Book of the month: Duong Thu Huong

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers. Reading the world is such an enriching and mind-expanding experience that I’m keen for as many people to do it as possible.

Among the numerous things I enjoy when I learn about other international reading quests is finding out what specific parameters the reader in question has set themself. Although many global book projects look similar at first glance, no two are identical because each becomes a reflection of the concerns and interests of the person at the centre of it. People might choose to categorise books by setting, for instance, or to seek out works in a particular genre or from a set time period.

Sometimes, these parameters illuminate important issues about the way stories circulate. Sophie Baggott’s Reading Women Writers Worldwide is a prime example. Having challenged herself to journey through some 200 books by women by 2020, Sophie has shone a light on the serious imbalance in international publishing, which still sees female-authored works making up only around 30 per cent of the books translated into English each year. (This is a problem that a number of campaigners are working to tackle, perhaps most notably translator Meytal Radzinski, who established Women in Translation Month back in 2014.)

Certain that Sophie must have discovered some gems on her literary travels, I contacted her recently to pick her brains for recommendations. She came back with several suggestions, including La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, and The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw, both of which I have already reviewed enthusiastically on this blog.

One title was completely new to me, however: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. I chased down a copy of the controversial Vietnamese novel – banned in the author’s home country – and was quickly hooked.

The story is told from the perspective of Hang, a young woman who is one of the many Vietnamese ‘exported workers’ sent to the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties. When her Uncle Chinh summons her to Moscow, she embarks on a train ride that unlocks a wealth of memories, enabling the reader to piece together the mystery around her father’s disappearance and fraught relationship with her mother, and ultimately freeing Hang from the historical guilt that has bound her.

Duong Thu Huong has an exceptional instinct for the way that tension fuels a compelling story. Replete with dramatic encounters, this book is a rare beast: a literary novel with a gripping plot. Although many of the most powerful scenes centre on the main characters – with exchanges between Hang, her Aunt Tam, her mother and her uncle all working to reveal the complex web of emotions that snares them – there are some striking cameo appearances too.

In particular, I found myself itching to know more about the married couple who put Hang’s father up for one night and ‘must have been linked by some crime that kept them there, far from their village. Their shadowy past seemed to be both a bond and a yawning chasm between them, wedding their destinies and sundering their souls.’ By the middle of the next page, however, they had been left behind, never to reappear.

This engrossing storytelling also stems from the author’s sharp grasp of the way multiple, and sometimes conflicting, motivations can lead people to act against their better nature. There are numerous examples in the text but one of the most memorable involves the account of the villagers being goaded to turn against their neighbours following the classification designed to root out wealthy landowners. The rapidity with which people denounce their friends is chilling.

In her foreword, co-translator Nina McPherson warns that the Orwellian quality of the Communist rhetoric spouted by certain characters is deliberately satirical, as if worried that such sections might jar or disconcert readers. However, to my eye, the narrative shifts gears smoothly, moving seamlessly between descriptive passages of sometimes spine-tingling beauty to the harsh registers of many of the exchanges.

Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial. In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts.

None of this gets in the way of the novel’s brilliance, however. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world. When set alongside the equally heart-wrenching yet deeply masculine The Sorrow of War, which was my choice to represent the country back in 2012, it reveals a strikingly different side to Vietnam.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson (William Morrow, 1993)

Vietnam: war of words

I first heard of this book in a comment at the bottom of an article on the Guardian books website. Opinionated, witty and weird, these reader discussions can often say more about the people writing the comments than the literature they are debating. However, every now and then someone adds something that really makes you think.

In this case, the topic was books about the Vietnam War. Journalist Mark Hooper had posted his top ten but, as the first commenter remarked, had neglected to include any books by Vietnamese authors. Hooped responded to say that the article was about Vietnam books that claim to be ‘the best book on the Vietnam War you’ll ever read’. He had of course read The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, but the book jacket only said sober things like ‘a classic’ and ‘a triumph’ and so it didn’t qualify for the list.

I hadn’t read The Sorrow of War so I decided to give it a go. Given Hooper’s comments, I was surprised when my edition arrived to find the cover sporting a quote from the Independent saying that the novel ‘takes its place alongside the greatest war novel of the century, All Quiet on the Western Front‘ – surely by default that meant it was claiming to be the best Vietnam War book you’ll ever read?

I wondered briefly about popping up to the books department to try and track down this Mark Hooper and ask him what he thought he was playing at. But the article was more than four years old and besides I still had nearly 100 books to get through before the end of the year. I decided I’d better get on with the reading.

Drawing on Bao Ninh’s own horrific experiences during the conflict (he was one of only 10 survivors out of a brigade of 500), the novel tells the story of Kien, a war veteran struggling to piece his life together after 11 brutal years on the front line. Haunted by the memories of what he has seen and thoughts of his teenage life before the war, Kien wanders through the city of Hanoi and a society he no longer recognises. But until he finds a way to express and work through his experiences, peace will remain another world.

Ninh’s writing is exceptional. Blowing apart clinical descriptions of battle procedure with violent blasts of extreme experience, he captures the mixture of detachment and horror that characterises Kien’s mental state. The episodes he recounts – among them the violent rape and murder or three young girls by US troops and the drowning of a wounded man in a flooding ditch – are among the most graphic and shocking I’ve come across but they are never gratuitous and, even after more than 10 years of embedded reporting from the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are startlingly fresh. Working with the eerie descriptions of phantoms and monsters that mark the protagonist and his terrified comrades’ ‘drift over the edge from logic’ after months in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, they capture ‘how cruelly [the young soldiers] were twisted and tortured by war’.

For all its anger and violence, however, the novel contains striking moments of beauty. The most bewitching of these involve Phuong, Kien’s childhood sweetheart, who, like him, is irrevocably altered by the conflict. Wistful and raw, these evocations of first love break in upon the narrative like rays of sunshine through the jungle canopy, making their surroundings seem all the more dark and threatening.

The chronology of the novel is complex, with the storyline shifting ground repeatedly so that the past and present all seem to inhabit a sort of formless now, reflecting Kien’s imprisonment in his vivid memories. In the hands of another writer, this might be frustrating, but in Ninh’s it is extraordinary, particularly in the final third, where the way events spiral in on Kien’s most painful recollection draws the book to a devastating close.

If we needed an argument for the importance of translation, it is here in this subtle, gripping, angry and tender depiction of the personal consequences of war. Striding across the arbitrary fronts of race and nationality, Bao Ninh speaks to the heart of human loss and longing. In a world where western journalists write lists of novels that tell only one side of this bitter story, his work should be read much more.

The Sorrow of War (Than Phan Cua Tinh Yeu) by Bao Ninh, English version by Frank Palmos from translation by Phan Thanh Hao (Minerva, 1994)