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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Paradise of the Blind

Duong Thu Huong

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To purchase Paradise of the Blind

Title: Paradise of the Blind
Author: Duong Thu Huong
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988 (Eng. 1993)
Length: 261 pages
Original in: Vietnamese
Availability: Paradise of the Blind - US
Paradise of the Blind - UK
Paradise of the Blind - Canada
Les paradis aveugles - France
Los paraísos ciegos - España
  • Vietnamese title: Những thiên đường mù
  • Translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson

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Our Assessment:

A- : neatly turned, into a very good saga of times and place

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 7/3/1993 S.F.Schaeffer
The NY Times . 19/5/1993 Herbert Mitgang
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/5/1993 Anne Barnard

  From the Reviews:
  • "This astonishingly powerful and overwhelmingly sad novel about a North Vietnamese family torn apart by ideological conflicts peels off the demon's mask and restores, for us, the human face. Huong's story is a simple one, but her characters, their joys and suffering, their terrible fates, the chaotic world they inhabit, are not in the least simple. (...) In Paradise of the Blind, Duong Thu Huong has written a truly moving, immediate novel about one Vietnamese family, but this family comes to stand for all the Vietnamese who have suffered through centuries of war. Suffering is Huong's subject: how the Vietnamese suffer, and how they survive." - Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, The Los Angeles Times

  • "What makes Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind a special experience for American readers is that it humanizes a Vietnamese family and turns its members into individuals instead of lumping them together as the once faceless enemy. (...) Paradise of the Blind describes the problems of ordinary people and the contradictions of political reform openly." - Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times

  • "(T)he American reader grasps its stakes and emotions only in sudden, searing glimpses. At times, the narrative reads like a primer -- somewhat in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder -- on Vietnamese life. In spots, the book becomes downright confusing, possibly a fault of the translation by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson." - Anne Barnard, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Paradise of the Blind is narrated by Hang, a Vietnamese woman in her twenties who, at the beginning of her account, is working as an "exported worker" in a textile factory in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. She begins her story with a telegram sent by her uncle, Chinh, who is also in the Soviet Union at the time, albeit in distant Moscow; he summons her, claiming to be "very ill"; her account describes her long trip to Moscow and then her experiences there, but is interspersed with longer reflections on and chronological recollections of the past, describing her childhood and adolescence, and ultimately how she came to be where she is. What she describes of her Russian experiences is mostly limited to these from near the end of her stay, visiting her uncle in Moscow and then being called back to Vietnam for another family emergency, the story then closing with her back in what is essentially her hometown (although the novel concludes with her getting set to abandon it at that point, and finally truly move on).
       Despite starting off in the Soviet Union, this isn't a novel of the guest-worker experience in the (former) Eastern bloc. Hang never even describes her actual factory work -- indeed never does any, in the course of her story -- and only presents a slice of the foreigner-abroad experience here, in her interactions with landlady, roommates, and then in Moscow, in seeing (and overhearing) what her Uncle Chinh and parts of the Vietnamese community abroad there are up to. The descriptions of these experiences abroad do, however, serve a purpose, as a useful a kind of summa of everything else she recounts, a dark, cold conclusion to a world of political, social, and personal failures, in what has become a degenerated communist system rapidly, as we now know, nearing its eclipse and collapse.
       It takes a while to fit the pieces together, but her story begins with the personal family tragedy from before when she was born. Three people loom large over Hang's life over the years: her mother, her mother's brother, Uncle Chinh, and her Aunt Tam, the sister of Hang's father. Hang never knew her father, a teacher. Her parents married in the early 1950s, but when Chinh returned from fighting in the Indochina War he disapproved of whom his sister had gotten hitched to: having completely embraced the Communist party and its ideology, Chinh denounced his brother-in-law because of his class-background -- "The entire family are landlords, the mortal enemies of the peasantry". Chinh became a local leader during the times of the devastating and destructive land reforms -- "sowing only chaos and misery in its wake" -- only for the tables to turn shortly later with the period of 'Rectification of Errors' (in 1957), when the locals turned on Chinh for his leading role in the mess they were left with: "Of all of the former leaders, Uncle Chinh was the most hated". He had high-tailed it out of there -- though remaining devoted to the Party and its cause, and continuing his career as a cadre -- so the locals wanted to take it out on his sister; though they didn't quite manage, she had no choice but to move to Hanoi, which is then where Hang would grow up.
       Hang's mother is reasonably successful as a trader of sorts in Hanoi, with a stall at a local market -- but as soon as Chinh comes back into her life he finds fault with her life-choices: the only respectable members of society in his worldview (and political programme) are the proletariat and the peasantry; as to merchants: "the petty tradespeople, they're only exploiters. You cannot remain with these parasites". He lines up a factory job for her, but she knows she's not suited for it and continues doing what she does best -- and quite successfully. She also remains devoted to Chinh: her brother is all the family she has (aside from Hang), and that makes for a tremendous sense of obligation and bond (even if he cares much less about such things, and can't understand her continued devotion to, for example, the memory of their dead parents, rituals she also takes seriously).
       While disapproving of what she does, Chinh and his family don't seem to mind that much that she is willing to sacrifice a great deal for them too. While they have a decent house, they're not particularly well-off:

As a second-rank cadre, he earned a pittance. Although there waws prestige in being a Communist official, state salaries were barely enough to live on.
       When Chinh is sick, Hang's mother priority is to help him, even if it means she and Hang have to suffer. Chinh takes most of this for granted -- so also much later, in that summons to Hang that opens the book: he is not, in fact sick when he claims to be, but rather needs her assistance for a pathetic scheme of his own. For all his militant ideological purity, Chinh is just a feeble second-rater, baffled by a world that did not turn out as he was told to expect it would. As a sympathetic Vietnamese man in Moscow explains to Hang:
Your uncle is like a lot of people I've known. They've worn themselves out trying to re-create heaven on earth. But there intelligence wasn't up to it. They don't know what their heaven is made of, let alone how to get there. When they woke up, they had just enough time to grab a few crumbs of real life, to scramble for it in the mud, to make a profit -- at any price. They are their own tragedy. Ours, as well.
       Certainly, Uncle Chinh is very much also part of Hang and her mother's personal tragedy, as Hang's mother's devotion to her brother is complete and unwavering -- while he doesn't lift a finger when she or Hang could use some help. It is a source of great tension between mother and daughter, as Hang wants to have as little to do with her uncle, but her mother dedicates herself so much to his well-being.
       On the other side of the family is unmarried Aunt Tam, who, after being reduced to the worst poverty in the time when Chinh oversaw the reforms in the village, manages to work her way up to considerable wealth through incredible determination and a lot of hard work: as Hang finds: "She had managed to amass every object, every gem, needed to satisfy a rich peasant's ideal of beauty". One thing she will never get rid of, however, is her deep-seated loathing of Chinh, who destroyed her brother and her family. She adores Hang, however, and does whatever she can for the girl; Hang is also to be her heir. But she hates it that Hang's mother continues to be so devoted and helpful to the monster -- in her eyes -- Chinh.
       Hang is very good student, with grades good enough to get into university, thrilling her supportive aunt:
You are the first, the only one in the entire Tran family line, to get to the university. This is no small matter ...
       As readers realize, however, from the fact that Hang is working in a factory in the Soviet Union when the novel opens, her university-career obviously was derailed; what the reason for that was is only revealed fairly late on; unsurprisingly, it again has to do with the obligations towards family, and the sacrifices that must be made, as Hang, for all the difficulties she has with her mother, is a dutiful and devoted daughter.
       Paradise of the Blind is a family saga that, in both its outlines and details can seem fairly grim, but Duong manages it so that the novel is not, in fact, oppressively wearing. The attitude of the characters helps -- a fatalism that isn't crushing, as they simply deal with adversity one way or another (and, helpfully, without whining). So does the presentation: Paradise of the Blind really is a saga, covering some thirty years of Vietnamese history, but it never bogs down in (historical) circumstances or detail: beyond the early land reform and countervailing efforts, little does more than ripple into the lives of the characters. Official policy (changes) and events -- most notably the wars in Viet Nam over this period -- are almost entirely background, as Duong focuses almost entirely on day-to-day life and personal destinies.
       The presentation -- including the Soviet angle, and having Hang, for so much of the novel, look back (until the final chapters, which continue the story in the moment) -- also work well; Duong has that writer's knack for just how to lay out and present such a sweeping story in a fairly compact space, a considerable achievement in and of itself. Paradise of the Blind reads very well -- and grippingly; it's something of a page-turner, and one can easily see why it was such a success (before being banned) in Viet Nam.
       A great deal of the novel is devoted to ritual, obligation, and hospitality, notably in the feasting that goes on, for holidays or other kinds of celebrations. So central is food and cooking that the novel includes an appendix: 'A Glossary of Vietnamese Food and Cultural Terms', and Duong neatly describes how natural it is to offer (and take, with only the mildest of mocking of those who take advantage of the system); it is a form of local color that also serves the novel well.
       Arguably written for a local audience that automatically fills in much of what foreign readers are much less familiar with, Paradise of the Blind might leave English-speaking readers wishing for more background-detail -- but really, it doesn't seem that necessary. Yes, more context is helpful, so readers familiar with the arc of Vietnamese history from the 1950s through the 1980s, and especially in the later years, probably get more out of this, but even as is it translates -- and reads -- well, a very fine novel of the country and system (including in showing just how deep-rooted old traditions remain, regardless of attempts to impose another ideology on the people). It is a very good take on this place and those times.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 November 2020

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Paradise of the Blind: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vietnamese author Dương Thu Hương was born in 1947.

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