When asked what they know about Vietnam, a lot of people move from the Vietnam War to a great place for a holiday within a sentence. Any history of Vietnam not directly touching the western world is a bit of a blank. Novels can be a way in.
‘Paradise of the Blind’ (1988) is not Duong Thu Huong’s first novel nor her last, and it was a bestseller before it was banned in Vietnam. She was expelled from the communist party in 1989, and she was imprisoned for some time in 1991. Her biography is as interesting as any novel.
The novel itself starts with the land reforms in the 1950s that saw villagers turned against each other, peasantry against ‘landlords’ often as impoverished and struggling as everyone else. Within a few years the policy was acknowledged as a disaster and the ‘Rectification of Errors’ began, however scars, of course, remained.
The heroine of ‘Paradise of the Blind’ is a child of this time. Hang is caught between the different ideologies of her mother’s family (her uncle a member of the communist party) and her dead father’s family (her aunt having a small holding in the ancestral village where she labours without rest). The frame of the narrative has Hang leaving the Russian textile factory where she works and travelling to Moscow by bus on the command of her uncle. As she travels, her personal history unfolds.
The two sides of her family are at odds and Hang also has to contend with the twin questions of what is owed to the past (the ancestors) and what is owed to the future (bloodlines). We are made acutely aware of the precedence given to the males in the bloodline.
Culturally, some of this is difficult for a western reader. Or it was for me. I was infuriated that her mother favoured the nephews, simply because they were seen as the continuation of the family line. I was incensed that Hang went dutifully whenever her nasty uncle called. I fully appreciated the ending though. I cheered.
One of the beauties of the writing is around food. There are long, long and detailed descriptions of the preparation and eating of dishes that are very foreign despite a Vietnamese restaurant in just about every Australian town. I can see why this level of detail is included – and there are truly a lot of long passages about food. The symbolic and cultural importance of preparing and sharing food cannot be underestimated. Did I mention the sections on food are long though?
This is not a criticism as such. It is my problem. I am just not that into food writing. In the same way I could acknowledge the beauty of Gillian Mears’ novel ‘Foal’s Bread’ (2011) while being bored stiff by all the horse stuff.
Then again, ‘The Debt to Pleasure’ (1996) is brought to mind. Menus and recipes and food galore served up with the most delicious irony. Now that I am reminded of this gorgeous book, I think John Lancaster deserves a revisit and a blog post of his own.
A staple when I was travelling around Vietnam, a bowl of Pho, with thanks to Blue Lotus.