Scenes from the last months in the life of Ho Chi Minh, as imagined by Vietnamese novelist Huong (Paradise of the Blind, 1993, etc.).
In the mountain fastness of northern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is cold—and who would have thought that the jungly mountains of that country could possibly be “frigid and foggy”? He is there, and not in Hanoi, because a very subtle coup d’état has taken place even as Ho’s People’s Republic is struggling in its bloody war against the Americans (“Did you not see what happened when Thang’s soldiers ran into the minefield?” asks one combat veteran of another. “Eighteen guys altogether and yet it took the vultures only two days to clean them out.”) Much of Huong’s story centers on Ho, who, though embittered at the turn of events, is also quietly grateful for the chance to read, meditate and get away from it all; other episodes shift to members of Ho’s family, the soldiers surrounding him, their families and, by extension, just about everyone who ever called Ho Chi Minh “the great father of the land.” Huong’s tone is somber, even exalted, her language formal without being stilted or stiff, her approach sometimes didactic; only rarely are there flashes of that strange language called Translationese, as, for example, this passage: “If he dared speak so boldly, what would keep him from insulting her to her face in a rude and cruel manner when he learned that she had gone all the way to Khoai Hamlet?” Huong’s lyrical narrative, developed at a deliberate pace, is sometimes reminiscent of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, that classic 1945 novel that imagined, from the ruins of Europe, the early years of the Roman Empire from the point of view of someone not quite at the center of power who stands in the presence of those who control it absolutely. On that note, it also has undertones of Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (1987), whose story switched back and forth from the oppressed man in the Moscow street to the Boss, Josef Stalin, himself. And that’s altogether fitting, for Ho was said to be the most Stalinist of all of Stalin’s heirs, even if Huong manages to find glimmers of humanity within him.
A complex, politically daring story, much of which will be unfamiliar to Western readers—and that demands to be read for that very reason.