Memories of a Pure Spring – Andy takes a slow boat to post-war VietnamAugust 18, 2013
Never heard of Duong Thu Huong? Not surprising, really. The back cover blurb may laud her as Vietnam’s most acclaimed writer and famous dissident, and the biographical note may point out that she sold hundreds of thousands of books in her home country before the government banned her. But there isn’t bucketloads of contemporary literature in translation on even the most widely read Australian’s bookshelves, and most of it’s probably from Latin America
Memories of a Pure Spring is the second novel by a Vietnamese writer I’ve read, the other being The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh. I think I probably bought both around the same time, 10 or so years ago, from one of those remainder shops you still see around occasionally. They used to stock some seriously good stuff; not sure if that’s still the case. And I’m not sure why I read Sorrow before I read Memories, although I can make a couple of guesses: Sorrow is shorter, because I’m a lazy prick, and Bao Ninh is a bloke, because I’m a literary sexist.
I remember being impressed by The Sorrow of War – which, if you’re wondering, is a war novel, not a post-war novel – and I’d be curious to re-read it, being short and all, after having read Memories of a Pure Spring. Because Memories isn’t just impressive.
Memories is the story of Hung and Suong, husband and wife, senior members of one of the communist performing troupes that played a vital morale-boosting role in the Vietnam conflict, after the north got involved in things south of what was then a border. After unification the troupe’s role becomes problematic and Hung, a composer and the troupe’s director, is demoted, while Suong, a singer, retains her place as star performer. The change places considerable stress on the relationship and as the novel opens Suong is in hospital after attempting suicide. From there the novel jumps backwards and forwards, filling in the gaps, answering questions, raising others, broadening our understanding of characters and situations, and giving a Western readership a rare glimpse of life in Vietnam in the late ’70s and early ’80s, There’s a scene in which a group of boat people attempt to flee, a quite brutal depiction of life in a “reeducation” camp (although I’ll give the Vietnamese their due, it’s not quite the cesspit of death and annihilation depicted in The Orphan Master’s Son, set in North Korea). There’s some great, if cynical, insight into how totalitarian government works (pretty similar in some ways to how we work these days, although at least we can mostly write what we want and not get banned). There are some warm, wonderful scenes of neighbourhood life that could attract accusations of romanticising the peasantry were they not written by a Vietnamese woman, living in Vietnam.
Ultimately, though, Memories of a Pure Spring rises above the political and the cultural to be a story about two people who love each other deeply and who, as a result of their own flaws and the circumstances in which they find themselves, cannot make their lives quite work. Perhaps that’s what I loved so much about this book. It gave me an insight into something I know a bit, though not a lot, about (I’ve read a bit, though not a lot, about the Vietnamese conflict – and because this book was written for a Vietnamese audience it understandably assumes a certain level of knowledge about circumstances in the ’70s, which may leave some Western readers confused), and a great deal of insight into a culture I know pretty much nothing about, except that rice paper rolls are totally fucking awesome. But ultimately it’s a story about the fact that a) life is wonderful and b) life sucks. And we can all relate to that.