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Memories of a Pure Spring
Duong Thu Huong
Nina McPherson
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INTRODUCTION

"Humanity has been through Communism. May the gods spare us from falling prey to yet another illusion." (Memories of a Pure Spring)

Youthful ideals can provide guidance, inspiration, and resilience, but once betrayed or corrupted they linger as bitter reminders of past glories and present failures. In Duong thu Huong's novel, during Vietnam's "American war," a well-known composer named Hung leads a performing troupe through jungles bloodied by war. The troupe's mission is one of artistic inspiration: to revive the revolutionary fire in the soldiers' flagging spirits—to inspire with art. Not actually raising any weapons or contributing directly to the fratricidal carnage of the war, the performing troupe by its very nature is an embodiment of high-minded ideals and a reminder of the war's purpose. The performers' song is an uplifting response to the eternal question: Why are we fighting?

While thus employed in a war-torn Vietnam, Hung meets a beautiful young peasant girl with an exquisite voice, Suong, who incites his passion and becomes both his wife and the star of the troupe. As the long years of the war draw to a close on April 29th, 1975, when the last Americans leave Saigon, we find Hung and Suong in love and ennobled by their struggles, both famous for their talents and both full of promise.

However, as the postwar regime consolidates its power, cynical compromises and petty acts of revenge proliferate the political landscape. The noble ideals of the war have vanished all too quickly, persisting only in memories that harshly illuminate the current state of affairs. And it is, now, in their nation's victorious mundaneness that Hung and Suong must suffer—and they do suffer.

In a Vietnam richly brought to life with its flowers and fruits, cafés and teahouses, pho and chè, Duong Thu Huong uses dramatic external events—imprisonment, suicide attempts, love affairs, blackmail, opium addiction—to set the stage for the sensitive ruminations that form the lyrical core of Memories of a Pure Spring. Through the many artists that populate the book she explores artistic creation—its fragile preconditions, its awesome powers, and its frightening demands—as well as its soul-numbing substitutes. Through the book's central lovers she charts the Janus face of a love that is simultaneously ephemeral and eternal. Through the many deprivations and compulsions that shape her characters' lives she ponders sexual desire with its blinding drives and seductive pleasures. Through filial and familial relationships she investigates both the tender empowerment and the oppressive rigidity of family. Through the apparatchiks and officers of the Communist Party she illustrates the ignorant cruelty of the doctrinaire and the petty parochialism of the self-serving.

Throughout the novel, the memories of the past serve as the characters' touchstone as they attempt to navigate safely the shoals of success and flattery, chaos and desolation, love and desire, disillusionment and despair. Reading Memories of a Pure Spring forces unanswerable questions upon the reader: Is memory enriching or poisonous? A "pure spring" inspiration or an albatross?

 

ABOUT DUONG THU HUONG

Duong Thu Huong, one of Vietnam's most popular writers, was born in 1947 and raised in a loyal Communist household. In 1967 she—like Hung, the protagonist of Memories of a Pure Spring—volunteered to lead the Communist Youth Brigade, a troupe of singers and actors who traveled the country entertaining North Vietnamese troops at the front in jungle camps. She experienced first-hand the horrors of war: out of the volunteer group of forty, she was one of only three survivors. During China's 1979 attack on Vietnam, she became the first woman combatant present at the front to chronicle the conflict.

After the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, a journey to Saigon brought her face to face with the distortions of Communist propaganda: rather than the official North Vietnamese image of a Saigon oppressed and crying out for liberation, she found instead an affluent city full of laughing citizens and well-stocked bookshops. Thus began her disappointment in and reappraisal of Communist ideals as well as her long and vocal advocacy for human rights and democratic political reform. Though she had won several state prizes for her screenwriting work with the Vietnam Film Co., Duong Thu Huong lost her job there for speaking out against censorship. Undaunted, she continued to critique the social injustices of postwar Vietnam and began to write the novels for which she is justly famous both abroad and at home including Paradise of the Blind, which was the first Vietnamese novel ever translated from Vietnamese into English and published in the United States and shortlisted for the Prix Femina; and Novel Without a Name, which was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She was expelled from the Communist Party in 1989, imprisoned for seven months without trial in 1991 for sending the manuscript of Novel Without a Name abroad, and had her passport revoked by the government in 1995. All of her writings are effectively banned in Vietnam, where she continues to reside.

Penguin wishes to thank and credit the following article for information on the life of Duong Thu Huong: David Liebhold, "Lives Reshaped by History," TIME Asia. April 17th, 2000, Vol. 155 No. 15.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. The structure of Memories of a Pure Spring is marked by constant chronological shifts and frequent extracts from the internal musings of the characters? How does the author use the theme of memory as a structuring device? Is it effective?


  2. In a moment of remembrance, Lam recalls the legends that explicitly note the ylang-ylang tree as a representative of the dark side of sexual desire:

      "Why do those ylang-ylang blossoms in the garden frighten me? My father used to tell me that white ylang-ylang should only be planted in the pagodas, mausoleums, or altars—places protected by the spirits of pure men, masters of their fate, free of the mud of the world. He who is tempted by flesh is still chained to the infernal cycle of ambition, anger, passion. If you cultivate white ylang-ylang, you attract demons and create your own downfall."

    Ylang-ylang and its seductive scent course through the novel (making a dramatic and meaningful backdrop to the last scene). What attitude toward sexual desire does the frequent recurrence of the ylang-ylang make manifest? What other figures and episodes in the novel serve as tropes for the menacing nature of sexual desire?


  3. The purpose of art, the figure of the artist, and the struggle of artistic creation are all shown from many different points of view:

      Suong herself as the diva of central Vietnam and "the nightingale with the crystal voice,"

      the dissipation of Hung's debauched artistic friends,

      the viciousness of Doan's sham superiority,

      the inspirational role of the revolutionary troupe during the war,

      Hung's bitter struggle with his lack of inspiration, and

      Dam's impassioned advocacy for Hung's music as the only true expression of central Vietnam's character.

    In the last analysis, what is the novel's "verdict" on these matters?


  4. "People often enter history intelligently and leave it like idiots." With such observations, Hung, in his reminiscences and reveries, often contrasts the high-mindedness and sacrifice of the war years with the servility and mean-heartedness that reigned after the war. What other means does the author use to illustrate the same point?


  5. Compare Vinh's father's severe reaction when he sees the young Vinh looking at the fishmonger girl with teenage Vinh's own implacable hatred of Hung for the sexual incident between Suong and his artist friends.


  6. How does the conflict between illusion, melancholy, and sham, on the one hand, and "true art" on the other play itself out? Are these two poles presented as antagonistic opposites or as mutually dependent? Where does Hung fall in relation to this divide? Are his ruminations on Schubert instructive on this point or do they merely serve as foreshadowing?


  7. Vengeance and struggle are constant themes, for example in Vinh's fulminations against Hung as well as the deputy chief's settling of scores after the war. Does the author intend this specifically as a comment on life under a Communist regime or as a mark of human nature in general? How so?


  8. While Lam is at heart a rustic, happy to be a porter in the countryside, Dam represents the urban sophistication of Hanoi. Discuss the parallelism and similarity of their respective roles that is hinted at by their similar names.


  9. Hung brashly and forthrightly sums up his view of the place of the individual and the artist in Communist society with the passage:

    "You can only create art when you live with dignity, in a free society. Even a slave knows how to put pen to paper, or mix colors on a palette. But a cowardly, servile, hypocritical soul can never create art."

    Compare this with Doan's rebellious "yin theory of art" and his relation to the Communist authorities.

  10. Vinh longs for the countryside. Hung waxes nostalgic for the war years. Suong feels bereft and rudderless without the love and respect she used to have for Hung. Many think back to the promise of "life in the new lights." Do these "lost objects" represent the "pure spring" of the title? What are the negative examples of purity used in the novel and how do these relate to memory's darker role? What are some of the novel's negative examples of memory? How do these relate to the occurrences of the insistent refrain, "Forget, forget, forget"?


  11. At one point Dam says to Suong, "Your voice is your only weapon," yet her voice is always referred to as a "crystal voice" with unifying powers—a voice with which the many different people of central Vietnam can relate, whether they be peasants, prison guards, or intellectuals. Discuss how Suong herself views her own voice and the uses to which she puts it.


  12. Why and how does the seeming resolution of Hung's and Suong's difficulties lead to the book's dramatic last scene? Is this conclusion inevitable? Is it an act of passion? Discuss the possibility, or the lack thereof, of redemption in the novel.