Memories of Pure Springby Duong Thu Huong
This novel tells the story of a singer and her composer husband and explores their relationships passionate growth in the midst of war. Huong vividly depicts the betrayal she and a generation of Vietnamese artists and writers experienced after the war: the conditions inside re-education prison camps, and the corruption at the heart of the new regime they brought to power.
The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
- Hachette Books
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 ED
- Product dimensions:
- 6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
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?"
"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.
"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.
"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 Suongthe 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."
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.
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?"
"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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Though the War with the Americans engulfs the country, music composer Hung and his beloved wife singer Suong are happy. They enjoy working together as they entertain the troops with Suong singing Hung¿s compositions. When the war ends, Hung¿s friends drop him when he complains about the failure of the redistribution of the wealth among the people. By accident, Hung ends up with boat people fleeing Viet Nam. However, the police catch the dissidents and send them to a re-education camp. Upon 'graduating', Hung finds he remains a no man, turning to alcohol to survive and driving his cherished wife further away from him. MEMORIES OF A PURE SPRING is a potent indictment of the misuse of power by the Communists when they united Viet Nam. The story line creates as powerful a human rights defender as one will see in a novel. The prime characters are intriguing and enlightening, but their soliloquies slow down the plot. Though the tale may lose some of its lyrical beauty in the translation, Duong Thu Huong shows why she is considered the Vietnamese voice of conscience. Harriet Klausner