The return of the lost-lost and presumed dead soldier to his family, which has moved on to a new phase in their lives has been a staple of word literature since at least the times of the ancient Greeks. In Duong Thu Huong's latest novel, however, particularly when the story is told through the hallucinatory viewpoint of Bon, the returned soldier, it seems less of courtroom drama or a love triangle like "The Return of Martin Guerre" and more of a feverish indictment of a society in general.
Mien lives a quiet and comfortable life with her small son and her second life in a provincial town in the Vietnamese countryside; she has virtually forgotten her first husband, whom she married impulsively out of love as a teenager, but who left her soon afterwards to become a soldier in the Viet Cong Army. When her first husband suddenly appears years later to claim her, traditional custom, the expectations of her neighbors, and the insistence of the Communist village officials dictate that she must leave her happy life and move back with a virtual stranger to a squalid hut on the outskirts of the town.
I had a hard time getting into this novel. The prose, which seems to be well-translated byNina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong, is lush to almost to the point of over-ripeness. The beginning is especially abrupt, even chaotic; during the course of the book, people behave in a manner that perhaps through cultural conditioning makes sense to their way of thinking but to a Western viewpoint sometimes seem inexplicable, almost arbitrary. Throughout the novel outside forces, in the guise of the Communist party and the clucking of the other villagers, pressure all three main characters--Mien, Bon, and her second husband, Hoan, into decisions that they don't really want to make. It reminded me, as if I all ready didn't know after living in a tiny English village (where people counted your wine bottles at the recycling center) and a military base overseas that a cozy community can be suffocating as well as supportive.
After about a quarter of the way through the book, I stopped struggling with the writing style and the heavy symbolism of the flowers, jungle vines, and other flora--and started enjoying the novel. Duong Thu Huong is equally sympathetic to all three of the narrators, and balances out their viewpoints equally. I especially enjoyed the half-crazed (and then more and more crazy) narration of the hapless Bon; the horrific flashback with the his sergeant's body is one I won't forget; it's the sort of writing that puts Ms. Holthe's faux realism in "When the Elephants Dance" to shame. A story like this can't end happily, of course, and the reason for Bon's fate is left a bit ambiguous; was it Agent Orange that was the root of all his problems, or was it something else? Bon is sacrificed, yet another victim of the war, but there's a gentler end for the other two characters, which is a change, I understand, from a usually acerbic author.
Once again, as I have all ready had to do so often with this 52-country challenge, I've had to try to put aside the baggage of authorial martyrdom (jail-time, persecution, and in the case of Noli Me Tangere's Jose Rizal, actual physical martyrdom) and tried to concentrate on the novel at hand. Ironically, after deciding not to read "THe Sorrows of War" as it dealt with the fragmented hallucinations of a Viet Cong soldier, I ended up reading...the fragmented hallucinations of a Viet Cong soldier. And liked it best of all of the aspects of the book.