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Culture

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong

Paradise of the Blind is a Vietnamese novel which was apparently a bestseller in 1988 when it was originally published, in a relatively liberal moment in that country’s recent politics, but has since been banned for Duong’s unflattering portrayal of the Communist party. I’m embarrassed to admit, I had no idea that Vietnam was still a communist state. In fact, most of my associations with Vietnam are, now I think about it, drawn entirely from American war movies. So if nothing else, this book has done a little to redress that balance.

It is told mainly in flashback; Hang, a young Vietnamese woman working in a textile factory in the Soviet Union as an ‘exported worker’, is travelling across Russia on the train to visit her uncle in Moscow and remembering her childhood. Her family has been torn apart by communist land reforms, or more precisely by a feud resulting from her uncle’s behaviour as a party official during those reforms.

I’ve mentioned before that I find these novels from communist countries weirdly nostalgic. It’s not nostalgia for communism itself, which I didn’t experience. But all the imagery of communism, the breadlines, dysfunctional communal living, petty bureaucracy, the political jargon, the dangerous black market consumer goods, it all reminds me of my childhood, when the USSR was still the Great Other, and when all these images were a lively strand of popular culture.  It seems a little odd to lump communism in with Smash Hits and The Karate Kid, but that’s the way my head works.

My own quirks aside, it’s a striking and interesting novel about family relationships, and Vietnamese culture, and above all, the way that an all-consuming, inhuman political system drags down the daily lives of its citizens, and capriciously interferes with the most modest, simple human ambitions: marriage, education, livelihood.

It’s not what you’d call a cheerful book. But I would broadly recommend it.

Paradise of the Blind is my book from Vietnam for the Read The World challenge.

NB. A couple of housekeeping notes. I always feel the translators deserve a mention, even if I have nothing in particular to say about the translation, so a hat tip to Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. And on the transliteration of Vietnamese names: Wikipedia renders the author’s name with a few more diacritics, as Dương Thu Hương. I decided to stick with the version used on the title page.

» The photo is © Rosino and used under a CC by-sa licence.

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Culture

Equal to the Earth by Jee Leong Koh

I know Jee on the internet — originally via PFFA, the online poetry forum, but also now through his blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter — so I already knew I liked his poems. And as a bonus, Equal to the Earth serves as my book from Singapore for the Read The World challenge.

Jee is, to quote the blurb on Lulu, ‘a gay poet born and bred in Singapore, educated at Oxford, now living and teaching in New York.’ Which gives you an idea of some of the major themes: ethnicity, sexuality, the immigrant experience and so on. But that list of topics sounds worryingly like the poems might be painfully earnest, which they are not; they have a delicacy of touch, both in handling the material and the verse.

I’ve read quite a lot of them before, sometimes I think in earlier versions, but it was a pleasure to sit down and revisit them.

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Culture

Mother’s Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong

Mother’s Beloved is a collection of short stories from Laos; even with an introductory essay and with the Lao printed opposite the English, it’s only 160 pages. BTW, I don’t know a lot about Lao names, but I think that ‘Outhine’ is the surname.

I knew absolutely nothing about Laos except its approximate location (between Thailand and Vietnam). Fortunately this book has an essay about contemporary Lao literature that acted as a quick primer on the country’s modern history, which has been fairly grim: it went from being a Thai colony to a French one, got caught up in the Indochina War and the Vietnam War, when the Americans bombed it extremely heavily, then had about 15 years of communist government. Apparently it has liberalised somewhat since the fall of Russian communism, but there’s still only one legal political party: the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

The stories themselves are short and simple, both stylistically (as far as I can tell from these translations) and in terms of action. And indeed morality: by which I mean that you could often end each story with ‘and the moral of this story is … [something].’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of them were published when Laos was a communist state; I think some of that simplicity that comes from writing in a country where too much ambiguity might be regarded as politically suspicious. And often the ‘morals’ are as much political as moral: ‘every one of us, no matter how humble, can make our own sacrifice in aid of the war effort’, for example.

Still, the very simplicity of the stories has its own appeal, and one or two of them managed to combine that simplicity with just the right emotional note in a way I found effective. I’ve decided that one way I could make these little reviews more useful would be quote some of the books, so here’s the opening of a story called The Eternal Pair of Birds. It’s actually an unusually elaborate passage, but you can see it has a kind of plainness to the language.

It was late February. At the edge of the rice fields grew a flame tree full of red blooms whose colour, when reflecting the setting sun, was so bright it hurt the eyes. Next to it stood a lone palmyra. It stretched so high as if to challenge the rainstorm, the hurricane, and the sunshine. It had stood there, strong and graceful, for ages. To the people in this rural hamlet, it was like a timepiece. When the sun was high above its crown, it was noon. When the sun’s rays struck parallel across the top of its fronds, it was time to herd the cattle back to the stable and for the housewives to prepare dinner.

Mother’s Beloved is my book from Laos for the Read The World challenge. I quite enjoyed it, on balance, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to learn a bit more about the country.

» The picture is from the Plain of Jars, an archeological site in Laos which I hadn’t heard of before but is mentioned in one of the stories. The stone ‘jars’, about 1500-2000 years old, are of unknown purpose but may be funerary urns or for food storage. Apparently it’s now one of the most dangerous archeological sites on earth because of all the left-over American cluster bombs. The photo, from Flickr, is © Kumar Nav and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.