On Duong’s Dystopian Paradise
Leong Chao Yang
Paradise of the Blind (1988) is Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong’s fourth novel, published during a fleeting phase of political liberalization in the late 1980s. The novel is narrated by Hang, a Vietnamese “exported worker” in the Soviet Union, who recollects the turmoils of life and demise of familial ties under the communist regime. The title is a mockery of ‘blind’ cadres who had “worn themselves out trying to create heaven on earth” (225), but produced a dystopia fraught with destitution instead. Yet, Paradise is less a polemic against the failings of the Communist Party, than it is a candid portrayal of the struggles and disillusionment of Vietnamese beneath the victorious banners of revolution. Far from being an anticommunist instigator, Duong asserts that she is a “troublemaker” who wields the pen to implore for reform (see NYPL interview). The novelist’s position as a Vietnamese woman and former party member makes her an insider to the struggles of her countrymen, particularly women, in a post-war Vietnam.
The first two chapters of Paradise begin with the protagonist receiving a telegram from her ill uncle in Moscow. During the long train journey to the Soviet capital from her textile factory dormitory, Hang recollects her family history. Following the death of her maternal grandparents, Hang’s mother, Que stays behind to tend the ancestral home while her brother Chinh joins the Liberation Army. Against traditional mourning norms, Que marries Ton, a school teacher and enjoys matrimonial bliss until Chinh’s return. Chinh subjects the landowning “exploiting class” — including Hang’s Aunt Tam — to public denunciation and land confiscation (22), while Ton flees the village. Six months later, however, a reversal of events under the Rectification of Errors makes Que the target of the village’s vengeance due to Chinh’s misdeeds.
In chapter 3, an embittered Que mortgages her ancestral home to become a street vendor in a working-class slum in Hanoi. Years later, Chinh visits and admonishes his sister for being a “bourgeoisie”. His underlying motive, however, is to collect his share of money from the sale of the ancestral house. Que obliges by returning to her village with Hang to complete the transaction. Chapter 4 recounts Ton’s escape; after fleeing the land reform campaign, he eventually settles down in a Muong village and remarries. Nevertheless, a chance encounter with a traveling salesman culminates in a reunion between Ton and Que, who later conceives Hang. The narrator time-shifts again to the mother-daughter’s return to the village in chapter 5, where Hang meets her aunt for the first time. Tam relates to them how she survived the ordeal and affirms that Ton had committed suicide due to shame, before showering her young niece with excessive jewelry.
In chapter 6, Tam arrives during Tet with extravagant provisions for Hang, while Que finds a new purpose in life by gratifying her brother’s impoverished family with gifts. In the following chapter, Tam stays over at Hang’s house to look after her niece who is preparing for the college entrance exams. A “grotesque hide-and-seek” transpires between mother and daughter (137) — an increasingly indifferent Que continues to seek recognition from her brother’s family while Hang’s love for her remains unrequited. Later, Tam throws an ostentatious feast to celebrate her niece’s successful entry to college. During the feast, the forthright aunt criticizes the imperious village vice president for making an unwarranted arrest. Awakening in the present, Hang discloses that she had visited Chinh earlier and found out about her uncle’s illegal secondhand trade business.
More tragedies unfold in chapter 10. A year after Hang commences college life, Chinh contracts diabetes — an accursed illness amongst impecunious cadres. In a bid to help her brother, Que sells the rings bequeathed to Hang and lies to her sister-in-law about it. Tam, incensed that her money had been used for feeding her family’s “mortal enemy” (187), demands back her gifts while Hang moves to the school dormitory after a fallout with Que. In a cruel twist of fate, Que’s leg is amputated after a traffic accident and Hang becomes an exported worker in Russia to support her mother. Back in the present, the narrator arrives in Moscow in chapter 11, where she discovers that her uncle has been moonlighting as a housekeeper for Vietnamese graduate students. Hang eavesdrops on an argument between them over the hypocrisy and decadence of party cadres. The chapter ends with Hang returning home to a dying Tam, who hands over her inheritance. In the final chapter, Hang sees to her aunt’s elaborate funeral ceremonies, but decides to sell Tam’s inheritances in order to pursue her own dreams.
The trials and tribulations of women ensnared in a crossfire between patriarchal tradition and communist ideologies is a central theme in Paradise, vividly encapsulated by the intertwined lives of the main female characters — Hang, Que and Tam. Although they live in a Confucian culture “where the young submit to the old; where children yield to the authority of their parents, sisters to their brothers, and wives to their husbands” (8), Duong’s women are far from powerless subjects of male dominance and tradition. Rather, agency is reflected in the biographies of all three women, who strive to overcome their misfortune with tenacity. Tam transforms from an evicted “exploiter” into the proud owner of an opulent house and vast inheritances. Her latent influence in her community is manifested in the feast preparation scene, where “everything seemed to emanate from her orders” even without her intervention (141). Similarly, Que emerges from the land reform episode as a street vendor with control over her destiny and “visions of getting rich overnight” (103).
However, the acquirement of agency ironically fetters both women tighter than ever to the patriarchal system. Affluence induces Tam and Que to seek-fulfillment by providing for the material needs of their brothers’ children. The resultant rivalry over the care of Hang spurs them further in their quest to fulfill traditional obligations, while fueling the animosity between both sister in-laws. Ultimately, apparent ‘agency’ engenders further tragedies for Tam and Que; Hang sells off her aunt’s painstakingly accrued inheritances to pursue her own dreams, while self-sacrificial Que’s leaking roof “still rotted in the same patchy state” as she continues to provide for Chinh’s family (176). The dearth of reciprocity for their sacrifices reflects a continued victimization by tradition.
An exposition of Duong’s women in Paradise is incomplete without discussing the significance of food. The great importance which the writer attributes to food can be inferred from the extensive description of local delicacies throughout the novel and a glossary largely dedicated to Vietnamese food. Yet, food in Paradise is not merely a reference to Vietnam’s rich gastronomical culture. In her translator’s note, Nina McPherson suggests that the seemingly innocuous act of offering food may be “an expression of generosity or pure contempt” (9). Tam’s lavish grocery hampers for Hang not only reflects her love for the sole heiress of her family line, but also reveals Que’s feeling of shame at her inability to provide for her daughter.
Food is also a symbol of the Vietnamese woman’s agency; Tam’s ability to acquire food resources, from transforming barren lands to fertile rice paddies to inventing a machine for creating flour from duckweed, enables her to survive the tumultuous land reform era despite communist persecution. Economically independent, Tam challenges the conventional wisdom of Vietnamese women’s disempowerment vis-à-vis their male counterparts. Unlike Tam who can afford to openly hire extra hands for harvesting crops and sustain her opulent lifestyle, Chinh resorts to moonlighting secretively as a cook for graduate students. Duong’s description of Chinh’s culinary skills, being able to slice cauliflowers “with a cleverness that few Vietnamese women could equal” (206), suggests how the desperate cadre appropriates a ‘feminine’ skill set in order to provide for his impoverished family, putting a twist on gender norms in patriarchal Vietnam.
Answering the call for writers to reassert themselves as social critics in 1987, Paradise denounces the communist party’s fiasco, as Vietnamese “defend themselves against their own leaders, a grasping, hypocritical elite who were blind to their nation’s crisis” (7). Duong’s objective is evident upon realizing that none of Vietnam’s foreign belligerents appear in the novel as she reserves her criticisms for the communist cadres. A range of antagonists emerges under her pen, representing the different dregs of society who drove Vietnam to socio-economic destruction. Chinh, a cadre who regards his career in the communist party as paramount to his own kins, whom he readily disowns to further “the interests of our class” (31). The atrocities inflicted by disastrous communist policies are typified by Bich and Nan, two riffraffs whom Chinh promotes to the status of “pillar of the land reform” (26), from tormenting landowners at denunciation sessions to pilfering from Tam’s ancestral house. Another vermin is the village’s vice president Duong, who arrests without warrant a man who merely insulted him, and declares that “all power is dictatorship” (154).
Nevertheless, the fault lines of contradiction within the communist system are revealed through Chinh’s dramatic downfall. His blind obeisance to the party is highlighted by his irrational argument with a subordinate over Do Chieu’s writings, which he deems as counter-revolutionary. The incongruity within the party manifests itself as the younger cadre “smiled surreptitiously” at his chief’s lacking knowledge in the party’s ideological history (124). The contradictions expand when Hang travels to Moscow for the first time and discovers that her uncle is involved in “sordid secondhand trade in scarce imports” (169), despite his position as a longstanding section leader. Eventually, he ends up as a housekeeper to Vietnamese graduate students who ridicule his blind loyalty to communist orthodoxy. These contradictions extends to the birth country of communism; one of the graduate students remarks about the misconception of Russia as a paradise when it was more like “a dog’s life” (217).
By comparing the plight of Chinh and the Soviet Union to the Japanese students in chapter 11 who “seem almost accustomed to being…watched with envy” (229), Duong implicitly questions if the communism had been truly victorious after the Second World War. More often than not, communism has engendered deep paranoia in the lives of Vietnamese. The “habit of misery” emanating from the scarcity of resources under communist rule drives one of Hang’s roommate to suspect her fellow roommates of theft (84). Paranoia is also induced by the imagination of constant state surveillance in a panoptic society. The cadres’ fear of surveillance is illustrated by how Thanh (Chinh’s wife) rapidly draws the curtain and puts away Que’s gifts to avoid their neighbors’ gaze in Communal Residence K. “One mouthful too many, and the others might turn you in as a potential threat” (120); Duong effectively encapsulates the irony of a dystopian society where scarcity causes desperation, while abundance is condemned.
Much of Paradise’s plot is situated in Hang’s memory; her strong attachment to the past is reflected by the vivid description of her idyllic childhood years, in contrast to the cityscape of Moscow, shrouded in fog and gloom. Even though the narrator abhors visiting her uncle, fearing that “in another ten years, I would live [Que’s] life” (70), tragedy renews itself since by continuing to support Chinh’s family, Hang follows her mother’s footsteps into adulthood. A moment of satori seems to arise in the final chapter as Hang questions the constraints of tradition and decides to sell her aunt’s inheritances. Yet, Paradise’s ending is optimistic but filled with uncertainty; Hang merely dreams of a vaguely-defined future, with little indication of how these dreams can materialize into reality. Perhaps, Duong herself is unsure of how Vietnamese can emancipate themselves from the relentless specter of the past.
Chao Yang is a fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore where he majored in Southeast Asian Studies.
Duong Thu Huong. Paradise of the Blind. 1988. Reprint. New York: William Morrow 2002. Print.
Duong, Thu Huong. “Duong Thu Huong In Conversation with Robert Stone.” LIVE from the NYPL. New York Public Library, New York: 30 Apr. 2006. Online.