In the 90s, while translating Dương Thu Hương’s Paradise of the Blind into French, Phan Huy Đường had an interview with the RFI, and he said:
“Many people told me that this novel is about the land reform campaign. To me, that is not really important. There has been several writings on such theme and there will be more.
What this novel means to me is that it tells the will of three women, who choose to live their life in three different ways. Two of them cannot let go of the past and cease to be truly alive. Only one woman heads for the future, but that future is still a question”
Now, after reading the novel, I know that the only woman who comes to terms with the past is Hằng, the main character of the novel, and the other two are her mother and her aunt. It was the land reform campaign that divided Hằng’s family and shattered the life of her mother and her aunt.
I’ve heard so many times that the land reform is a deadly mistake of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) which drowned million lives in miserable condition, yet I haven’t thoroughly researched that historical event.
Recently, I listened to a podcast featuring Hoàng Xuân Hãn before his death in 1996. Hoàng Xuân Hãn has a distinctive view on Hồ Chí Minh. In his view, Hồ Chí Minh, who is a descendant of Cao Thắng, Phan Đình Phùng and other members of Aid the King’s movement, grew up witnessing the bloody downfall of Hương Khê rebellion in Thanh Nghệ Tĩnh region, deeply understood the need of modern military power in the war effort against the French.
That is why he spent his whole life trying to gain support from the international forces. However, the failure of Phan Bội Châu and Phan Chu Trinh proved one thing, that we cannot rely on any individual country because with nationalist perspective, they will always put their nation first. Only the Communist International, with their vision to transform the war of nations into a transnational class war, can offer their hand to the independence of Vietnam.
However, in order to win their trust, Hồ Chí Minh and Việt Minh government must conform with their direction, including exterminating other opposing political parties and launching the land reform campaign. In other words, land reform is the price that Việt Minh chose to pay for the support of the Communist International.
Now, history became so complicated that I felt very ambivalent about my people, my fellow countrymen.
I thought of Dumbledore out of the blue. J. K. Rowling nailed it when she created such a complex character. He is kind, but machiavellian at the same time. His meticulous plan for the death and resurrection of Harry Potter is effective but unsentimental to the core. “You’ve kept him so he can die at the proper moment. You’ve been raising him like a pig for slaughter”, said Severus Snape. Some may expressed the discontent with his method, but all have to admit that it works. Ultimately, Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix triumphed over Voldemort and the deathly hallows.
Dương Thu Hương, however, is no politician. She is, first and foremost, a citizen who experienced the cruelty and harshness of the land reform campaign. She chose to go beneath the statistical surface, to capture the subtle vibrancy of miserable lives under such crisis via literary language. She dared to tell the truth in literature, and that is what Phan Huy Đường had not seen over the past tens of years in Vietnam.
To Phan Huy Đường, Vietnamese literary language has been distorted into an almost dead language which no longer serves the function of honest expression of sentiment. Sometimes, it even became a tool of trickery and deception to destroy a person’s life. Among the contemporary literary works, some started to preserve Vietnamese language’s true function, notably the novels by Dương Thu Hương.
“She deserves the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award from Jacques Toubon, for she’s the one who preserved the function of telling the truth of a language”, said Phan Huy Đường.
Hằng has her history, our country has its history and I also have my own history. Sometimes, on a train ride, we will unconsciously recall it. Our past will always be a specter haunting our lifetime.
(to be continued)