BEYOND ILLUSIONS by Duong Thu H
Review Charlie Dickenson
becomes politics, once politics corrupts art
translation by Nina McPherson
and Phan Huy Duong
Hyperion East, 2002, 247 pp., ISBN: 0-7868-6417-6
From its first sentence, Beyond Illusions by Duong Thu Huong might read
as a Vietnamese Madame Bovary. Written with psychological insight that
invites the comparison, once again a young wife falls out of love with
her staid husband, then succumbs to adultery. But Beyond Illusions offers
more social context than Flaubert's brilliant portrait of romance-starved
Emma Bovary. For Duong, the larger nemesis her unhappy protagonist, Linh,
endures is life in a totalitarian regime--in Vietnam, the political center
is Hanoi, the setting for this novel.
Linh's slide toward divorce starts when she realizes her husband Nguyen,
the professor she married, has lost that spark of idealism they once shared.
No longer teaching, he's gone on to become a journalist, compromised,
and not much more than an apparatchik for state power. A state power that,
for Linh, corrupts those around her, fosters public lies, and betrayed
the communist social revolution. Nguyen, of course, personifies her larger
dissatisfaction. She can't live with him. Her stepping stone away from
this unhappy marriage is a famous musical composer, Tran Phuong, who's
been expelled from the Communist Party and who has an eye for Linh.
Building the larger conflict of state vs. individual, Duong rotates the
narrative among various characters. We learn not only Linh's psychological
truth, but also that of Nguyen, Phuong, and others. Thus, we see both
sides of a conflict between individuals, and interestingly, these conflicts
are often triangulated by the corrupting influence of the state. For example,
an artist in one scene argues for his integrity to create, but concedes
that inferior artists who've joined the party have the power to decide
who thrives, who starves. The point being art becomes politics, once politics
corrupts art, a point Duong repeatedly makes in this compelling argument
for the dignity of the individual.
Beyond Illusions is also an absorbing account of life in Communist Hanoi
some ten years after the fall of South Vietnam. Lyrically described, the
natural beauty of Hanoi and its countryside gives solace to Linh and others
in their daily struggles. How they live, how they socialize, what they
eat--all seems part of a simpler, if inequitable, society. Deftly, Duong
shows inequity: the powerless go places by foot or bicycle, the better-off
by motorbike, the Party powerful by chauffeured Russian Muscovics and
While Linh does not suffer the tragic fate of Emma Bovary, her disillusionment
is also complete. Disillusionment with people around her, with the state
power that isolates and subjects her, and, perhaps, with her youthful
idealism. Yet on the last page of this story, the reader wants to see
Linh as stronger for being "beyond illusions."
Something needs to be said about the life of Duong Thu Huong, for Linh
has autobiographical elements from Duong (both became divorced, single
mothers), but Linh also amazingly prefigures what happened to Duong later.
In an afterword, translator Nina McPherson notes Beyond Illusions was
published in 1987, the same year the Vietnamese Communist Party ended
three decades of artistic repression (aka "social realism"),
inviting artists to openly discuss social problems. With its arresting,
candid psychological portraits, Beyond Illusions sold out 60,000 copies
in only two weeks.
The publishing success of Beyond Illusions gave Duong a public voice in
Hanoi and increasingly she spoke out for democracy and human rights. In
1988, she wrote Paradise of the Blind, a novel critical of the Communist
Party. In 1990, she was expelled from the Party. In 1991, she was arrested
and imprisoned without trial for seven months. Despite such harsh treatment,
Duong continues to live and write in Hanoi. Two novels written in the
1990s 'Novel Without a Name' and 'Memories of a Pure Spring' have been
published abroad and gained Duong an appreciative worldwide audience.
Today, unfortunately, both novels remain officially banned in Vietnam.
© Charlie Dickinson - October 2002
Nights by David Gilmour
Review Charles Dickinson
'The story builds to a stunner of a climax...'
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