive. But, given the ordeals of Hang and her neighbours, these faults are a small price to pay for sharing them with her and being reminded how fortunate we are, any of us living in the much-maligned ‘democratic free world’.