Vietnam’s Communist government doesn’t receive as much bad press as China’s, but by objective accounts they’re similar beasts: controlling information, crushing political dissent and imprisoning those who criticise the regime. Political liberalisations has not followed economic liberalisation. Most people, either because they are too fearful or comfortable, don’t dare to defy the ruling party. But Duong Thu Huong is not most people.
The events portrayed in Memories of a Pure Spring in many ways parallel the life of the author. Like her novel’s protagonist, Huong spent ten years during the Vietnam/American War in the most heavily bombed area of her country, serving not as a soldier but the leader of an artistic troupe. She was also imprisoned, although in her case for “sending state secrets abroad” after she mailed the manuscript for Novel Without a Name overseas for publication. Even her hero’s name, Hung, is notably similar to her own.
Memories of a Pure Spring demonstrates that Huong continues to defy the Communist Party despite her persecution. Yet while the Government is undoubtedly culpable in the tragedy that lies at the novel’s heart, a lot of discussion could be had over who is ultimately responsible – those in power, fate, history, or the characters themselves.
When the novel opens, Vinh is watching over his sister, Suong, central Vietnam’s most popular singer, who has just attempted suicide by jumping into the river. Her husband, Hung, arrives at the hospital drunk, and Vinh releases his long-held resentment towards his brother in law by throwing him out onto the street.
The first half of the novel shifts between Suong and Hung’s perspectives, telling of their romance during the war years, building towards the revelation of why Suong tried to end her life.
The author spends alot of time detailing the injustices committed by the government. Due to having slighted a bureaucrat years before, Hung is stripped of his job as the head of an artistic troupe, which deprives him of his artistic outlet and is the catalyst for his fall. His appeals against his dismissal fall on deaf ears because his persecutor is from the same village as those in power.
Later, he is caught on a boat trying to flee Vietnam, is imprisoned and made a pariah. The inhuman treatment he suffers in prison leaves him traumatised, another wound that deeply affects his actions throughout the story.
The characters frequently muse about the influence of fate, calling into question their own free will. Much is made of Hung’s upbringing, and how it cemented his romantic, impractical nature, which drives him to either creation or despair.
Then again, his navel gazing about fate will be seen by some as the actions of a weak man trying to relieve himself of blame, and many readers will no doubt judge him harshly.
He is presented with many forks in the road, and time and again he chooses escapism through degradation rather than accept that his dreams are closed to him and he must now live for his family.
Yes, he undoubtedly suffers from depression, but his downfall is due more to a fatal pride and selfishness than anything outside his control. He chooses to allow his lecherous artist friends into his house, where they take advantage of his hospitality and humiliate his wife.
At the end of the first book, it seems that he has rid himself of their influence. But any lingering sympathy is destroyed when he allows himself to be drawn back into their world, leading him to opium, disease and worse.
For most of the novel, Suong remains a dutiful wife, using her talent as a singer to secure Hung’s early release from prison, support her family and, later, her husband’s debaucherous friends. When she finally does something against him that brings her fleeting pleasure, she can hardly be blamed.
The characters also suffer because they are unable to adjust to the massive social changes in the post-war period. Hung yearns for the lifestyle of his father, an asthete who read poetry all day and lived off his mother, a lifestyle that is no longer possible. Vinh wants nothing more than to be a farmer, but struggles to meet family expectations to get an education. It is no doubt significant that the heroic Lam forgoes fame for the timeless occupation of carter.
The character’s attempts to defy the systems in which they live are small, personal, almost accidental rebellions, and one gets the impression they are ants tossed about in a maelstrom of history, fate and emotion.
What rescues the novel from being an exercise in self-flaggelation is the many kind hearted, selfless characters who support Suong and Hung, suggesting that while idealogies may be rotten, people are not.
It should be said that both the characters and writing are romantic; often lofty and exilirating, but sometimes precipitously close to Mills and Boon.
Nonetheless, Memories of a Pure Spring provides a courageous depiction of 1950’s Vietnam, a country that fought for freedom from foreign invaders only to discover home-grown tyranny, both new and old.