Duong Thu Huong

"Beyond Illusions"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer AUG 26, 2002)

"Ever since the stranger had entered the room, he had kept his head bowed. It was only at this moment that he had looked up at Linh. His cold, somber face suddenly lit up. But it dissolved just as suddenly on the smoke that surrounded him. Linh was instantly struck by his mysterious, smoldering eyes and long, bushy eyebrows.

"'Hello, Miss,' the composer said almost shyly."

Linh and Nguyen have lived in Hanoi all their lives. When they were younger, she a college student and he a young idealistic professor, their shared vision of what was right bound their love together. Years later Linh discovers that he has betrayed these ideals. Now a journalist, Nguyen has been pandering to the party line. By writing articles that reflect what the party wants the people to hear, and covering up the bad things, Nguyen has made a comfortable life for his wife and daughter. She is thoroughly disgusted with him, and struggles to figure out what she needs to do. She can't respect him, therefore can't love him, and so seeks her own life away from him. This life includes an affair with the out of favor composer Tran Phuong.

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This is not an easy book to read...not because of the prose, which is as fine and clear as water, but because of the questions it asks. Linh can't stand her husband because of the betrayal he has committed, a betrayal he says he did so that she and their little girl could have a decent life. Before he began doing what his bosses wanted; his articles rarely got past the censors, which meant he rarely got paid. While I can understand some of her anger, after all, are our ideals not worth more than material things? I can't completely forgive her hardhearted naiveté. I guess the other question, in this case, is, would you allow your child to starve in order to keep pure you ideals? I can understand Nguyen's decision to hold the party line and actually set food on the table, clothes on their backs. But on the other hand, wasn't Nguyen equally foolish for continuing in a job where he would have to put aside his convictions? Could he have not returned to academia or went and got some other worthy job that would allow him to feed his family? Is his bowing to the party not the same behavior that perpetuates the system that is hurting so many? As the reader, I had a hard time trying to decide who, in the end, is in the right.

This is because Huong doesn't make this decision easy. Linh is given three choices...her husband, Tran Phuong who, it can be easily seen by the reader, is just as materialistic, just as bad as Nguyen, perhaps worse, and the Painter. The Painter, of these three men, is the one who holds Linh's own ideals. He has two opportunities, we learn, to leave Hanoi for a better life, and both times he rejects it. He is the closest to what she says that she wants, but whom does she gravitate towards? Phuong. In creating this muddle, we are shown that, while the correct principle is clear, that the human heart is easily blinded and led astray. I think that our own reasoning at the time, the things we use to justify our actions, make the waters too muddy, perhaps, to do the right thing easily. So of course Linh would choose the more glamorous and interesting Phuong, even though she's convincing herself that he is a higher man in principle than her foolish spouse.

This book is an amazing portrait of Vietnam circa 1986. The Socialist way of life and how it affects the lives of all the characters is as fascinating as it is frightening. People that we would call busy bodies around where I live are important members of the community, upholding the moral good at any cost. Everything is steeped in politics of some sort, and Linh, by loving Phuong, has put herself in grave jeopardy. I walked away from this book with a real sense of the life that these people lead. Linh and Nguyen are actually equally likable in some aspects. Linh, for attempts at becoming a strong and independent woman, Nguyen for his somewhat bumbling but well-intentioned love for his wife. He, too, grows during the story.

I am still mulling over the questions Huong asked in her book. It is, in many ways, a landmark piece of literature, for at the time it addressed issues that a Vietnamese citizen was forbidden to write about. As hard as it may be to comprehend, until this time writing about such individual and personal issues was frowned upon, let alone the implicit criticism of the Socialist party that is so much a part of this book. Huong is hailed as one of the best known and most talented writers from her country, and such was the lasting power of this book in my own mind, that I have to agree.

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Read a chapter excerpt from Beyond Illusions at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Duong Thu HuongDuong Thu Huong was born in 1947 in the area of Thai Binh in Vietnam. For a decade during the "American War," North Vietnamese author and singer Duong Thu Huong was one of 30 people recruited for an artistic troupe that performed for soldiers ( "sing louder than the bombs'') near the central border, where much of the heaviest bombing took place. When the war ended, she was among the three who survived. She was also the first female combatant/war correspondent at the front when China attacked Vietnam in 1979.

Her subsequent career as a novelist met with enormous success. Before her books were banned by the Vietnamese government, she was the popular selling author of serious fiction in Vietnam. Beyond Illusions (1987) was actually the first of Huong’s three novels (including also: Paradise of the Blind in 1988, and Fragments of Lost Life in 1989) written immediately after Vietnam’s Communist Party invited writers to participate in an era of openness and critical analysis of the new nation. Beyond Illusions sold 100,000 copies and Paradise of the Blind sold 40,000 copies before the authorities pulled it from the shelves. Paradise of the Blind scandalized Communist party authorities by depicting the disastrous 1953-56 land reforms; banned in its own country, it was the first novel from Vietnam ever published in the United States. Her short fiction has also appeared in the anthology Night Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam by Linh Dinh and Grand Street 45 by Ester Allen.. Her books have been banned in Vietnam ever since.

She is a strong advocate of human rights and political reform, for which she was expelled from the Vietnamese Communist party in 1989. On April 13, 1991 she was imprisoned without trial for a speech that she gave advocating political reform. She was accused by the government of Vietnam of collaborating with "reactionary organizations" and smuggling "secret documents" out of the country to foreign countries. She was immediately recognized by P.E.N Writers Club, Anmesty International, and other human rights organizations as a political prisoner. Her arrest and imprisonment sparked international protest. She was released from prison seven months later in November of 1991.

Duong displays a strong political and social conscience in her literary work. She enjoys international recognition which she sees as her protection within the borders of Vietnam where she still lives in Hanoi.

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