Contemporary Literature from Việt Nam
Paradise of the Blind
by Dương Thu Hương
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks, 2002
Paradise of the Blind is an exquisite portrait of three Vietnamese women struggling to survive in a society where subservience to men is expected and Communist corruption crushes every dream. Through the eyes of Hang, a young woman in her twenties who has grown up amidst the slums and intermittent beauty of Hanoi, we come to know the tragedy of her family as land reform rips apart their village. When her uncle Chinh‘s political loyalties replace family devotion, Hang is torn between her mother‘s appalling self–sacrifice and the bitterness of her aunt who can avenge but not forgive. Only by freeing herself from the past will Hang be able to find dignity –– and a future.
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Behind the Red Mist gives us for the first time in English a wide range of stories from the most important writer of the post-war generation in Việt Nam. The characters range from a party official who turns into a goat while watching porno movies, to an Indian who carries his mother’s bones in his knapsack, to a war widow trying desperately to piece together her life through the fragments of debris she collects from her back yard. The title novella “Behind the Red Mist” is a Vietnamese “Back To the Future”, a social satire in which a young man in the Hanoi of the eighties receives an electric shock and is transported back to his same apartment block in 1967 wartime Việt Nam during the American bombing. He not only witnesses the war with the eyes of someone who knows its outcome, but participates in his parents’ courtship and discovers some truths about the generation held up to his own as a role model.
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Dumb Luck: A Novel by Vũ Trọng Phụng
By Vũ Trọng Phụng, Translated by Peter Zinoman and Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm
Published by University of Michigan Press, 2002
Though not set in contemporary Việt Nam, this was banned until 1986. Dumb Luck is a bitter satire of the rage for modernization in Việt Nam during the late colonial era. First published in Hanoi during 1936, it follows the absurd and unexpected rise within colonial society of a street-smart vagabond named Red-haired Xuân. As it charts Xuân ‘s fantastic social ascent, the novel provides a panoramic view of late colonial urban social order, from the filthy sidewalks of Hanoi’s old commercial quarter to the gaudy mansions of the emergent Francophile northern upper classes. The transformation of traditional Vietnamese class and gender relations triggered by the growth of colonial capitalism represents a major theme of the novel.
Dumb Luck is the first translation of a major work by Vũ Trọng Phụng, arguably the greatest Vietnamese writer of the twentieth century. The novel’s clever plot, richly drawn characters and humorous tone and its preoccupation with sex, fashion and capitalism will appeal to a wide audience. It will appeal to students and scholars of Việt Nam, comparative literature, colonial and postcolonial studies, and Southeast Asian civilization.
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Against the Flood caused a sensation in Việt Nam when it was published in 1999 because of its controversial description of sex and politics in that country. The plot revolves around a writer, Khiêm, whose book is banned and who is publicly censured by his contemporaries, while the tangled relationships in his own circle involve drug-trafficking and adultery. His lover, a pretty and intelligent woman, is slandered and sacked from her job. She leaves Hanoi and becomes involved in opium traffic in an attempt to investigate it, but is arrested before she can report the activities to the police. His wife, a smuggler, has an extramarital affair and dies during an abortion. Khiêm and his lover are finally reunited after a long separation. The novel presents a vivid picture of contemporary Vietnamese society, examining the dramatic tensions inherent in a changing society, and is imbued with the themes of friendship, love, and betrayal.
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A couple’s scheme to get rich by killing their father backfires, leaving them in charge of a cripple. In heaven, a baby, dead through neglect, tells his playmates: “Life down there is just one long sleep.” A young soldier, saved by a stranger, can never again find her to thank her. A man carries a massive clock. Using a variety of techniques and styles, in this collection of twelve short stories contemporary Vietnamese writers—edited by poet, short story writer, and novelist Linh Dinh—show us Vietnam through their own eyes. Night, Again breaks with the traditional views of the Vietnamese that have focused on the Việt Nam War and turns our attention to postwar life in Việt Nam. These writers present impressions–at once strange and familiar–of postwar realities.
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