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MARCH 20, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 11

A Tale of Disillusionment
Duong Thu Huong's latest novel drifts gracefully through a Vietnam plagued by soulless ideologues
By TERRY McCARTHY





The first time the heroine in Duong Thu Huong's latest novel, Memories of a Pure Spring, betrays her husband, her main sensation is the coldness on her back of the rose petals her lover has spread on the bedsheets. Later, one of the characters grazes his hand as he ties a noose to a tree: he goes back into the house to dress the wound with iodine before coming out and hanging himself. This is exquisite writing that constantly hovers on the border of pain, dark irony that threatens to weep.

Vietnam's history since the end of the war a quarter of a century ago has been one long succession of disappointed dreams and barely concealed tears. Duong Thu Huong has become the most poignant chronicler of the country's disillusionment. Her Paradise of the Blind tells of a corrupt party official wrecking the life of his young niece with his own petty concerns. Novel Without a Name is a riveting account of the war and its numbing effects on ordinary people, who were far less enthused about the great patriotic struggle than official propaganda suggested. Novel landed Huong in jail for seven months in 1991, and since then she has been unable to publish her books in Vietnam, although she continues to live and write in Hanoi.

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Charismatic former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmão brings hope that his beloved East Timor will finally be freed from centuries of fear
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'I Don't Feel Prepared to Lead this Country': Xanana Gusmão discusses the past and looks to the future
East Timor's Reconstruction: Is aid doing more harm than good?

Business: Sony Plays for the Big Stakes
After breaking the mold to create PlayStation 2, the Japanese company is hoping its new game box will make it a major Internet player
Test Driving the PS2: Listen to the kids: 'It's smoother, more realistic'

South Asia: Into the Breach
In tense South Asia, U.S. President Bill Clinton may face one raw, ruptured relationship he cannot heal
Viewpoint: Flirting With Trouble: When he visits the subcontinent, Clinton should stick to feel-good diplomacy

Books: A Tale of Disillusionment
Duong Thu Huong's latest novel drifts gracefully through a Vietnam plagued by soulless ideologues

Books: Bland Fare
A 'hot' Indian novel caters to foreign tastes

Now comes Memories of a Pure Spring, whose characters seek what people everywhere long for: beauty, love, some meaning in their everyday lives. But in Huong's Vietnam the rewards are too often laced with bitterness. Hung, the main character, like Huong herself in real life, was the head of a wartime musical troupe, sent to the front to entertain the soldiers. After the war he falls afoul of the authorities and is unable to have his music performed anywhere. His marriage to the beautiful singer Suong starts to unravel. The frustrated artist in him reacts angrily to his fate. But his bid for freedom only leads to opium addiction and prostitutes with venereal disease, mirroring the self-destruction of a nation.

This latest work does not have the impact of Novel Without a Name, which was held together by the horror of the war. Memories of a Pure Spring is more diffuse, chronicling the fragmented lives of a family drifting through a Vietnam run by soulless ideologues. Still, Huong writes beautifully, seeking in the depths of memory the artistic vision reflected in the pure spring of the title. When Suong's husband is sent to a prison camp, she descends into hell, traveling deep into the mountains to find him starving and beaten by the guards. She reclaims him by singing for the prisoners--even as Huong herself persists in writing for a people still far from free.

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