Duong Thu Huong, the author of Paradise of the Blind and one of Vietnam’s most popular writers, was born in 1947. When she was twenty, she volunteered to lead a Communist Youth Brigade sent to the front during the Vietnam War. When China attacked Vietnam in 1979, she beame the first woman combatant present on the front lines to witness the conflict. Huong was a vocal advocate of human rights and democracy, and she was expelled from Vietnam’s Communist Party in 1989. In 1991, she was imprisoned for more than half a year because of her political beliefs. Paradise of the Blind is her 4th novel and the 4th one to be banned by the Vietnamese government.
Paradise of the Blind was translated from Vietnamese by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson.
Paradise of the Blind starts in the 1980s. Hang, a young Vietnamese woman, narrates the story from the dormitory of the Russian textile factory where she works. Like hundreds of other Vietnamese who became adults at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Hang’s economic situation forced her to halt her education to become an “exported worker” to earn money in the Soviet Union. Most of the novel is from her memory as she is making a long train ride to Moscow to visit her uncle, who is a Communist party cadre who has used his connections to get a post there. Hang reflects on her childhood, her family history, her coming of age, and events leading up to her becoming an exported worker.
Hang doesn’t want to sacrifice herself like her mother and her aunt. She recalls stories she was told of the revolution that divided her family and hurt her mother and aunt.
The events Hang recalls at the beginning happened in northern Vietnam just before the surrender of the French colonial government. In 1954, Vietnam was temporarily divided at the 17th Parallel by the Geneva Accords. National elections were supposed to take place July of 1956, but the temporary division turned into a de facto political boundary. Ho Chi Minh already headed the north part’s Viet Minh government. Ngo Dinh Diem of the south was an American backed leader.
Even before Minh took over Hanoi and other major cities, they had launched a land reform campaign to redistribute land to over 1.5 million peasant families. Peasant villagers denounced their “landlord” neighbors out of fear. Thousands of “landlords” were sent to labor camps. The Viet Minh leaders eventually realized how much unrest they had caused and reclassified the peasantry in another campaign.
There is a lot of cultural influence in all of the characters’ actions. Women must submit to men at all times. All must worship their ancestors and dedicate altars for this purpose. The youth must submit to the elderly: children to parents, sisters to brothers, wives to husbands.
Since this book was translated from Vietnamese to English, some of the terms the Vietnamese use cannot be directly translated to English. However, Duong and McPherson have done their best to preserve the richness of Huong’s writing.