FICTION: "The Zenith," by Duong Thu Huong

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN THORGEN@STARTRIBUNE.COM
  • Updated: August 11, 2012 - 11:16 AM

A new novel by Vietnam's most acclaimed dissident author casts Ho Chi Minh as a dissident himself, with a secret lover and children.

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The Cholon district of Saigon, Vietnam in May 24-June 1968.

Photo: Eddie Adams, Associated Press

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In 1993, Duong Thu Huong became the first Vietnamese author to publish a novel in English. That work, "Paradise of the Blind," is a masterpiece of lyrical prose that cuts to the bloody bone of life under Communist rule. Its original release in Vietnam made Huong the country's most popular author and a magnet for controversy -- she was expelled from the Communist Party, jailed for her dissident views and saw each of her subsequent novels banned. Huong, now in her 60s, lives in exile in Paris.

To a Communist regime that fears dissension, she is the worst kind of threat. Why? Huong puts a human face on political repression. Her novels burrow deep into the psyche of Vietnam's mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.

"The Zenith" is her fifth novel to be published in English, this time translated by Stephen B. Young and Hoa Pham Young of St. Paul. It's a fascinating departure. She now turns her penetrating gaze toward the highest, most venerated seat of power in Communist Vietnam: the revolution's architect and saint, Ho Chi Minh.

Uncle Ho, as he's called, was one of the 20th century's towering figures of Communist thought. According to party officials, all that is to be said about Ho has been said.

Huong says otherwise. The author claims that 15 years of research led her to publishing "The Zenith." In Vietnamese history books, Ho is often cast as a celibate revolutionary who was married to the cause. The central drama of "The Zenith" is this stunning revelation: In the 1950s, Ho fell in love with a woman 40 years his junior and planned to go public with the relationship. That was not to be. Ho's comrades feared the news would shatter the saintly myth they'd built around their leader, so they raped and murdered his lover.

Basing a novel around this startling discovery either makes Huong a master detective or the gutsiest of fiction writers (the term "artistic license" is too tame here).

The novel places Ho in the final year of his life. It is 1969 and he is a sickly figurehead stripped of any real power and sequestered in a mountain temple. Ho is haunted by memories he'd rather forget: His lover bore two children before her execution. To ensure their safety, Ho's closest ally placed the babies in adoptive homes hidden from the regime. Imprisoned by regret, Ho yearns for his lost children. "This is his hell," Huong writes.

The 509-page epic bounces easily between time periods, from the beginning of Ho's love affair to its reckoning. Huong imagines the president engaged in entire conversations with himself. Biographer William Duiker once called Ho "half Lenin and half Gandhi." In Huong's novel, Ho often wonders aloud, examining his personal and political mistakes. "Memory," he thinks to himself, "is the one who builds you a permanent court of justice."

The zenith of Ho's revolutionary powers ended long before his death. In Huong's story, his party comrades proved more cunning, siphoning his leadership away and corrupting his vision. The regime grew more repressive and the American War, as the Vietnamese call it, brought further cataclysm. Ho was no longer the father of the revolution, and surely was no father to his two children. In "The Zenith," these orphans are one and the same. That, it seems, is the novel's truth.

Tom Horgen is a Star Tribune features writer.

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  • THE ZENITH by Duong Thu Huong

  • THE ZENITH

    By: Duong Thu Huong, translated by Stephen B. Young and Hoa Pham Young.

    Publisher: Viking, 509 pages, $32.95.

    Review: One of Vietnam's most popular writers delivers a sprawling, fictional account of a dark passage in the history of Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.

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