Critical Review: Memories of a Pure Spring – Karla

 

Memories of a Pure Spring

Memories of a Pure Spring by Duong Thu Huong is a fictional account set in post war Vietnam. Due to Vietnam’s communist ideologies, the descriptions of people and events in this book have caused this book to be banned in Vietnam. Wildly popular on the black market in Vietnam, this novel, as a piece of creative art, begins to expose the weaknesses of the government in regard to ideas of collectivism, nationalism, and even the government’s authority to rule. The fictional characters, artists themselves, navigate exile, sacrifice, and tragedy to expose the personal and long lasting effects of the American War on Vietnam and its people.

Background

Vietnam has imposed stringent control over creativity utilizing it entirely for political purposes during most of the twentieth century (Healy 2010:327). The ideological indoctrinations spread through propaganda and hindrance in the flow of complete or honest information through censorship during this time has included the importance of the collective actions and sacrifice of citizens over individual dreams and desires, nationalism in order to create economic stability that would come with a united nation, and the legitimization of the government’s authority to rule.  If any form or piece of art does not comply to these regulations it is “banned, withdrawn from circulation, or harshly attacked by officials” with consequences including harassment, intimidation, dismissal, blacklisting, forced self-criticism, and possibly imprisonment (Healy 2010:331).

In order to understand the present situation in Vietnam, a historical perspective is needed. In many ways, Vietnam’s government uses policies to ensure there is not a repeat of history. For centuries Vietnam was an independent nation until occupations by China, France, and Japan. Vietnam has fought to maintain its independence regained in 1945 by Ho Chi Minh. The First Indochina War began in 1946 resulting in the 1954 Geneva Conference which divided Vietnam in two. Ho Chi Minh’s communist government ruled the north while the United States-supported Republic of Vietnam ruled the south. Both the north and the south launched oppressive programs which lead to the death of many. Land reform, which was the North’s attempt to eliminate classes, resulted in up to one million deaths. The South crushed political and religious opposition resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.

This oppression on both sides led to the Second Indochina War which lasted until 1975. The United States and its military supported the South Vietnamese independence, if for no other reason than to hold off the spread of communism. The 1973 Paris Agreement officially settled the war by calling for free elections in the South and a peaceful reunification. The terms of this agreement were not honored by North Vietnam who continued to march through the country, ultimately seizing Saigon, the capital of the South, in 1975. The Second Indochina War left the Vietnamese landscape and people devastated through deaths of over three million and thousands others crippled by artillery and chemical substances.

The victory of the North reunited the country under a socialist regime. While reunited politically, social and economic reunification was much harder to attain. Many South Vietnamese fled out of fear for their lives; having supported the South, they were now perceived enemies of the unified government. In addition, the socialist ideas of the unified government were in contrast to the pre-existing capitalist ideas of the South. Efforts to unite and reeducate the population needed to be deliberate or the young country could face failure.

It is against this backdrop of violence with a hope for a strong united nation that Memories of a Pure Spring is set. The Second Indochina War is presented as the Vietnam War in America; however, the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War. The power of the use of words is evident as the different names reflect ideas of opposing responsible parties for the war. Censorship can take many forms, but for the sake of this paper, the use of words and art to convey ideologies and, thus, their censorship is discussed.

It is not difficult to understand why any government, in this case Vietnam, would seek to control wartime cultural production such as literature and films. Especially during war, art “cease[s] to be something authentic and personal…[becoming] schematic political and military rhetoric to underline the dominant political agenda” (Healy 2010:326). In a communist society such as Vietnam, art is owned by the state and expected to behave within its propaganda obligation. Artists become servants of the state (Healy 2010:327).

Dương Thu Hương, the author of Memories of a Pure Spring, was 21 when she began leading a Communist Youth Brigade unit during the American[1] War. She lived in tunnels and underground shelters not far from the North Vietnamese troops located at the war’s frontlines. The theatrical troupe that Hương was a part of was responsible for performing for of troops and other victims in order to boost morale. Ten years later, at the war’s end, only Hương and two others from her troupe had survived (Karolides et al 2005:135; McPerson 2000:339). Despite the loss, or maybe because of it, Hương continued to actively support the Communist Party for quite some time, using her talents as a writer to promote the party in press releases (Kellman 2009). Beginning in the 1980’s, Hương began to question the competency of the Communist Party and her creative work began exposing the party’s weaknesses and failures (Kellman 2009). As a result Hương’s work was, while not officially banned, no longer published by the state-run publishers in Vietnam accessible only on the black market. In 1989 Hương was expelled from the Communist Party and in 1991 she was arrested and imprisoned for seven months. Dương Thu Hương continues to live in Hanoi.

Memories of a Pure Spring

Memories of a Pure Spring is Dương Thu Hương’s third novel translated into English from the original Vietnamese. Set in central Vietnam at the close of the American War, Memories of a Pure Spring tells the story of two artists, a husband and a wife, Hung and Suong respectively. Hung is recognized as the best composer in North Vietnam so his talents are used by the government during the war effort. He is given his own theater troupe for which he creates orchestrations, songs, and dramas to be performed by the talented members. The troupe travels and provides entertainment in order boost the morale of the troops fighting at the front. While traveling, Hung happens upon a young woman singing a beautiful song in the country side. Hung readily invites Suong to be a part of his theatre troupe. Suong joins the troupe and she and Hung immediately fall in love. Hung “creates” Suong into the star of the troupe and a national phenomenon through his creative composing talents utilizing her exceptional vocal talents. After five years of marriage with constant travel and underground living, Hung and Suong anticipate the end of the war which will bring them the stability of a permanent home and the use of a luxurious theatre.

The end of the war certainly brings change, but not the change Hung and Suong anticipated. Despite Hung’s recognized talent, instead of being assigned to the local disappointingly decrepit theatre with Suong, he is assigned a dead-end position in a remote part of the country while a less competent man is given the desired post. This single act of betrayal propels Hung down a path of intellectual, political, and sexual exile (Gordon 2000) resulting in his death, both figuratively and literally. Suong sacrifices as she continues to support her husband financially and emotionally. Eventually, she is humiliated and driven to a suicide attempt when Hung forces her to kiss his degenerate artist friends. Both Hung and Suong are faced with adverse circumstances but react in different ways. Hung is portrayed as a weak individual throughout the book, incapable of overcoming obstacles. Suong is portrayed as the strong partner forced to compensate for Hung as she even survives a suicide attempt.

Memories of a Pure Spring is a “sadly beautiful tale”(Gambone 2000) exploring the effects of exile, sacrifice, and tragedy. When Hung is denied the position he feels he earned, he is faced with intellectual exile. No longer in a position which will utilize his creativity, Hung is not sure what to do with himself. The menial jobs he obtains do not stimulate him. As Hung considers his future he feels useless and void of identity. This intellectual exile leads to Hung wandering by the seashore where he is errantly put on a boat with fleeing boat people. Immediately he is arrested and accused of desertion which leads to expulsion from the Communist Party and political exile. Following prison, Hung is removed as a Party member and, therefore, unemployable at any reputable job. No longer allowed to create for his troupe or to obtain a job due his non-Party member status, Hung joins others who have been exiled. Other artists, also unemployed, give Hung a place to belong even though it is clear they are taking advantage of Hung by expecting him to pay, with money earned by Suong, for food, alcohol, and shelter. These so-called friends provoke Hung to prove his virility by forcing Suong to kiss his friends and participating in extended parties. One party leads Hung to try heroin and, in a heroin induced stupor, prostitution. Both interactions are devastating for Hung. The initial foray into drug use leaves him extremely addicted while the introductory experience with prostitution leaves him with a venereal disease. The disease is untreatable forcing him into sexual and relational exile.

As Hung proceeds through exile – first intellectual exile as he is no longer allowed to create, then political exile with his expulsion from the Party as he is no longer allowed to work, and finally sexual exile as his actions leave him unable to have an intimate relationship with his wife – Suong sacrifices a great deal. As the only spouse with an income, Suong is forced to work long hours to support her family. She entrusts the parenting of her children to her neighbor in order to spend more time working. It can be argued that even Suong’s sexual liaison with the prison guard is a sacrifice of her dreams and memories – dreams and memories that had previously only included Hung as the love of her life. As she reflects on the relationship as it ends, she realizes that she was drawn to the intense love the guard exhibited for her – “he longed for her, adored her, admired her, pitied her” (Huong 2000: 323). Suong also appreciated the guard’s ability to provide a more comfortable life for her through gifts than those of her colleagues. And yet, as she continued to reflect, she remembered the safe, secure happiness she had found in Hung, her first love, when she belonged to him and he to her…inseparable (Huong 2000:324). As Suong begins to prepare for the performance of Hung’s previous work for her, her love is rekindled for Hung. It is during this rekindling that it becomes clear that Suong sacrificed a great deal of personal happiness due to the circumstances she and Hung find themselves in.

As a literary device, tragedy is a series of unfortunate events experienced by one or more of the characters in the book. These misfortunes usually result in a culminating disaster of epic proportions. While the sacrifice of dreams and memories, such as experienced by Hung and Suong, is tragic in almost every situation, tragedy of epic proportions does indeed punctuate this novel. By the close of the book, the tragedy of Hung and Suong’s lives cannot be ignored. Hung has lost his job, his motivation, his ability to work and support his family, the respect of his children, and his health. Suong has experienced hardship and sacrifice leaving her lonely and unloved, singing on a stage loved by millions yet loved by no one. The finality of the closing scene leaves no room for hope for the future – truly a disaster of epic proportions. The ultimate exile, the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate tragedy, death eliminates dreams leaving only memories.

Analysis

The book Memories of a Pure Spring has been banned in Vietnam while at the same time loved by its people as it is accessed through the black market. Through a fictitious tale which resonates with the Vietnamese, this book effectively exposes the fallacy of indoctrinated ideologies such as collectivism over individualism, nationalism, and the legitimization of the government’s authority to rule. The author also uses art to reveal the obligation of artists to become servants of the state which squelches their ability to live authentically.

Duong’s most effective tool is her focus on the fate of individuals. Instead of a story reflecting the overall effectiveness of social ideology, Duong introduces Hung and Suong as real people with real problems. Instead of portraying the American War as triumphant and victorious, Duong exposes loss, suffering, and trauma (Healy 2010:330). Through the author’s storytelling technique, the reader is alternately appalled and saddened by the activities of Hung and Suong. On one hand the reader is disgusted by Hung and his emotional doldrums that impact those closest to him while he seems completely self-absorbed. His refusal to go to his job while expecting Suong to provide for him does not sit well with the reader. Suong is only marginally justified in her suicide attempt and her extra-marital affair. Yet Hung and Suong both have thoughts, and some actions, that are noble and endearing. By identifying with the characters on an emotional level, readers are forced to question the ideologies of the dominant discourse espoused by governmental propaganda.

The Vietnamese government emphasizes collective duty over individual aspirations. This idea was disseminated largely to rally citizens to support the American War effort. As a country divided against itself during the war, the North Vietnam government recognized the need for every individual to contribute. Individual goals, such as a successful privately-owned business, and accomplishments were regarded as selfish and unpatriotic. Yet throughout Memories of a Pure Spring, readers are challenged to consider the truth of that ideology. Hung and Suong must abandon individual dreams such as love, hope for a secure future, and the ability to use exceptional talent. Duong’s focus on the individual tragedy in both Hung and Suong and their descent into despair reveals individual loss instead of collective victory. To the reader, the dreams of Hung and Suong do not seem to be selfish or unpatriotic. In fact, most readers might even identify those same dreams in their own lives. This revelation would cause Vietnamese readers to question their ability to fulfill those dreams under the Communist government.

Throughout the war, North Vietnamese citizens were promised economic and social freedoms upon the successful defeat of the South Vietnamese government. The leaders of North Vietnam desired to reunite the two parts of the country in order to become economically stronger. The inferred result would be a nation of plentiful food and resources. In light of the country’s history, citizens were inundated with the idea of nationalism to “not impair the war effort of the entire nation” (Healy 2010:328). However, Hung and Suong do not find such economic freedom. Despite having sacrificed much during the war effort, Hung does not have the ability to procure gainful employment. The decrepit theatre that Suong is forced to sing in does not coincide with the promises made during the war. The theater troupe, instead of claiming an honored place in society, is marginalized with low pay, insecure jobs, and substandard working conditions. The characters begin to tire of waiting for better realities. All of these subtle realities highlight the inability of the unified national government to deliver the promises made.

Also woven into the story of Hung and Suong are small attacks on the legitimacy of the government’s authority. The initial decision of the post-war government officials to place a less competent man in the position Hung desired spotlights the government’s own incompetency. If officials do not choose Hung, the man most qualified for the position, and bends to cronyism, it might be assumed that other positons within the government could be filled with the same procedure. Once Hung is arrested, no attempt by the government is made to uncover the truth of the unfortunate situation. This revelation of the failure, or even the absence, of the justice system would be condemning for the government. The ensuing depiction of the prison (re-education) system, including Suong’s sexual liaison with the guard later, insinuates deep corruption. These small attacks by the author in a fictional work of art could lead to bigger questions of the government as it handles everyday situations.

The book as fictional art also displays the attack on artists by the government. Both Hung and Suong are talented artists. Hung, through the government’s decisions, is denied the ability to create. Suong, though very talented, is constricted by the state in both form and time. Duong, the author, has also had her works banned. A tragedy of the book is the inability of Hung to fully express his creativity. This inability leads to exile – both physical and emotional – and ultimately death. As Memories of a Pure Spring, itself a piece of art, is banned, the government is leaving Duong unable to fully express her creativity forcing her into exile. The reader, knowing how Duong is being treated in real life, begins to wonder if the Hung’s fate awaits Duong.

Conclusion

Author Duong Thu Huong creates a touching story that cannot be forgotten in Memories of a Pure Spring. The novel, though fictional, draws on the author’s personal experience. The artistic fictional characters manage exile, sacrifice, and tragedy as their story reveals the personal, individual side of the American War on the Vietnamese people long after the day of victory. The author’s use of themes of exile, sacrifice, and tragedy cause the reader to question the Vietnamese government’s ideas of collectivism, nationalism, and their authority to rule. Instead of portraying the American War as triumphant and victorious, Duong exposes loss, suffering, and trauma which would be ideologically opposed to the Vietnamese government’s portrayal. With emotional appeal that invokes the reader’s sympathy for the characters, it is no wonder that the government would not appreciate the portrayal of itself in this book.

 

 

References

Cain, G. 2013. “Kill One to Warn One Hundred: The Politics of Press Censorship in Vietnam.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 19 (1): 85-107. doi:10.1177/1940161213508814.

Dương, Thu Hương. 1993. Paradise of the Blind. New York: Morrow.

Dương, Thu Hương. 2000. Memories of a Pure Spring. New York: Hyperion East.

Emering, Edward J. 1999. Viet Cong: a Photographic Portrait. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub.

Gambone, Philip. 2000. “Memories of Pure Spring.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/01/30/bib/000130.rv135306.html.

Gordon, Jan. 2000. “Memories of a Pure Spring.” Asahi News. Tokyo. http://vny2k.net/vny2k/DuongThuHuong_BookReview0800.htm.

Healy, Dana. 2010. “From Triumph to Tragedy: Visualizing War in Vietnamese Film and Fiction.” South East Asia Research 18 (2): 325-347. doi:10.5367/000000010791513175.

Karolides, Nicholas J., Margaret Bald, Dawn B. Sova, and Nicholas J. Karolides. 2005. 120 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature. New York: Checkmark Books/Facts On File.

McPherson, Nina. 2000. “About the Author.” Essay. In Memories of a Pure Spring. New York: Hyperion East.

“Memories of a Pure Spring – Duong Thu Huong.” 2010. Writer on Writer. October 30. https://writeronwriter.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/memories-of-a-pure-spring-duong-thu-huong/.

S Kellman. 2009. “Analysis.” Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition. enotes.com. http://www.enotes.com/topics/duong-thu-huong/critical-essays.

Truitt, Allison. 2013. Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City. Seattle, Wash. ; London: University of Washington press.

 

[1]  As discussed previously, this war is referred to as the Vietnam War in the US and as the American War in Vietnam. The novel takes place in Vietnam so I chose to identify the war by the name used in the book. In addition, the reader of this paper most likely hails from a country that refers to this war as the Vietnam War. As they read the paper they are forced to cognitively reconcile the name of the war as they know it with the name of the war as the characters know it. The point of the book was to personalize the effects of this war and the choice of name that is used in this paper furthers that end.

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