Group Read, October 2014: Paradise of the Blind

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Group Read, October 2014: Paradise of the Blind

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1puckers
Set 30, 2014, 7:25pm

Our October read is Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong. Looks like a short read, but will it be easy?

2japaul22
Out 1, 2014, 8:38pm

I have this checked out from the library, but I want to finish another list book (Compassion by Galdos) first. I should be starting in a few days, though. Looking forward to it!

3M1nks
Editado: Out 2, 2014, 4:47am

I’ll kick this off as I ‘accidently’ read it a few days ago. It is short, and, although it has a ‘serious’ topic to cover I didn’t find it packed an emotional punch.

I’ve been considering why it was and I’ve come up with these:

1. The structure of the novel jumped around a lot. There were a lot of flashbacks and the focus of the novel shifted through generations so I found it hard to latch on one person and gain an empathetic connection.
2. The suffering of the novel was actually rather short. The years of communists screaming at the ‘landlords’ seemed to be over almost as soon as it had begun so the dramatic suffering of the characters was low.
3. Even taking that into account though, compared to Wild Swans, the communists of this country were yellow fluffy ducklings. They followed in Mao’s footsteps and, here at least, seemed to quite quickly figure out that Mao was drunk and blind and that cliff was steep and nasty looking.
4. With that in mind the suffering of most of the people in the book seemed to be self-inflicted. They weren’t a close knit, loving family being torn apart by the horrors of the world. They mostly stabbed themselves in the stomach and didn’t bother to patch up the wounds. Frustration lessens my pity every time.
5. They weren’t too badly off mostly. Nobody really starved to death. Often they were quite comfortable, even rich.

My overall impression after reading it was that it was a rather immature work. It was enjoyable enough but it lacked depth which was a problem considering it’s subject matter. It may possibly have been the translator or maybe I just read it too fast. Either way I wasn’t surprised at the age of the writer when I looked it up on the Wiki afterwards.

4annamorphic
Out 2, 2014, 10:34am

Alright, as of today I shall put aside The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and turn to this. I could use an easy read; The Devil is great but very dense somehow.

5annamorphic
Editado: Out 3, 2014, 9:32pm

Read first 50 pages and am distinctly underwhelmed. This feels like a book that became famous as a voice from a historically infamous situation rather than for literary merit. It reminds me in that regard of the several Chinese novels I read on the 1001 list that depicted aspects of the problems and failures of communism, like Leaden Wings and Half of Man is Woman.
I think it must be hard to depict dedicated communist believers in a subtle way because what they believe is so unsubtle. But that clearly makes it hard to write a good novel. Also, I think that neither China nor Vietnam has a strong tradition of the novel, so unlike in Russia the author could not draw on that.

6puckers
Out 3, 2014, 4:55pm

I'm about 70 pages in and agree with the comments so far. The story darts about so much that you can't really get involved.

The author herself seems to get confused about where she is in your reminiscences; there is one story about a trip to the river that starts off "One winter morning.. I woke up to a cold spell that could have frozen the earth. The water in the basin had to be stirred with a knife" and then seems to move in to summer "the trees drooped low in the heat, daisies peeped over long grasses....tirelessly we chased after dragonflies" and it concludes in autumn "I stood in the courtyard still swirling with dead leaves"!

On the positive side I'm looking forward to finding out about the enforced labour export to Russia, which I know nothing about.

7M1nks
Out 3, 2014, 6:34pm

Temper your expectations or you may might yourself somewhat disappointed...

8Simone2
Out 4, 2014, 3:01am

Actually, my expextations are rather low after reading the above. I'll join you after finishing As a Man Grows Older, which I just started.

9japaul22
Out 4, 2014, 7:55am

I've lowered my expectations quite a bit! I'm still hoping to at least learn something of life in a country and during a time that I know little about. We'll see!

10M1nks
Out 4, 2014, 3:10pm

I think you'll get that. There were some really good descriptive passages of traditional foods and and some details about feasts and celebrations as well as funerals and a bit of general day to day life.

11M1nks
Out 4, 2014, 3:14pm

For those who have read it I am wondering what you thought of - possible very very slight spoiler

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The use of the 'clever student type' at the end to wrap things up neatly and to explain where the revolution went wrong.

12Settings
Out 4, 2014, 11:20pm

I'm around half way through with it. While I do think it's a good book, I don't feel like shouting its praises. So that means I'm doing little to change this thread's overall opinion of it.

I disagree completely that the flashbacks and shifting focus effect the novel negatively, and I disagree completely that it lacks depth. (So far.) Those are personal reflections though.

13Deern
Out 6, 2014, 11:31am

I started this morning. It seems to be quite a quick read, those first 10% felt like nothing. And there's something in the writing or maybe in the translation that so far makes me keep my distance. If this were Western literature, the events on the first 30 pages would certainly have been (over-)dramatized in a way that would make me feel involved, sadden me, let me suffer with the people in the village. But here just something happens, brother/uncle behaves strangely out of the blue and people adapt, accept and obey without the slightest resistance and you watch and wonder why.
I am not yet thinking that this is a flaw, it is just different. So far I prefer it to over-dramatization, but I still have a long way to read and so far the heroine isn't even born yet. So maybe it all changes when she tells things from her own POV.

14puckers
Out 6, 2014, 6:02pm

Finished the book today. The book got more focussed as it progressed, with sacrifice to family ties the major theme. The narrator continued to lavish more affection in her descriptions of food than on her family, and as M1nks suggested I learnt nothing about the export of labour from Vietnam to Russia.

Overall not a bad or difficult book, but not much to get enthusiastic about.

15M1nks
Out 7, 2014, 5:45am

I agree that the focus of the novel did sharpen towards the end, it just wasn’t what I was expecting it to narrow down to. I think my expectations were of a novel on a similar premise to Wild Swans even if it didn’t match it in length and scope. Puckers review crystallised what I was thinking – I was expecting some sort of background to the events that happened and there was nothing. Suddenly there was a revolution but there weren’t even hints as to what caused it, at least none that I picked up, but I did read it quickly. Where was the burning rage, the injustices, the suffering which led to such political upheaval? Without even realising it I think that threw me off and the generational shifting did the rest. I was expecting what I didn’t get.

What it was was a family novel in an exotic setting. The concern of the two older women for the men of their family probably has religious overtones, the Buddhist teachings of the importance of men to carry down the lineage? Anyway I liked the novel but I didn’t think it extraordinary; certainly not enough to been included in such a prestigious list :-) Maybe it was included because it was notorious in its country rather than on its own literary merit?

16Settings
Out 7, 2014, 9:52pm

I'm a bit farther in it, and I'll probably give it five stars. I like the way the themes/motifs and many symbols are interconnected. For example, the Uncle's diabetes brings a major theme of self-sacrifice for family to the forefront as well connecting back to food. This works very well in English, and I assume it would work even better if I understood the entire nuance of what the symbols mean in Vietnamese. That's high-school essayish though.

I don't think the author is bowdlerizing her character's experiences, so I can't criticize the novel for being about a family rather than a nation.

17Deern
Out 8, 2014, 2:03am

I finished it and I am undecided. As a normal novel, I didn't find it special. It had some bits of beautiful writing, it also had some structural flaws and as M1nks said in #3, the suffering seemed mostly self-inflicted - to the Western eye which is used to things being spelled out. I admit I didn't feel much sympathy for the characters either. But knowing that the author was imprisoned for criticizing the government, that she couldn't leave the country until 2007 and that her books are still banned at home makes a difference.

There was certainly a limit to what could be written and published at all and maybe this was already the absolute maximum of criticism possible and it had to be hidden in that family story that makes us all wonder how the mother could sacrifice so much for the brother who only brought misery into the family. All that rich traditional food must also have an extra symbolic meaning.

18Simone2
Out 8, 2014, 2:42pm

After the reviews, I thought the book would disappoint me but it didn't. Not at all. It clearly was not written for people all over the world, but how bad is that? I have read it as a story about Vietnam for the Vietnamese. I agree with Deern that Duong Thu Huong has probably uttered the maximum allowable amount of criticism on communism The detailed descriptions of the food, the village of the aunt and the life in the city, I thought beautiful; they show the timelessness of the country and the way people live there - by the way exactly as I remember it after a trip to Vietnam in 1994. I think it is the story of a country and its people that has always managed to remain authentic, despite the influences of other countries.

19annamorphic
Out 10, 2014, 8:15am

Finished this last night. It did improve as it went along but somehow failed to hit the mark for me. I agree with Minks at #11 about the handy clever student type who voices lots of opinions we should agree with near the end -- that's a problem I've noticed in several 1001 novels whose authors couldn't reconcile the more personal trajectory of their novel with the political message they wanted to convey.
Anyway, my take-away on this one is that revenge and self-sacrifice are both poor ways to run your life.

20japaul22
Out 10, 2014, 3:47pm

I ended up in the group that liked this. I was expecting it to be more political, but ended up liking the way it focused on foods and rituals instead. The politics were obviously still there, but they weren't as prevalent as other similar books that I've read. I thought the writing skill was a bit weak, but it's always hard when reading a translation to know whether some of that would be different if I was reading in the original language. Anyway, I'm glad I read it.

21amerynth
Out 16, 2014, 8:09am

I finished the book this morning. I liked but didn't love it.

Like others, I found the book lacked an essential emotional core, but perhaps that was part of the point. To live under the circumstances described, you may have to stuff your emotions away in order to just survive.

What I liked about the book was the insight into the Communist regime in Vietnam.... it certainly felt like a realistic portrayal.

22soffitta1
Out 24, 2014, 2:04pm

I started reading the comments before I finished the book, and recognised many of my own feelings towards it. I didn't connect with the characters, I don't mean I disliked it or thought the characters were bad, just that at times passion was missing in the character. They seemed downtrodden, with their lives very much dictated by outside forces. There were glimpses of more, but the author didn't always expand on it, leaving a sort of unsatisfied feeling. I can see how this was such a polemic and important novel historically, so I am glad to have expanded my reading, but I think I'll need to read it again to really draw it out.

23sjmccreary
Dez 11, 2014, 3:23pm

I finally got this book read - quite late for the group read. I don't know that I have anything to add to the comments already made. I was hoping for more about the larger society, but I'm happy to accept it as a story about one family. I thought it still offers interesting insights. The prevalence of self-sacrifice in the older women was disturbing to me. The aunt was a single woman, so using her wealth to help the extended family seemed less questionable than the mother denying her own daughter food and suitable shelter just to provide for her nephews. I got the subsequent diabetes diagnosis - as an unintended consequence of that generosity, and resulting in still further sacrifices. As much as I found him repugnant, I would have liked to know more about the uncle.

Not the best book ever read, but definitely worth the effort.