The first time the heroine in Duong Thu Huong's latest novel, Memories of a Pure Spring, betrays her husband, her main sensation is the coldness on her back of the rose petals her lover has spread on the bedsheets. Later, after one of the characters grazes his hand as he ties a noose to a tree, he goes back into the house to dress the wound with iodine before coming out and hanging himself. This is exquisite writing that constantly hovers on the border of pain, with a dark irony that threatens to weep.
Vietnam's history since the end of the war a quarter of a century ago has been one long succession of disappointed dreams and barely concealed tears. Duong Thu Huong has become the most poignant chronicler of the country's disillusionment. Her Paradise of the Blind tells of a corrupt party official wrecking the life of his young niece with his own petty concerns. Novel Without a Name is a riveting account of the war and its numbing effects on ordinary people, who were far less enthused about the great patriotic struggle than official propaganda suggested. Novel landed Huong in jail for seven months in 1991, and since then she has been unable to publish her books in Vietnam, although she continues to live and write in Hanoi.
Now comes Memories of a Pure Spring (Picador; 340 pages), whose characters seek what people everywhere long for: beauty, love, some meaning in their everyday lives. But in Huong's Vietnam the rewards are too often laced with bitterness. Hung, the main character, like Huong herself in real life, was the head of a wartime musical troupe, sent to the front to entertain the soldiers. After the war he falls afoul of the authorities and is unable to have his music performed. His marriage to the beautiful singer Suong starts to unravel. The frustrated artist in him reacts angrily to his fate. But his bid for freedom only leads to opium addiction and prostitutes with venereal disease, mirroring the self-destruction of a nation.
This latest work does not have the impact of Novel Without a Name. While that book was held together by the horror of war, Memories of a Pure Spring is more diffuse, chronicling the fragmented lives of a family drifting through a Vietnam run by soulless ideologues. Still, Huong writes beautifully, seeking in the depths of memory the artistic vision reflected in the book's poetic title. When Hung is sent to a prison camp, his wife travels deep into the mountains to find him starving and beaten by the guards. She reclaims him by sing-ing for the prisoners-even as Huong herself persists in writ-ing for a people still far from free.