Duong Thu Huong’s epic novel is a heartbreaking exploration of the heights and depths of the human soul as expressed through the tumultuous political history of Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. Following three separate but related narrative streams, Duong offers a penetrating insight into the personal and moral struggles of both the leaders and common citizens of a country embroiled in war.
The first narrative concentrates on the aging President Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Vietnamese Nationalist Movement and considered the venerated father of modern Vietnam. The president is living the final period of his life as a virtual prisoner at a Buddhist monastery overlooking a small rural village, having been banished by his political subordinates, ostensibly to protect his failing health. Watched over day and night by doctors and guards, he has nothing but the excruciating memories of a revolutionary betrayed by his own comrades. The President wrestles with the ghosts of his past, including his young beautiful wife, assassinated by party members, and the son he will never know. The leader’s only remaining ally and friend is Vu, a political official also devastated by the failure of the ideals of the Revolution.
In the Woodcutters’ hamlet below the president’s confinement quarters, readers are introduced to a concurrent story that concerns the events leading up to the death of a village elder. Mr. Quang, the wealthiest and most generous village resident, has been killed by Quy, his eldest son. After the death of his first wife, Mr. Quang brings home a beautiful and very young bride who threatens Quy’s dreams of inheritance. Again we witness the inevitable betrayal brought about by a human heart poisoned by greed, thirst for power and fear. The president himself takes great interest in the story of the Woodcutter, even descending from the mountaintop to visit the family during the funeral. Although the national leader and the village elder reacted differently to their circumstances, their fates run a parallel course.
Finally, readers are introduced to Huong An, a commander in the War Against the Americans and the president’s brotherinlaw. Although they never meet, An and the president are linked by the murder of Xuan, the president’s wife. An’s story is also one of profound loss as the true motives of the Party become apparent.
Officially considered a “dissident writer” in her homeland, Duong takes a great risk in this novel by exposing the hypocrisy and failure of the initial motivations behind the Communist revolution in Vietnam. She asks her readers to reconsider the fateful events of history, recognizing the human error and confusion that lead to tragedy on both a grand and small scale. The Zenith is a frighteningly honest portrait of the human struggle to manifest lofty ideals, and the shadows of greed and lust for power that so often destroy them.
Duong Thu Huong, author of Paradise of the Blind and Novel Without a Name (both from Penguin) is an advocate of human rights and democratic political reform, and was expelled from the Communist Party and imprisoned without trial in 1991. The Vietnamese government has effectively banned all of her novels. She now lives in Paris.
- A “zenith” is defined as “the point in the sky or celestial sphere directly above an observer; the time at which something is most powerful or successful.” Why would Duong Thu Huong choose this title? In what ways does the title illuminate some of the novel’s key themes?
- What personal characteristics of President Ho Chi Minh contributed to his rise to such an elevated political position? In what ways are these character traits also responsible for his downfall? Does he have a fatal flaw?
- The novel centers thematically on the uses and abuses of power. Which characters show the most destructive uses of power, both in the resistance movement and in the lives of the villagers of the Woodcutters’ Hamlet? Do any of the characters display power constructively?
- How does Huong use descriptions of the natural world to reflect the inner mental/ emotional states of the characters?
- How are women portrayed in the novel? How are women viewed within the Vietnamese culture of this time period? What differences and similarities exist between Ms. Xuan, Van, Ms. Viu, Miss Ngan and the women of Quy’s family?
- Historically, tradition plays a major role in Vietnamese political and social life. How does tradition enrich the characters’ lives? In what ways is it limiting or even destructive?
- Le Phuong says, “A revolution is like a pregnancy, and the baby who comes into the worldeven if not a monsterwill be totally different from the dream or imagination of those who created it” [p.316]. How do the president, Vu, and other party members view the results of their efforts within the Nationalist Movement? How does this statement play out in the various parentchild relationships throughout the novel?
- How do the narrative arcs of the President and Vu, Mr. Quang, and Comrade An work together? Does the structure of the novel create suspense?
- Do any of the characters make peace with their perceived failures, losses and the disappointments of life? Is there any sense of redemption?
- At the end of the novel, just before his death, the President imagines the personal and political outcome of reacting differently to Ms. Xuan’s assassination. Why did he fail to respond to the betrayal of his subordinates? Do you think he could or should have reacted in a different way?
- How has your view of the Vietnam War changed after reading the novel?