January 21, 2000
Peace Can Be Hell, Too
By Carolyn See
MEMORIES OF A PURE SPRING
By Duong Thu Huong
Translated from the Vietnamese by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong
Hyperion. 340 pp. $23.95
The good thing about a war is that even though the suffering is horrendous and the losses immeasurable and the starvation rampant and the world unimaginably cruel, the people who are fighting tend to achieve a pretty clear focus. Someone else wants to kill them, and that generates a strong motivation for them to stay alive. Memories become sharp; experience, intense. Whatever else a war may turn out to be, it functions as the ultimate attention-getting device.
But what happens afterward? Someone still has to find the food and cook the meals, and after passionate lovemaking children are likely to come on the scene, and someone needs to take the kids to school, and someone has to get out there and earn some money, and most of the jobs in this world are a great big bore. People forget--in their well-meaning piety--to mention that "peace" is a lot like if you stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. It feels great at first, when the pain stops, but it's not a guarantee of joy by any means. The absence of pain, for one thing, allows us time to think, to evaluate the life that may have been so earnestly and thoughtlessly defended.
In this novel, Hoang Hung is in his early forties when "The War Against the Americans" is won in Vietnam. He spent his combat years as the leader of an Artistic Troupe and Youth Brigade whose mission was to "sing louder than the bombs"--to entertain soldiers under the most appalling conditions. The troupe's heroism has been unquestioned, and when the war ceases the entire ensemble is sent to a seaside city, provincial capital of the central part of the country.
It should be a happy time. Hung is a hero; he's composed some wonderful music for his troupe to perform during the years of battle, and he's also had the immense good fortune to find Suong, a beautiful 16-year-old girl whom he's turned into "the most famous singer in the central provinces."
So this should be the moment when Hung, his young wife and their baby daughter reap their just rewards. But almost immediately Hung is repelled by what "victory" means. A heroic Vietnamese soldier celebrates by driving around aimlessly in an American jeep. A young couple, idealistic up until now, show an unseemly, materialistic delight over their government-requisitioned apartment and a few sticks of secondhand furniture. Is this what the glorious war was all about? Just some vulgar, secondhand junk?
At this fragile time, a deputy chief of the Communist Party decides to demote Hung, to relieve him of his leadership of the theatrical troupe and transfer him to a moribund department of "arts" where nothing is going on. The reason is not political in any usual sense. Hung was snippy to the deputy chief 10 years before, and now that the war is over, the functionary has found the perfect opportunity to take his revenge.
Hung is old enough to remember times before the war. His family was prosperous and middle-class; his mother had money and kept the house running while his father devoted his life to "literature" in the way of an old-time classical Chinese scholar. When Hung finds himself suddenly "unemployed and uninsured," in Western terminology, it seems a little bit like home. Why shouldn't his wife keep on working hard and bring in the money? Why shouldn't Hung stay at home and sulk? (Because being fired from the troupe has mysteriously robbed him of all confidence; he can't compose a note anymore.)
The truth is, Hung isn't suited to peace. He's bored to death. He's useless, and instead of being grateful to his long-suffering wife, he falls in with bad companions and into low circumstances. "Memories of a Pure Spring," then, is a kind of Vietnamese redaction of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" or a cinematic version of "A Star Is Born."
There's not one bad thing that doesn't happen to this poor man. He finds a tedious job and quits it. He's hanging around the beach on a day when a flock of boat people are arrested, and--mistakenly branded a traitor--is sent off to a nightmarish reeducation camp. After his wife negotiates his release, Hung takes to drink, then opium, and then finds a pitiful whore who gives him a roaring case of "Korean Syphilis," a dreadful disease no antibiotic can cure.
This seems to be much more than a regional novel and much more than a political one (although the author has been stripped of honor in her own country and remains a cultural pariah there). This is about the war against boredom, the demands of domesticity and breadwinning, the (sometimes very dubious) consolations of art. Hung's "bad companions" are lost souls as well as failed artists; they're testing the limits of degradation because they can't think of anything better to do. He and his friends waste day after day, wasting the life for which they so bravely fought.
None of Hung's memories can help him. His childhood belongs to a bourgeois island of ersatz security that's irrevocably gone; but the war years, with all their danger and idealism, have just as decisively disappeared. The artist is often uniquely equipped to deal with the consequences of devastation and even death; it's sitting down to lunch every day and getting the kids off to kindergarten that can spell despair. That's true in "peaceful" Vietnam--or anywhere else.