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Review Charlie Dickenson becomes politics, once politics corrupts art

English 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 Ladas.
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

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