Paradise of the Blind, Duong Thu Huong, William Morrow, 1993, 270 pp
Posted today in honor of International Women's Day
When one of the five reading groups I attend steers me to a great book I might otherwise not have discovered, I am happy. I forget about all the sappy or stupid books I have read for reading group discussions.
Paradise of the Blind is one of very few novels written by a Vietnamese writer and translated into English. Therefore this story, authored by a Vietnamese woman born in 1947, gives a little known view into life there. It begins when Hang is a ten-year-old girl living with her mother in the Hanoi slums, but goes back and forth in time as she grows to young womanhood and learns the history of her family.
The writing is achingly beautiful as she describes her surroundings both in Hanoi and in the tiny village from which her mother came. Thanks to a glossary of Vietnamese cultural and food items, the author initiates her readers into the spiritual and social rituals of her country. The result is a powerful but sad story of a culture in transition due to having achieved independence from the French and the chaos of creating a workable society along communist principles.
Hang, from her position of a child with a missing father, a grieving and confused mother, an insensitive uncle working for the party and a domineering paternal aunt, grows up with her own conclusions. While she pursues the love of her mother and some form of protection from her aunt, she is quite thoroughly disabused of the spiritual beliefs of her family and rejects the tradition of women who sacrifice themselves for family and particularly men.
Reading Paradise of the Blind made me think of Richard Wright's amazingly perceptive books The Color Curtain and White Man, Listen. Duong Thu Huong's novel reinforced my belief that women represent a force for intelligent and workable change on this mostly insane planet.
(Paradise of the Blind is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)