The Vietnamese novel Beyond Illusions has a lot to recommend it on its own—a story that is passionate, political, personal and complex, prose that is often lyrical. Yet it’s almost impossible to think about it apart from the biography of its author.

In fact, Duong Thu Huong’s life is as interesting as any one of her four novels.

During her country’s war against the United States, Huong volunteered for a “cultural unit” attached to the North Vietnamese Army. The group of 40 lived in the tunnels and air-raid shelters along the front lines for 10 years, composing music and writing plays, keeping morale up and enforcing the party line. The idea, in her words, was “to sing louder than the bombs,” and it wasn’t easy. By war’s end she was one of only three survivors.

Adjusting back into a politically rigid communist society wasn’t easy, either, and Huong struggled to maintain her artistic integrity while still pleasing the party. When, in the mid-1980s, she protested government censorship of one of her pays, her writing was banned altogether for several years. During that time, she also dared divorce her husband and become a single mother—an action that put her at odds with her culture’s traditional and morally conservative values.

In 1987, at the age of 40, Huong published Beyond Illusions, her first novel. Her timing was right: Communist Party chief Nguyen Van Linh had just called on Vietnam’s writers and intellectuals to freely address issues facing a country that had fallen into a nasty state of poverty and corruption.

Even under these circumstances, it was a risky book. Huong’s protagonist, an idealistic schoolteacher named Linh, is fiercely critical of communist repression. She views her journalist husband Nguyen with contempt for toadying to party officials. Like Huong, Linh risks divorce and insists on taking her child. When she begins an affair with a famous composer, she faces down the community’s reproach with a mixture of pride and horror.

Linh sees her husband as a liar and a coward; Nguyen protests that to write the truth would be akin to throwing himself, “a mere pebble, into the gears of this machine running at full steam.”

“I’d be reduced to dust in the blink of an eye,” he says.

Remarkably, the government, and Linh in particular, praised Beyond Illusions, and the novel sold 60,000 copies in less than two weeks. Huong’s success and support would be short-lived, however.

The following year she published Paradise of the Blind, a novel that criticized Ho Chi Minh’s notorious land reform of the mid-1950s. Perhaps government officials felt criticism of their own programs appropriate, but those of their state’s founding hero still taboo. Perhaps, after the novel quickly sold 100,000 copies, they felt Huong’s politics were becoming too popular. Paradise of the Blind was withdrawn from circulation, and Huong’s cooperation with the powers that be was courted through money and awards.

When she responded with defiance, she was kicked out of the party. Nguyen Van Linh called her “the dissident slut.”

One gets the sense that Huong began to pour her troubles into her writing. She soon wrote the war story Novel Without a Name.

In the early 1990s, when the book was smuggled out of the country and translated into French and then English, Huong was imprisoned without trial for seven months. Upon her release, she promptly wrote and had smuggled out a fourth novel,Memories of a Pure Spring, which appeared in English in 2000. Clearly autobiographical, it is the love story of a composer and his devoted but much-younger wife, both veterans of a front-line cultural unit and now desperate to find some stability in post-war Vietnam.

They cannot.

Though 15 years old now, Beyond Illusions has just been translated into English for the first time. It is as earnest and unflinching as the circumstances of its writing might suggest. The formality of Vietnamese speech (even in translation) may strike some readers as awkward. And arguments between characters often veer into philosophy. Nguyen, even at the height of passion, declares: “Maybe it’s high time for me to acknowledge that life can be seen from multiple, even contradictory points of view.”

On the other hand, the story focuses on the personal lives and loves of its characters in a way that is specifically Western.

Huong is often quite funny, too, as in this description of a journalist, as observed by two kids:

Eye shadow as fluorescent as a firefly’s wings was spread over her lids.

“My god, she has green eyes, like a cat’s.”

“That’s beauty, silly.”

“Maybe, but it’s scary to look at.”

And always there is Huong’s biography hovering over the action. For instance, why does the author, who must surely live in fear of party officials continue to live and write in Hanoi?

One of her characters, a painter who has refused the opportunity to immigrate to Canada, provides an answer: “Why leave the poplars of West Lake and Bac Ninh countryside to paint pine trees in Montreal or Quebec? How could I paint a pine tree when from childhood I’ve only known banana trees and bamboo groves? No, I couldn’t do it, not even out of wanderlust. I could never swap my life for a life outside myself.”

Beyond Illusions by Duong Thu Huong (Hyperion, 247 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, July 2002