[14 January 2014]
In Duong Thu Huong’s monumental historical novel, The Zenith, character Hoang An muses that “the profession of writing history is the profession of heroes, daring to exchange their own lives for truth.” It is precisely this courage that Huong has exhibited in re-imagining with such candor Vietnam and its political leaders throughout the revolutionary period.
The novel centers on President Ho Chi Minh, whose reflections as he sees out his last days imprisoned on an isolated mountainside provide the primary frame for the book’s many component narratives. This choice of vantage points is perhaps Huong’s boldest move, as it deflates the mythology of Ho Chi Minh as a hero. Huong’s Ho Chi Minh has only nominal control over the impact of communism on men and women at all levels of the political system, even at the zenith of his power.
Readers should know that The Zenith is an ambitious undertaking, though not without reward. The structure of the novel is intricate, and its content dense: it is an at-times impenetrable labyrinth, punctuated by gleaming poetic passages as sensuous as they are bleak. Each of the novel’s 511 pages seems saturated with cryptic depth, demanding your careful attention if you are to unpack the layers of meaning hidden in every scene. Significant sections of the book feel like folktales, with dialogue consisting of idioms and aphorisms, characters that blend into one another, and less-than-straightforward chronology.
What’s more, Huong weaves together multiple points of view without consistently clarifying any given character’s place in the full tapestry of the book. Transitions often happen tangentially, potentially disorienting readers as the story shifts between threads. This technique is indeed challenging, and Huong’s intent is not always clear, but the further you read, the clearer it will become that no digression is without purpose. In fact, the process of gradually realizing how the characters and events of a particular detour have affected or otherwise connect to the President’s life can be deeply satisfying. Huong’s cascade of fables and vignettes may feel like a burbling brook without direction, but in retrospect it becomes clear that each bend and tributary enriches the bigger picture.
The Zenith tests not only readers’ intellectual stamina, but their emotional tenacity. The strain it puts on readers’ empathic capacity is, however, a necessary side effect of the book’s most important function: breaking down the well-preserved façade of Vietnamese communism by giving human faces to its beneficiaries and its victims alike. So often, history is told in the abstract, or through myths and propaganda acutely disconnected from day to day reality. Historical fiction ostensibly aims to remedy that, by connecting readers with the experience of certain historical circumstances on a personal level – but even then, it sometimes fails to unearth the truth beyond archetypes.
Here, though, Duong Thu Huong has excelled: though she admits to some use of poetic license, her descriptions of the Vietnamese experience are well-researched and penetrating. The aforementioned Hoang An swears to himself, “Thus I must become a historian. Not one who writes about the nation’s history, but one who will record the lives of my loved ones,” and this attitude shapes Huong’s treatment of her characters. She conveys the reality of the time period by connecting readers to individuals, painting a series of portraits that are diverse, viscerally compelling, and, most importantly, unflinching.
As in her previous novels, Huong directs much vitriol at the Communist party, which she sees as teeming with corruption and hypocrisy. It is a motif throughout the book for characters to have epiphanies about the ways in which the party’s concrete practices deviate from its stated ideals, and the resulting unequal distribution of power, poverty, and the burden of revolution. Readers stand witness to both the visceral guilt of cadres within the power structure, and the suffering that “patriotic sacrifice” imposes on the common people, both of which hit individual characters hard. These narratives are harrowing, and that is why they are so effective: you cannot distance yourself from these characters’ pain as you might in the context of a more scholarly account.
To counterbalance the gravity of the plot, Huong offers an immersive experience of Vietnam that distinctly avoids cultural caricatures. As per her usual style, Huong draws readers deep into the heart of Vietnamese life with lyrical, vivid prose. She lends color and life to landscapes, meals, and clothing with painstaking detail, blending the material with the emotional through her evocative descriptions. It is this grace with words that makes The Zenith bearable even as the work marches across dark and confusing territory.
Huong is adroit at sentence-by-sentence craftsmanship, a skill that complements her drive to capture individual characters in a way that resonates with readers. This pairing makes The Zenith true historical literature: not history without the dates, not a romanticized depiction of historical figures, but an intricate, multi-layered story that pushes readers to take on new ways of looking at the past.