Memories of a Pure Spring


Memories of a Pure Spring is a mesmerizing portrait of modern Vietnam and its people who struggle to survive under the complexities of a post-war regime. During the Vietnam war, Hung, a well-known composer, becomes enchanted by the voice and beauty of a young peasant girl named Suong. He invites her to join his troupe; she becomes his wife and his star performer. But after the war, Hung loses his job, setting off a series of events that drive him and Suong into a destructive spiral. One of Vietnam's most popular ...

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Memories of a Pure Spring is a mesmerizing portrait of modern Vietnam and its people who struggle to survive under the complexities of a post-war regime. During the Vietnam war, Hung, a well-known composer, becomes enchanted by the voice and beauty of a young peasant girl named Suong. He invites her to join his troupe; she becomes his wife and his star performer. But after the war, Hung loses his job, setting off a series of events that drive him and Suong into a destructive spiral. One of Vietnam's most popular writers, Duong Thu Huong draws on her own experiences to describe life at the battlefront, the conditions of a "re-education" camp, and the texture and rhythm, scents and sounds, of a provincial Vietnamese city. Most of all, she tells a haunting, universal story of failed love.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Duong Thu Huong has become the most poignant chronicler of [Vietnam's] disillusionment. . . . [She] writes beautifully. . . ." —Time Asia
Library Journal
From the author of two critically acclaimed previous novels, Novel Without a Name (LJ 1/95) and Paradise of the Blind (LJ 2/15/93), comes a third on the subject of life in postwar Vietnam, her native country. Duong, the leader of an artistic troupe and later an exile, brings a unique sense of realism and credibility to the story of composer Hung Pham and his wife, Mai Suong. On the exterior, readers find a successful composer who is happily married to his child-bride and is the father of two young daughters. Delving deeper into this novel, which is steeped in a heavy political climate, readers discover a complex telling of love and betrayal on various levels: between a husband and wife, a man and his art, and a man and his country. Duong takes readers on a journey into the human psyche by looking at the frailty of the human condition and asks readers to confront issues like depression, attempted suicide, infidelity, and drug and alcohol abuse. The threads of love that bind her characters together are the same threads that break them. An intense and sometimes dark novel; Asian literature collections and libraries with Duong's other works will want to have this one.--Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
[An] accomplished new novel...a powerful testament to a continued spirit of moral resistance in Vietnam, lonelier than the resistance to the United States that forms the country's great epic and therefore all the braver.
The New York Times
Philip Gambone
...darkly poetic... Duong, whose novels have been banned in her native Vietnam, deftly employs flashbacks, multiple points of view and a haunting interplay of narrative and interior voices to construct her sadly beautiful tale. The third of her novels to be translated into English (all by the able team of Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong), Memories of a Pure Spring is an exploration of the multifaceted nature of duty -- to self, to art, to truth.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140298437
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 372
  • Product dimensions: 4.99 (w) x 7.72 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

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 lives in Hanoi.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Vinh stood motionless, his heart pounding. The pale gray of his elder sister's face deepened by the minute, turning to violet. The rustle of white uniforms, the antiseptic smell mingled with the pungent stench of sick people lying around him; this suffocating atmosphere transfixed him. Vinh could barely breathe. His temples pounded, a relentless cadence, like the beating of a drum that transported him back, twelve years earlier, to his father's funeral.

    "Who is the patient's family here?"

    "I am."

    "Brother ... or husband?"

    Two opaque eyes, as cold as those of a fish, looked up from under a pair of glasses. The long, frail face of the nurse reminded Vinh of someone he had once met but couldn't recall.

    "Younger brother."

    "Where is the patient's father?"

    "My father is dead."

    "And the husband?"

    "He's ... also dead."

    The nurse looked at him again, suspicion flashing across her silvery eyes. Then she stood up. "That's all. Sign here. The next of kin has to confirm the state of the patient."

    Vinh pressed his hand against the table, signed his name for the first time in his life. Eighteen years old, and all he had done was scrawl doodles of animals on the backs of his school buddies' T-shirts. On his exam papers, he used to trace a big letter V with a curly line under it, like the tail of an earthworm. Today, he really signed. He stared at his sister's deathly pale face against the bed; theinky black lines of her eyebrows seemed to tremble, like the life and death in the trace of his signature.

    "There, underneath, write the day and the month, then your family name. You may leave now." The voice seemed to rise from the tomb. The young man fled, weaving through a crowd of admirers that had gathered outside the door to the hospital corridor.

    "Who's that?"

    "Her little brother, apparently."

    "Oh? I thought it was her husband."

    "I heard he was dead."

    "Oh, no he's not. He spends his days drinking like a fish. He's drunk from dawn to midnight."

    "A beautiful woman's destiny is always tragic."

    Their whispers pursued Vinh. As he turned down a corridor, he bumped into a pot at the foot of a wall.

    "Idiot! Are you blind?" An old woman's high-pitched voice pierced his eardrums. He didn't dare turn around, he walked faster, striding past the examination rooms, the contagious disease section, the venereal disease section, the morgue, and out the door to the cemetery behind the hospital.

    Night was falling, and the tombs, newly dusted with joss-paper gold, glistened oddly in the sunlight. Bushes of heliotrope, mint, and cherry faded in the evening light. Wild chrysanthemums glowed in the dusk. Vinh knelt down on the grass between two tombs. Huge hedges of cactus encircled the cemetery, looming in front of him. In the distance, the lush green of rice paddies. The sun melted over the fields. Vastness. A melancholy beauty.

    Vinh began to sob.

    "Oh Papa, oh Mama, why did you abandon me like this?

    His tears overflowed, sudden, hot.

    It was the first time in twelve years he had cried like this; with each breath the tears came harder, faster, choking him: tears like a squall, a flood that carried him into a delirium, not just of pain but of release. Something gentle, too, something like happiness glistened in the tears; he wailed like a six-year-old boy.

    For more than a decade, the memory of his father had been absent from his mind. If there was a spirit that flickered for him in the shadows of the night, a perfume that still reached him, it was his mother's. But now, across the empty desert of the last twelve years of his life, the old man had suddenly come back, following the call of his son's voice. Vinh could smell the acrid sweat of his father's black pajamas, the aroma of fish grilled over a campfire at the base of a casuarina tree.

    They had buried him on a blazing July afternoon. Funeral banners fluttered above the heads of the cortege that advanced, zigzagging, cloaked in a swirling cloud of red dust. A flaming halo around the sun, like a ripe fruit hanging in the sky, spilled a searing light onto the earth. Space seemed warped, bent under the waves of dizzying light, in the deafening buzz of the flies. A crowd plodded in silence, weaving its way through tall reeds bleached white by heat, ripped and tattered by the salty sea wind. Dazed, they walked as if numbed, as if hypnotized by the sun and the salt carried on the wind, by the funeral dirge and the sound of trumpets, flutes, two-string lutes that wailed through the hills of reeds, echoing over the white dunes along the sea.

    Oh Papa, why did you abandon us? His two sisters wailed, their sobs piercing his young heart.

    Vinh wore the white tunic of mourning, the straw hat. He moved through the crowd, leaning on a bamboo cane. He had stopped weeping, but tears still stained his cheeks, mixing with the dust, stinging his face. He didn't dare raise his hand to scratch; as the only son, Vinh had to walk backward in front of his father's coffin, maintain a dignified, solemn bearing until they returned to the house.

    Oh Papa, why did you abandon us like this?

    Their wails sounded like the cries of wounded birds. They were just a few miles from Trang Nguyen Lake. How many times had his father taken him there to hunt birds? Father and son had woken before dawn, when fog still cloaked the treetops. Vinh had huddled against his father; though he felt like clutching his father's shirt, he didn't dare.

    You're the only son, the pillar of the family.

    His father had taught him this lesson when he was three years old. That sentence hung around his neck like an invisible whip ready, at any moment, to strike his back. Sometimes, it brought him a kind of satisfaction; it was a vague, but nevertheless real sensation. One stormy night at the age of four, Vinh had practiced being a man, the pillar of the family. It was pouring rain. The sea howled like a starving animal. Vinh stood trembling outside in the courtyard. His father had ordered him to stand there, while he sat inside and glared out at his son. His mother, in a corner of the room, begged him to let Vinh back inside.

    "Please ... please ... he's too little."


    "Please, do it for me ... let him in ... please."


    His father's charcoal eyes flashed rays of inky black light. Vinh clenched his fists, forced himself to stand straight. With each crack of thunder, his heart stopped, his blood seemed to freeze over. He looked away from his father, avoiding his gaze, imagining his own heaven: the silky panels of his mother's ao dai tunic that always smelled of lemongrass and jasmine. In her pockets, he could always find a few coins to buy sweets or caramel-coated peanuts.

    Lightning flashed, blinding, turning the clouds to silver. Thunder, like an earthquake above his head. Vinh let out a sob, but remained glued to the spot. His father suddenly got up and went out, scooping the boy up in his arms.

    "Not bad, my son."

    Vinh burst into jagged sobs, choked with hatred. He squirmed out of the grip of those iron hands and ran headlong into his mother's arms. She covered him with her perfume of faded flowers, wiped his tears. Vinh nuzzled his head under her armpit, falling into agitated, turbulent sleep. He saw birds fluttering over water, a rain of tiny blossoms. Suddenly the storm burst over the garden of honey locust trees; Vinh dreamed he had tied his father to the trunk of an old tree with cord they used to lash together planks of wood. His father's back was covered with welts from a whip ...

    Now the old man lay in a red lacquer coffin, hoisted on the shoulders of eight of the strongest timber men in the guild, the same men who had carried his body back from the forest. They had found him there: his face a ghostly shade of gray, eyelids as puffy as if he had drowned. He must have wept a long time before dying. His mouth was swollen too, as if his last words, imprisoned between his teeth, had burned it.

    For three months he had exhausted himself felling trees, binding the trunks into rafts. Going down the river he was caught in an icy storm that had chilled him. In the middle of the jungle it was impossible to find a doctor and the medicine they had brought along had already been used up by other members of the guild. Vinh's father was the leader, and a leader had to make sacrifices for his men. His death was part of his job, his duty in those circumstances. His eyes wouldn't close, revealing pupils the color of lead, a look of stupefaction and doubt.

    That year Vinh was just six years old. Mien, his eldest sister, was fifteen, and Suong—the future "nightingale with the crystal voice"—was twelve. The two sisters walked behind the coffin; Vinh walked ahead, a little man at age six. On the road through the village, he had overheard the murmurs of the crowd.

    "Where is his wife?"

    "At home. When they told her the old man was dead, she collapsed. Fainted."

    "That man's fate was as black as a dog's. A wife as frail as a slug. When he was alive, he bent over backward to support her. Now that he's dead, she's not even here to mourn him, to roll in the dust and open the road to death."

    Vinh ran back behind the coffin, whispering to his sisters: "Roll in the dust ... roll in the dust ... roll in it or people are going to insult our mother?

    His sisters looked up at him, uncomprehending, their faces streaked with tears. The six-year-old man furrowed his dark eyebrows and screamed at them: "I told you to roll in the dust, did you hear me?"

    After he finished speaking, Vinh strode back to the front of the cortege, leaned on the bamboo cane and continued walking backward, his back hunched over like a real old man. The two sisters ran past Vinh, far ahead of the cortege, and then threw themselves on the ground, rolling in the dust and sand, sobbing:

O Father, why have you abandoned us? The earth is vast, its roads countless, How will we know to find you?

    The wild birds, hit by bullets, used to cry like this before they fell into the lake, Vinh thought. He wiped his face with his hands. Sweat and red dust stuck to his palms. His sisters' faces were also filthy. Their long hair cascaded down their backs, a dense, black flood. Vinh's hair was thick too. Brothers and sisters had been cast in the same mold. Their father had left them the same dark legacy: black hair, black eyes, black eyebrows. It was as if a thousand nights had been distilled in them.

    The shrill wail of a trumpet, like a bird's cry, rose, then suddenly fell. The funeral banners unfurled, held taut for a moment in a gust of salt wind.

    "Stop, stop here," boomed the voice of the funeral director. They placed the coffin on two ropes held parallel, then lowered it into the grave. Each gesture was slow, silent. No one said a word. Everything sunk into a numbing sadness.

O lost soul, o lost soul ... If you hear our prayers ... Find the way, the path home to your father's village, Don't ever stay far from your mother's village ... If you hear our prayers ... Find the source of the wind Find the foot of the wave ... Like the white kite, like the wise sail ... find the way home ...

    This song to bear the soul rose first on the rasping voice of an old drunkard, then swelled as the crowd joined in chorus. Every time the cry "O lost soul!" rose, the orb of the sky seemed to tremble fitfully in a red halo of light. Waves of light rippled and danced in space like thousands of crystal boats chasing each other on the sea. Only the cluster of flies wasn't swept up by the mournful song; they still stuck to the coffin, swirling up in a cloud of filthy, black dust. A swarm of them tried to poke their way through a crack in the casket, their taut bellies tipped upward. Vinh couldn't take his eyes off them, these flies were eating his father's flesh, the first man in the family. Now that he was the man in the family, would they eat his too?

    "Oh, Father!" wailed Suong, jumping down into the grave. She threw herself on the coffin, oblivious to the disgusting swarms of flies that stuck to her neck and face.

    Her tiny fingers clenched the lid of the coffin as if she could pull her father back, as if he wasn't a corpse that had already begun to reek.

    "Pull her out ... pull the child up!" cried an old woman.

    Two men, woodcutters, jumped down into the grave at the same time. They pulled her off the coffin and pushed her up onto the ground. Another grabbed Suong and dragged her away from the grave. Then they hurriedly filled it, since gusts of sea wind were gathering now, making the stench stronger.

    Vinh felt tears sting his cheeks again. He rubbed his eyes. Standing there, just three paces away on the patch of dry grass he saw a wraith, pants lightly fluttering like silk clouds: It was his father. The figure laughed, his eyes flickering mischievously, casting rays of black light. "My son ... I've gone already. From now on, you're the only man in the family, the pillar ..."

    Vinh opened his mouth to speak, but the words choked in his dry throat. He watched, mute, as his father gently waved, then skimmed over the reeds, the rippling white dunes, moving out toward the sea. Vinh's heart raced, full of fear, full of envy ...

    Twelve years had passed. He knew now what he had wanted then.

Evening fell. Vinh got up, ready to return to the hospital. Cherry trees hung low across his path, thorn bushes scratched his legs, as if to block his way. Once his mother had told him that handsome boys and girls who strolled in the cemeteries often met the souls of dead youth, who would lure them into their embrace. Perhaps a young virgin has transformed herself into a thorn bush to hold me back? An old legend, just an old legend ... but why does it call my name?

    "Vinh, Vinh ..."

    The young man ripped a thorny branch that had hooked the leg of his pants; his face burned. When he looked up, the voice called again.

    "Vinh, Vinh ..."

    It wasn't the ghost of a young virgin, but a young man; Tan, a student Vinh had just met on the municipal volleyball court.

    "Hi Vinh, I've been looking for you."

    "What for?"

    Vinh looked Tan over. The only son of one of the richest families in town. He's probably never wept in his life.

    Tan furrowed his eyebrows. "I heard about your sister's accident.I just came to see you."

    "Thanks," Vinh replied coldly.

    The two young men walked toward the hospital. The rice paddies, the houses, the streets, even the horizon seemed heavier, fading to a leaden gray, then sinking under a tide of dark shadow. Sea wind blew across the fields of casuarina trees, a shrill, piercing whistle, like the sound of fabric tearing. The sky exhaled smoke that unfurled over the towns, heavy veils of it that fell on the rows of yellow lanterns.

    "Your sister ... Is it serious?" Tan asked, as they reached the hospital.

    Vinh sighed. "I don't know."

    They reached the hospital, walked down the corridors, past the rooms. Behind the windows, patients watched them with a distracted gaze. There was light in the recovery room. Vinh pushed open a white door stained with sweaty fingerprints.

    "Come in."

    A gigantic back blocked Vinh's passage; it was the nurse on duty, seated in the middle of the room, shelling peanuts. The glare of the ceiling light illuminated her hair, her huge head.

    "How is my sister, doctor?"

    The woman wheeled around. "I'm not a doctor, I'm a nurse. She's better ... but we've got to keep an eye on her." She bent back over her peanuts, pinching them nimbly between her fingers.

    Suong lay motionless on the bed, strapped down by a tangle of tubes and IVs linked to bottles of liquid arranged on a table by her side. The star singer of central Vietnam was now just a little girl buried under white covers, a pale child that they had barely saved from drowning. Only her black eyebrows still glistened like two deft strokes of China ink.

    Vinh stood silent, watching her, forgetting the young man by his side. He remembered a distant hill covered with rose myrtle, a place she used to take him. The way she led him by the hand, consoled him, her voice like a thin wisp of smoke.

    Sleep my child, sleep.

    Suddenly the door opened. A man appeared, pressed his face against the glass door panel, almost fell down. But he caught himself in time, staggered, then stood swaying in the middle of the room. He looked drunk; his eyes were bloodshot. His face must once have been handsome, with that straight nose, large, finely drawn mouth. His thick, wavy hair, flecked with gray, fell across his forehead. His breath reeked of alcohol. The nurse noticed, threw down her handful of peanuts, and stood up.

    "What do you want?"

    "I'm looking for my wife."

    The nurse stood in front of the man, staring him down. He stared back at the woman, who loomed in front of him like a temple guard.

    "I'm looking for my wife," he repeated, then stepped forward, gesturing. "I'm looking for Mai Suong, the famous singer. You tell her this. You tell her she can't run away from me. As long as I'm alive, Suong, you have no right to die!"

    Distracted by her curiosity the nurse suddenly remembered her duty. "I must ask you to leave!" She snapped, pointing to the door.

    The man tilted his head, tossed his hair. "What did you say?" At that moment, he spotted Suong. His haggard, drunken face suddenly lit up and he rushed toward the bed.

    "Ah, Mai Suong, I found you?

    "Stop him!" the nurse shouted.

    Vinh jumped on the man, grabbed his arm, and twisted it behind his back. The man winced from pain. He leaned over Vinh.

    "Vinh ... how dare you?" He stared, wide-eyed, in surprise.

    "I'm going to strangle you, I'll kill you, I'll kill you!" Vinh screamed. He wrenched the man's wrist with all his strength, so hard that the man couldn't speak from the pain.

    "Throw him out!" the nurse ordered.

    Vinh dragged him out of the room, down the corridor, across the courtyard, arriving in front of the iron gate. He shouted to the guard: "Don't let this drunk guy back in! He's making trouble." Then he returned to the recovery room. Tan was standing by the foot of Suong's bed, staring at the transparent tubes that poured all sorts of liquids into her veins. From the back he looked to Vinh like a film star.

    He's a head taller than I am. He's handsome. He still has a father, a mother, and he's rich to boot. Heaven has truly given him a lot.... Why is he so concerned about my sister? When did they meet?

    "That ... that was the first time you hit someone, wasn't it?" Tan said without turning around.

    After a moment, Vinh nodded. "How did you know?"

    "I watched you."

    "You're very observant."

    "What if you had been stronger, taller?"

    "It's not because I'm small or weak ... it's because ... he's the father of my nieces."

    Vinh gazed at the woman lying on the bed. As if he could see himself, a madman bent over at the river's edge, searching the waves for an image of himself that the months and years had carried away on the current.

One July day, who knows whether it was an angel or a devil who sent a buffalo-drawn wagon through the mountain hamlet where the three orphans lived together. Vinh was ten years old, Suong just sixteen. Sister Mien was nineteen and married already, but only six months after the wedding, her husband had been mobilized for the army. Mien had taken her sister and brother into her own home, to care for them. A godforsaken mountain village, a few sparse rice paddies; here people made a living off the pepper trees and the timber.

    That morning, Mien had gone into the forest with the other village women to look for wood. Suong and Vinh stayed back to weed the pepper garden. That afternoon, they both took refuge in the shade to rest, stretched out on a dry straw mat at the foot of a tree. As Vinh slept, Suong sang to herself. Suddenly, the dry, rhythmic creaking of the wagon echoed at the top of the hill. Vinh sat up, opened his eyes. Buffalo-drawn wagons rarely passed through their region, though trucks and tanks packed with soldiers crisscrossed the neighboring village just ten miles from their hamlet. The wagon shuddered to a halt at the top of the hill. The old driver, a huge guy with dark, glistening skin and a black turban wrapped around his head, shouted at the top of his lungs. "Calm down you, calm down."

    His voice echoed through the valley. "Calm down or I'm going to bring out the whip."

    Behind the old man, two men sat perched on top of bundles of wood. As the water buffalo spread its legs and planted its hooves in the ground to brake the wagon, which was about to slide down the hill, one of the two men leaned forward and whispered something into the old man's ear. Immediately, the man sat straight up and brought his whip down on the buffalo's head.

    "Vruu vruu ..."

    The poor animal hunched its back, pulling the shafts of the wagon right down to the ground, its back as pointy as a termite's mound. There was a grating screech and then the wagon came to a halt. The man who had whispered in the driver's ear jumped down and strode toward Vinh and his sister. He wore a dusty flowered shirt and washed out soldier's pants; he didn't look anything like the mountain people, nor like the soldiers who passed through these parts. He walked slowly, arms swinging, relaxed, tossing his wavy hair as he went, like a well-fed cow returning to the stable. Suong still hadn't noticed anything; she kept singing.

    "Some people are coming ..." Vinh said.

    Suong stopped abruptly and sat up. Just at that moment, the man reached them. He sat down naturally, right next to them.

    "Why don't you keep singing?"

    Neither Vinh nor Suong replied. The man wasn't offended, he just laughed.

    "You sing very well ... please continue."

    "No." Suong replied coldly, which pleased Vinh. But he saw his sister blush, lower her eyes, and stare at the holes in the sleeve of her blouse. Furtively, she hid the tom fabric by putting her hands under her armpits. Vinh suddenly felt a wave of hatred for this stranger. What right did this man have to embarrass his sister? The man looked straight at Vinh, amused. Vinh turned away. But he had spotted a badge pinned to the man's shirt collar: a tiny guitar on a half sun. The enamel glistened like fish scales. Vinh had never seen such a beautiful object. Once, when his father was alive, he had taken all the kids into town, treated them to cakes, ice cream, coconut juice. They had ridden on carousels, shot down prizes in the carnival stands. But he had never thought to buy them a souvenir. For the first time in his life, Vinh glimpsed something like the sparkling pins of gold and jade that had filled the legends of his childhood.

    The man noticed the look of awe on Vinh's face. He pulled off the pin and handed it to the boy. "It's yours."

    "No!" Vinh shouted. He pulled his hand back abruptly and nestled against his sister.

    The man burst out laughing. A gay, booming, slightly mocking laugh. He held out his hand. "Here, you're not going to die from it. If you like it, I give it to you."

    In the palm of the man's hand, the pin shimmered like a star fallen from the firmament. Vinh's heart raced, his ears burned. This magical object fascinated him. He clenched his fists violently to resist. The man laughed again. His laugh echoed through the valley.

    "Come on, take it. I'm a grown-up and this kind of thing doesn't interest me anymore." His eyes shone tenderly. Vinh looked up, stared at the man. He wasn't old, but his temples were specked with a few gray hairs. Somehow this touched the child. Vinh took the pin from the palm of the man's outstretched hand, like a souvenir from a fairy tale.

    The man watched the child pin it to his chest, then turned to the boy's sister.

    "Little sister, I heard you singing. You sing very, very well."

    "No, I don't. I don't know how to sing."

    "Have you ever been to a performance by our town's artistic troupe?"

    "Yes, once."

    "You sing as well as their star singer ... no, you sing a thousand times better, I'm sure of it, and if we train you ..." He fell silent, gazing at the small valley, the path that wound down the hill, the wagon that patiently waited for him, the plantations of pepper trees on the other side of the road, the wild hills that undulated as far as the eye could see. Suong, her head lowered, contemplated the straw on the ground, her hands still thrust under her armpits to hide the holes in her old blouse. After a long silence, the man glanced at his watch and said: "Do you want to become a singer?"

    "I don't know ... I'd have to ask Mien."

    "Who is Mien?"

    "My older sister."

    "Why do you have to ask?"

    "My parents are dead. I live with her."

    "Oh, I see." He nodded, pulled a pad out of his pocket. "What grade are you in?"

    "I'm in the fifth grade ... I mean, no ... I left school during the sixth."

    "To help your sister with the pepper trees?"


    The man rapidly scribbled something in his notebook, tore off the sheet of paper, and handed it to Suong. "Here's my address. I can give you lessons. If your sister allows you to join the provincial artistic troupe, come find me. I can help you become a singer."

    The man didn't wait for her answer. He got up, turned, and walked toward the wagon. Brother and sister watched, mesmerized by this strange visitor, as the sun fell low on the horizon.

    That night, planes bombed the road on the other side of the mountain. The gas lamp clogged their shelter with smoke, its flames dancing in the darkness. Suong pulled the piece of paper out of her pocket, handed it to her elder sister. They whispered and cried in the night. Vinh tried to hear what they were saying but sleep overcame him and he drifted off on the wood planks that served as their bed.

    A few days later, Suong gathered her clothes in a cloth knapsack and left.

    "You be good, little brother."

    "When are you coming back?"

    "As soon as I can."

    "I don't want you to go. I'm not going to let you go!"

    Suong's eyes brimmed with tears, which then streamed down her face. "Oh, but I have to go ... please, make me happy."

    Mien leaned toward the boy, took his hand. "Let her go. With luck, she'll be able to study. If she stays here, I won't have the means to help her continue her studies."

    Side by side, the three orphans wept.

    Suong had found a buffalo-drawn wagon to take her to the coastal region. Mien and Vinh followed her with their eyes as the wagon disappeared in the distance. The red dust swirled on the steep hills, blurring Vinh's vision.

    For seven years, that red dust would sting his eyes. Vinh regretted it, reproached himself. If only I hadn't yielded to him, if only I had refused that pin ... if only ... would Suong's life have been better?

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Reading Group Guide


"Humanity has been through Communism. May the gods spare us from falling prey to yet another illusion." (Memories of a Pure Spring)

Youthful ideals can provide guidance, inspiration, and resilience, but once betrayed or corrupted they linger as bitter reminders of past glories and present failures. In Duong thu Huong's novel, during Vietnam's "American war," a well-known composer named Hung leads a performing troupe through jungles bloodied by war. The troupe's mission is one of artistic inspiration: to revive the revolutionary fire in the soldiers' flagging spirits—to inspire with art. Not actually raising any weapons or contributing directly to the fratricidal carnage of the war, the performing troupe by its very nature is an embodiment of high-minded ideals and a reminder of the war's purpose. The performers' song is an uplifting response to the eternal question: Why are we fighting?

While thus employed in a war-torn Vietnam, Hung meets a beautiful young peasant girl with an exquisite voice, Suong, who incites his passion and becomes both his wife and the star of the troupe. As the long years of the war draw to a close on April 29th, 1975, when the last Americans leave Saigon, we find Hung and Suong in love and ennobled by their struggles, both famous for their talents and both full of promise.

However, as the postwar regime consolidates its power, cynical compromises and petty acts of revenge proliferate the political landscape. The noble ideals of the war have vanished all too quickly, persisting only in memories that harshly illuminate the current state of affairs. And it is, now, in their nation's victorious mundaneness that Hung and Suong must suffer—and they do suffer.

In a Vietnam richly brought to life with its flowers and fruits, cafés and teahouses, pho and chè, Duong Thu Huong uses dramatic external events—imprisonment, suicide attempts, love affairs, blackmail, opium addiction—to set the stage for the sensitive ruminations that form the lyrical core of Memories of a Pure Spring. Through the many artists that populate the book she explores artistic creation—its fragile preconditions, its awesome powers, and its frightening demands—as well as its soul-numbing substitutes. Through the book's central lovers she charts the Janus face of a love that is simultaneously ephemeral and eternal. Through the many deprivations and compulsions that shape her characters' lives she ponders sexual desire with its blinding drives and seductive pleasures. Through filial and familial relationships she investigates both the tender empowerment and the oppressive rigidity of family. Through the apparatchiks and officers of the Communist Party she illustrates the ignorant cruelty of the doctrinaire and the petty parochialism of the self-serving.

Throughout the novel, the memories of the past serve as the characters' touchstone as they attempt to navigate safely the shoals of success and flattery, chaos and desolation, love and desire, disillusionment and despair. Reading Memories of a Pure Spring forces unanswerable questions upon the reader: Is memory enriching or poisonous? A "pure spring" inspiration or an albatross?


Duong Thu Huong, one of Vietnam's most popular writers, was born in 1947 and raised in a loyal Communist household. In 1967 she—like Hung, the protagonist of Memories of a Pure Spring—volunteered to lead the Communist Youth Brigade, a troupe of singers and actors who traveled the country entertaining North Vietnamese troops at the front in jungle camps. She experienced first-hand the horrors of war: out of the volunteer group of forty, she was one of only three survivors. During China's 1979 attack on Vietnam, she became the first woman combatant present at the front to chronicle the conflict.

After the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, a journey to Saigon brought her face to face with the distortions of Communist propaganda: rather than the official North Vietnamese image of a Saigon oppressed and crying out for liberation, she found instead an affluent city full of laughing citizens and well-stocked bookshops. Thus began her disappointment in and reappraisal of Communist ideals as well as her long and vocal advocacy for human rights and democratic political reform. Though she had won several state prizes for her screenwriting work with the Vietnam Film Co., Duong Thu Huong lost her job there for speaking out against censorship. Undaunted, she continued to critique the social injustices of postwar Vietnam and began to write the novels for which she is justly famous both abroad and at home including Paradise of the Blind, which was the first Vietnamese novel ever translated from Vietnamese into English and published in the United States and shortlisted for the Prix Femina; and Novel Without a Name, which was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She was expelled from the Communist Party in 1989, imprisoned for seven months without trial in 1991 for sending the manuscript of Novel Without a Name abroad, and had her passport revoked by the government in 1995. All of her writings are effectively banned in Vietnam, where she continues to reside.

Penguin wishes to thank and credit the following article for information on the life of Duong Thu Huong: David Liebhold, "Lives Reshaped by History," TIME Asia. April 17th, 2000, Vol. 155 No. 15.


  • The structure of Memories of a Pure Spring is marked by constant chronological shifts and frequent extracts from the internal musings of the characters? How does the author use the theme of memory as a structuring device? Is it effective?
  • In a moment of remembrance, Lam recalls the legends that explicitly note the ylang-ylang tree as a representative of the dark side of sexual desire:
"Why do those ylang-ylang blossoms in the garden frighten me? My father used to tell me that white ylang-ylang should only be planted in the pagodas, mausoleums, or altars—places protected by the spirits of pure men, masters of their fate, free of the mud of the world. He who is tempted by flesh is still chained to the infernal cycle of ambition, anger, passion. If you cultivate white ylang-ylang, you attract demons and create your own downfall."

Ylang-ylang and its seductive scent course through the novel (making a dramatic and meaningful backdrop to the last scene). What attitude toward sexual desire does the frequent recurrence of the ylang-ylang make manifest? What other figures and episodes in the novel serve as tropes for the menacing nature of sexual desire?

  • The purpose of art, the figure of the artist, and the struggle of artistic creation are all shown from many different points of view:

the dissipation of Hung's debauched artistic friends,

the viciousness of Doan's sham superiority,

the inspirational role of the revolutionary troupe during the war,

Hung's bitter struggle with his lack of inspiration, and

Dam's impassioned advocacy for Hung's music as the only true expression of central Vietnam's character.

Suong herself as the diva of central Vietnam and "the nightingale with the crystal voice,"

In the last analysis, what is the novel's "verdict" on these matters?

  • "People often enter history intelligently and leave it like idiots." With such observations, Hung, in his reminiscences and reveries, often contrasts the high-mindedness and sacrifice of the war years with the servility and mean-heartedness that reigned after the war. What other means does the author use to illustrate the same point?
  • Compare Vinh's father's severe reaction when he sees the young Vinh looking at the fishmonger girl with teenage Vinh's own implacable hatred of Hung for the sexual incident between Suong and his artist friends.
  • How does the conflict between illusion, melancholy, and sham, on the one hand, and "true art" on the other play itself out? Are these two poles presented as antagonistic opposites or as mutually dependent? Where does Hung fall in relation to this divide? Are his ruminations on Schubert instructive on this point or do they merely serve as foreshadowing?
  • Vengeance and struggle are constant themes, for example in Vinh's fulminations against Hung as well as the deputy chief's settling of scores after the war. Does the author intend this specifically as a comment on life under a Communist regime or as a mark of human nature in general? How so?
  • While Lam is at heart a rustic, happy to be a porter in the countryside, Dam represents the urban sophistication of Hanoi. Discuss the parallelism and similarity of their respective roles that is hinted at by their similar names.
  • Hung brashly and forthrightly sums up his view of the place of the individual and the artist in Communist society with the passage:

"You can only create art when you live with dignity, in a free society. Even a slave knows how to put pen to paper, or mix colors on a palette. But a cowardly, servile, hypocritical soul can never create art."

Compare this with Doan's rebellious "yin theory of art" and his relation to the Communist authorities.

  • Vinh longs for the countryside. Hung waxes nostalgic for the war years. Suong feels bereft and rudderless without the love and respect she used to have for Hung. Many think back to the promise of "life in the new lights." Do these "lost objects" represent the "pure spring" of the title? What are the negative examples of purity used in the novel and how do these relate to memory's darker role? What are some of the novel's negative examples of memory? How do these relate to the occurrences of the insistent refrain, "Forget, forget, forget"?
  • At one point Dam says to Suong, "Your voice is your only weapon," yet her voice is always referred to as a "crystal voice" with unifying powers—a voice with which the many different people of central Vietnam can relate, whether they be peasants, prison guards, or intellectuals. Discuss how Suong herself views her own voice and the uses to which she puts it.
  • Why and how does the seeming resolution of Hung's and Suong's difficulties lead to the book's dramatic last scene? Is this conclusion inevitable? Is it an act of passion? Discuss the possibility, or the lack thereof, of redemption in the novel.
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