Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Paradise of the Blind" by Duong Thu Huong

A Travel the World In Books Readathon Pick

It's interesting to look back at my pile of books and try to remember why I picked them up- this one was most likely added to my hoard due to the caption on the front: "Banned in its own country, the first novel from Vietnam ever to be published in the United States." I like banned books, and for it to be the first Vietnamese novel published in the U.S. was appealing too.

Another thing to note about this novel is why it was written- the Vietnamese government originally encouraged naysayers of the government to express their feelings through writing books and screenplays. Then this novel was published and subsequently banned for its politicism. The author, Duong Thu Huong, was left to the task of publishing her works outside of Vietnam (while in Vietnam and she felt that she was having her mail sifted through), until she moved to Paris in 2006.

The Plot:
Hang reflects on her life and childhood in Vietnam under Communist rule as she travels to Moscow to visit her uncle. Que, her mother, lived for two years with Hang's father, Ton, until Hang's uncle Chinh, a Communist fighter, orders her to stop seeing him. Ton flees due to his family owning land- something that was detested in early Communist Vietnam. Que vanishes from the village, returning when her brother is long gone- only to face retribution from the villagers for Chenh's part in policing the village. Selling the house, Que moves to the city of Hanoi, but will she leave her troubles behind?

This book is rife with symbolism, something I wouldn't have noticed (again) without the help of a previous reader, marking out passages in pencil and telling me what was what. What's great about this particular book, was even when I ignored the side notes, I still felt I was getting the gist of the story and could sense what she was trying to subtly evoke- something that was entirely missing from my experience with Beloved.

Although Hang and I differ greatly, I really ended up loving her character, despite most of her personality being mild (i.e. doesn't step out of line- something I like in heroines). She played the dutiful daughter, but through her reflections the story is brought to life and the past is unraveled. She grew up with just her mother for a parent and breadwinner, but doesn't play the poor me card.

Pensive, often melancholy, and completely absorbing, Paradise of the Blind paints a bold portrait of everyday life in Vietnam during the beginning of the rule by the Communist Party. Weaving folk tales and food descriptions throughout, the author immerses us in her native country's customs, mitigated by Communist norms. If you want to visit vintage Vietnam with political commentary, Paradise of the Blind may be the place and book for you.

Famous Last Words:

"I sat down, cupping my chin in my hands, and dreamed of different worlds, of the cool shade of a university auditorium, of a distant port where a plane could land and take off. . . ."

     ~Page 258 of Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a brooding picture of Communist Vietnam.

Content: Ages 16+ for interest reasons- the only objectionable content is mild cursing.

Page Count: 258 pages in my scribbled upon paperback version.

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