FOR many Americans, Vietnam and the war they fought there are one and the same. Almost 20 years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam remains the quintessential male obsession - the land of Rambo, the Green Berets, the last great proving ground of American manhood.
Yet the first contemporary Vietnamese novel translated and sold in the United States, "Paradise of the Blind," is entirely a woman's book, written by human rights activist Duong Thu Huong, a woman. The three major characters are Hang, a frail former university student, her mother, and Aunt Tam. The male characters are shadowy, distant, almost nonexistent.
The structure of the novel is modern. And so is the psychology of its principal characters - northerners who have lived under communism far longer than people in southern Vietnam have. "We live in a materialist age. No one cares about all this ancestor worship. After death, there's nothing," explains Hang's uncle. Yet the themes are classically Vietnamese: fate; the suffering and sacrifice of women, often on behalf of unworthy men; love between parent and child; exile from the village and return.
Hang's initial misfortune is the worst calamity that can befall a girl in a patriarchal society - abandonment by her father, a tragedy brought about not by war but by Marxist land reform. Her Uncle Chinh, a zealous Communist Party cadre, returns from the war to discover that his only sister has married Ton, a landlord's son. Chinh hounds Ton, Hang's father, from the village and humiliates Ton's sister. Tougher than her brother, Aunt Tam endures and rebuilds her family's fortune. Hang's mother flees with Aunt Tam to Hanoi, where she prospers as a street vendor.
Without sons, the usual focus for Asian women's ambitions, the childless Aunt Tam and Hang's mother turn all their fierce energies on Hang. The vehicle of their affections is food; the banquets, suppers, snacks, and offerings are so frequently and lovingly detailed that the editors have provided a glossary of such unfamiliar items as fragrant herbs and fermented fish sauce.
Chinh also goes to Hanoi, where his salary is insufficient to feed his family. Hang's mother turns from feeding Hang to feeding Chinh and his sons.
But disaster intervenes again. Hang's mother loses a leg in a car accident, and Hang drops out of college to go to Russia as a "guest worker" to support her. Although her exile leads her to self-awareness, Hang can't break free of a traditional woman's role. Like her country, she's neither traditional nor modern, but caught in a grim limbo in between.
Although the plot sounds unrelentingly tragic, the novel's tone is sweet, nostalgic, and often funny - with touches of mordant peasant humor. The squalor of poverty is balanced by the overwhelming beauty of the land: crumbling villages in seas of lush paddy fields, great looping rivers, jungle-covered mountains. Both land and people endure.