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REVIEWS Art is the loser in this version of the Vietnam War

MEMORIES OF A PURE SPRING. By Duong Thu Huong. Translated from Vietnamese by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong. ISBN 0-7868-6581-4. U.S.: Hyperion East. 337 pp. $23.95.

Asahi Evening News

By JAN B. GORDON

August 20, 2000

Underground literature is a genre common to both East and West, probably because repression, real or imaginary, assumes universal forms. From the 19th-century sewers of Paris to samizdat publications in the former Soviet Union and even unto Theodore Kaczynski's anonymous ultimatums from northwestern woods to the New York Times (which led to his arrest), clandestine publication is literature put to the service of ideology. Like the promise of spring in winter, underground literature is hope buried in resistance, both part of and yet separable from a dominant literature and culture that simultaneously maintain and threaten it.

Duong Thu Huong's ``Memories of a Pure Spring'' is, even from its opening pages, identified with this milieu, literally in the subterranean bunkers and tunnels along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the so-called American War. There Hung, the well-educated composer/director of a cultural troupe deployed to entertain struggling Viet Cong troops, meets and begins to train a young peasant vocalist named Suong, a sort of native Edith Piaf, who comes to be known as the ``highlands nightingale.'' Some of the most moving passages of the novel describe the growth of their love under very hostile conditions: weekly baths in tubs fashioned from downed helicopters; a daughter born during an artillery barrage; monsoon floods that inundate their meager cache of rations.

And yet their love survives five years of war against extraordinary odds, as if its survival, like the love of Gatsby and Daisy, depended upon the maintenance of some Vietnamese (as opposed to American) ``dream'' of amatory and political reunification. Allegorically, their marriage, like the Communist revolution to which it is dedicated, would abolish differences between the nation's mandarin and peasant classes, the creative and performative spirits, combining antithesis into one synthetic ``collective body'' in the service of state struggle.

But as is often the case with the politics of resistance, love, driven from its underground struggle, begins to come apart in the light of day. For reasons that are perhaps purposely left unclear, Hung does not secure his promised postwar posting as Head of the Regional Cultural Service. A former classmate at the nation's premier art institute replaces him as director of the operatic troupe where Suong still sings to even more enhanced popularity. For hers is a voice now tinged with the melancholy that has overtaken her marriage as well as the permanent revolution.

Although ostensibly the victim of bureaucratic turf wars that mime the subterranean, clandestine activity of the concluded real war, Hung, this prescient novel suggests, is by no means blameless. For once art is pressed into the service of wartime propaganda-no matter how noble the cause-it permanently exists in the service of the state, which can as easily dismiss its creators as summon them. All art not impressed into state service becomes ipso facto counterrevolutionary. Associating with a motley group of former classmates, disaffected painters and poets lacking any command audience, Hung is accused of conspiring to leave the country as a ``boat person.'' Whether he has actually conspired or been blackmailed is again unclear; what is certain is that both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary art have been infiltrated by the security apparatus. Once corrupted, no art can ever be free of it in the ``new country,'' which is increasingly indistinguishable from what one character calls ``the S-shaped snake of the past.''

Suong must redeem her husband from the rigors of a re-education camp, initially with scarce money, given the needs of their two daughters, but ultimately with her body, given to the camp's persistent commander, who pursues her with a combination of zeal and devotion to a seemingly inaccessible icon hidden behind layers of theatrical makeup. Their love continues long after its ostensible, liberating purpose has been achieved, leading the reader to suspect that dedication to authority, as long as it remains faithful to an assigned role (and is hence individually unaccountable), is easily confused with love. For love, like art, can never be freely given, but only commanded. In such an environment, the revolution has some of the dynamics of love, insofar as it must evolve or become an obstacle to itself.

If the intrusive state bureaucracy and the equally intrusive fiction of collective ``solidarity'' were not enough, the past itself becomes an authority which co-opts all freedom, including narrative freedom, in ``Memories of a Pure Spring.'' For memory exists in this novel as an italicized stream-of-consciousness narration that intrudes into the direct narrative in a technique that probably owes something to William Faulkner's resistances to reunification. In these passages which, like the revolution and the war, continue for far too long, the springtime promises by Hung and Suong intrude upon the reality of what their love and the revolution have become. Here, in an otherwise remarkable novel, Hung's narrative often seems stylistically at war with itself, albeit this strife too may be as thematic as the domestic and civil strife that fill its pages.

Duong Thu Huong has lived that strife. The leader of an artistic troupe and youth brigade sent to ``sing louder than the bombs'' during the American War, Huong emerged in the 1980s as one of the most widely read Vietnamese novelists of her generation. When her best-selling ``Paradise of the Blind'' scandalized Communist party authorities in 1988 by depicting the disastrous 1953-56 land reforms, her books were withdrawn from circulation. Like her hero Hung, she was expelled from the party, forced to abandon her job as a documentary screenwriter and compelled to find publishers outside her native country. Although she spent seven months in jail on the dubious charge of ``revealing state secrets,'' she continues to reside in Hanoi.

Hung, faced with intellectual, political and sexual exile, discovers to his dismay at the novel's end that his musical compositions, slightly rearranged, are being performed again, as part of a new nation's collective historical heritage. On programs, however, his name is re-written; the credited ``author'' is now an acronym composed of the elided names of his daughters. But Hung's creator, the novelist Duong Thu Huong, by contrast, has managed to escape this fate, so common to writers victimized by the strategic ``re-writing'' that often accompanies postrevolutionary realignments. Though completed in 1997, ``Memories of a Pure Spring'' remained unpublished until its discovery late last year by Hyperion East, a relatively obscure press that publishes Asian authors under ``administrative guidance'' in their own countries.

The irony of this postrevolutionary ``arrangement'' should not be lost on the reader. Hyperion Press is a division of Time Warner, now, along with CNN, part of America OnLine. Hence, as it turns out, large American communications conglomerates, historical agents of the transmitted images of America's longest war, are better at finding underground cultural production than was the military establishment at finding those underground locations which gave it birth.

 

 

The reviewer teaches at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.




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