By Duong Thu Huong
Published by Hyperion
January 2002; 0-786-86417-6; 247 pages
How could I have loved him like that? She stared at him in the green glow of dawn. Still sleeping soundly, he was both strange and familiar to her, like a waxen effigy. That face. The curve of the nose, those earlobes. He was the same man, the same flesh, that had once been a beacon inside her. Now, he no longer radiated life, love.
The man rolled over, his beard grazing her cheek. Repulsed, she sat up.
Odd, how his beard has thinned.
She stared at her husband again. Bewildered, she slid her back up against the wall. Outside in the corridor: footsteps, the clatter of a pail on the ground.
"Who's making such a racket? It's not even dawn!" a woman's voice shrieked. It was that harpy, Tong, who terrorized the building.
"Sorry, sorry, the handle of my pail just broke," replied a timid, male voice.
Tong didn't reply. Professor Le descended the stairs, the shuffle of his sandals fading in the distance. Then all was quiet again. It was about four o'clock in the morning; the city hadn't awoken, yet already the dawn rays spread through the gardens, filtering through streets. A poisonous light, late spring's potion of fog and sun.
She shuddered as her husband's head emerged from the covers. Like a wooden statue in a museum, inert, utterly alien in the pallid, murky light.
Liar, hypocrite. To think I was once madly in love with him.
They had met during her sophomore year of college, in the suffocating heat of a June morning. Nguyen had been assigned to teach literature to her class. Most of the students were young women. Educated, romantic, they had a sense, early on, of their own worth. And they were all curious about their young professor, known for his prodigious intelligence, and dreamed of attracting his attention. Nguyen was medium height, with sparkling eyes, jet black hair, and a confident voice. But he was a bit aloof; he didn't so much as look at the girls in Linh's class, who were renowned for their beauty and talent. He used to stand in front of them in his crudely cut suit, hands smeared with chalk dust, fingers stained with ink, oblivious to the dandruff on his jacket, or the top button missing from his shirt. Everyone was captivated by his passion for the classics. He would lecture on the Italian Renaissance, the progressive aspects of capitalism, the flaws that had shaken the foundations of feudal society, the power of individual aspirations - all the noble forces that promised to lead mankind up the luminous steps to a more humanist culture. Linh was in awe of the range and depth of Nguyen's knowledge. His aloofness only fanned the flames of a love that she had felt from the moment they met. She had been nineteen years old at the time. Beautiful, gentle, she dazzled men. The previous year, on the advice of an aunt who had raised her since childhood, she had become engaged to a neighbor boy who had fallen madly in love with her when she was sixteen. Linh's fiancé was handsome enough, soft-spoken, and eager to provide for her. If she hadn't met Nguyen, her life would have followed its due course. But she had met him and to be with him she had endured her family's rejection, the snide mockery of the neighbors, and her ex-fiance's hatred and contempt.
My God, I loved Nguyen more than my own life.
If she hadn't fallen so madly in love with him, she might have led a rich, comfortable life. Her fiancé had promised to wait for Linh to finish her studies to marry her. But his family had already given them a big house filled with expensive furniture made of precious wood, the kind of comfort and luxury that most people only dream of. He was always switching motorcycles when he took Linh out. He wore smart clothes and dressed her up in all the latest fashions. When she broke off her engagement, Linh had to work nights as a seamstress to repay her aunt for the returned wedding gifts. Exhausted, she would often fall asleep between classes, even in the middle of conversations with friends. How many times, on those icy winter nights, as she studied, had she felt hungry, craved a bowl of cheap Chinese noodle soup or a pork sandwich. But instead of going through with her planned marriage, she had waited for Nguyen. During their early years together, she had grown accustomed to hardship, to meals of not much more than pickled vegetables.
Yes, I loved him with all the love a woman has to give.
She remembered all their trysts in the empty classrooms. How one summer, in the shade of a tree, he had explained Dante's Divine Comedy, saying in his deep, serious voice: "Why are you always surprised the events change people, the course of their lives? Stop thinking of them as saints. Saints only exist in the imagination of primitive man. Today, people are intelligent enough to know that great men are thirty percent talent and seventy percent vulgarity. That's why they suffer when their interests are at stake, make mistakes in judgment, in their actions."
Nguyen had toppled Linh's most revered idols from their pedestals, but he himself had taken their place. Linh found confidence and strength in the slight smile that curved his lips, in its hint of irony. In the depths of his eyes, she sensed the experience of a compassionate soul.
Linh shivered. Memories of her passion for him flooded back. One evening, in the darkness of a movie theater, he had stroked her fingers. They were watching a film, Robinson Crusoe. His caress had bewitched her, and he had whispered into her ear: "Robinson is a hero from a bygone age. Being a hero now if much more difficult. There's no quest more complex, more perilous, than a man's struggle with his own soul."
Startled, she remembered staring at him in the darkness, how his eyes had sparkled, tender, and yet distant. The beauty of the intelligence in his gaze: those eyes, like two mysterious flowers floating on water. She had squeezed Nguyen's hand, secretly yearning to smother it with kisses, to tell him that she adored him.
They had lived blissful years together. Then, one day, she discovered the lies he had published in his articles, the contempt of his colleagues, the jokes that circulated after his trips, the reason behind the promotions and salary raises. "No quest is more complex, more perilous, than a man's struggle with his own soul": The person who had uttered these words had compromised himself. The man with the sparkling eyes, the pensive, gentle air about him, had submitted, surrendered. He had shattered everything she had believed in, killed their love in a single blow.
Linh couldn't explain how it happened. Terrified by the pain of this lost love, but a future that threatened to evaporate, she latched on to the secret hope that she could preserve the peaceful, happy life they had shared. But the lucid, skeptical woman in her knew she had already left Nguyen. Now that she saw him clearly, her hatred was tainted with disgust, like the revulsion she felt when the stubble on his chin grazed her skin.
Nguyen rolled over, stretched, and yawned. Linh turned away, and looked outside. She noticed that the flowering tree in the front yard was grimy, covered with dust. It is a horrible moment when you suddenly see your own home as a filthy, miserable hole, when your idol is torn from the altar's sacred darkness, no more than a piece of moldy wood in the hash light of day.
"Linh, sweetheart, is it light out?" Nguyen asked sleepily.
"Probably," Linh replied.
Nguyen opened his eyes and smiled. "You still want to argue, don't you, my complicated one?" He reached out an arm and clasped his wife's head against his chest.
"Let go of me."
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing, but I want to get back to what we talked about yesterday."
"Again?" Nguyen smiled fondly at his wife. "Let's not talk about it. It's not worth it. The world, success, failure, truth, falsehood - let's leave all that on the doorstep, outside our home. Here there's only you, me, and our little Huong Ly."
Nguyen kissed Linh, nuzzling his head in her bosom. She noticed that his hair had started to go white. How can a man have white hair at age thirty-two?
When she fell in love with Nguyen, his hair had been black with iridescent blue highlights, like bird feathers. Each time a lock of hair fell on his forehead, he would brush it aside with a slow sweep of the hand. Linh liked that gesture. How many times, waiting in front of the university gate, had she seen him run his hands through his hair that way?
Nguyen took her in his arms. Ever since they had lived together, his love had only deepened.Copyright © 2002 Duong Thu Huong
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
novel from Vietnam's most popular writer and one of its most famous dissidents.
Now available for the first time in America, Huong's first novel is a brilliantly spun tale of a young woman who marries her professor because she so admires his idealism. When he sells out everything he believes in order to support her, her love goes. Only when they are both beyond illusions can they try again for a real relationship. Deeply lyrical and wholly believable, this early novel is illuminated by the haunting language and unflinching honesty that have led critics to hail Huong.
Duong Thu Huong was born in 1947 in the area of Thai Binh in Vietnam. For a decade during the "American War," North Vietnamese author and singer Duong Thu Huong was one of 30 people recruited for an artistic troupe that performed for soldiers ( "sing louder than the bombs'') near the central border, where much of the heaviest bombing took place. When the war ended, she was among the three who survived. She was also the first female combatant/war correspondent at the front when China attacked Vietnam in 1979.
Her subsequent career as a novelist met with enormous success. Before her books were banned by the Vietnamese government, she was the popular selling author of serious fiction in Vietnam. Beyond Illusions (1987) was actually the first of Huongs three novels (including also: Paradise of the Blind in 1988, and Fragments of Lost Life in 1989) written immediately after Vietnams Communist Party invited writers to participate in an era of openness and critical analysis of the new nation. Beyond Illusions sold 100,000 copies and Paradise of the Blind sold 40,000 copies before the authorities pulled it from the shelves. Paradise of the Blind scandalized Communist party authorities by depicting the disastrous 1953-56 land reforms; banned in its own country, it was the first novel from Vietnam ever published in the United States. Her short fiction has also appeared in the anthology Night Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam by Linh Dinh and Grand Street 45 by Ester Allen.. Her books have been banned in Vietnam ever since.
She is a strong advocate of human rights and political reform, for which she was expelled from the Vietnamese Communist party in 1989. On April 13, 1991 she was imprisoned without trial for a speech that she gave advocating political reform. She was accused by the government of Vietnam of collaborating with "reactionary organizations" and smuggling "secret documents" out of the country to foreign countries. She was immediately recognized by P.E.N Writers Club, Anmesty International, and other human rights organizations as a political prisoner. Her arrest and imprisonment sparked international protest. She was released from prison seven months later in November of 1991.
Duong displays a strong political and social conscience in her literary work. She enjoys international recognition which she sees as her protection within the borders of Vietnam where she still lives in Hanoi.