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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786888573
Publisher: Hyperion
Publication date: 06/13/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 460
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.02(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Duong Thu Huong was born in Vietnam in 1947. At the age of twenty, she led a Communist Youth Brigade sent to the front during the Vietnam War. Of the volunteer group of forty, she was one of only three survivors. A vocal advocate of human rights and democratic reform, Huong was expelled from the Communist Party in 1990 before she was arrested and imprisoned without trial. Though her novels are banned in Vietnam, where she continues to live in internal exile, she remains one of the most popular and controversial writers for Vietnamese readers both at home and abroad.

Translators Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong live in Paris. They have also translated Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind (1993), Novel Without a Name (1995), Memories of a Pure Spring (2000), and Beyond Illusions (2002).

Read an Excerpt

No Man's Land

a novel
By Duong Thu Huong

HYPERION EAST

Copyright © 2005 Duong Thu Huong
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7868-8857-1


Chapter One

A strange, violent storm came one day in June that year.

The rain fell in torrents, steam rising in curls from rocks scalded by the sun. Icy water and hot vapor mixed to form a dense, smoky fog as an acrid, barbaric smell spread through air already heavy with the scent of dry tree sap and faded flowers, with the spittle left behind by birds in heat and the fragrance of the purple weed that covered the mountain peaks. Everything dissolved and merged in the flood.

Then, the rain stopped, the wind subsided, and water tumbled and swirled through the ravines, the stricken vegetation slowly lifting in the returning sun. From behind the clouds, the sun streamed forth, triumphant and conquering in the distant, intense blue of the sky. Like after a long separation, the blind passion of the earth and the forest flared, raking and burning everything that lay in the wake of their frenetic coupling. Butterflies, frightened by the light, scattered and hid in the crevices of rocks. Even the male bees abandoned their search for pollen. In the heavy, humid silence, only the banana flowers bloomed, their mesmerizing purple bursting into flames, as if yearning to take flight for the clouds.

Mien stood in the cave where she had taken refuge with all the otherwomen from Mountain Hamlet. Feeling feverish, she touched her forehead, but it was icy. Her heart raced as she began to worry about her son: Did he fall into that water urn? Maybe he got a stick in his eye? No, no ... With a face like that, nothing bad will happen to him. Good and bad spirits alike will watch over him.

She had stopped thinking about her son, but she still felt restless, anxious. Why? What misfortune lay at the end of the road ahead?

"That's enough," Mien said, breaking the silence. "Let's go home. It's just been an unlucky day."

No one spoke. The women stood in a group, clutching one another's shoulders, staring apprehensively up at the sky. This had been their first foray of the year into the forest to gather honey, but their bad luck had begun at dawn: As soon as they had started climbing the mountain, one of the women fell, twisted her ankle, and had to be carried all the way to the next camp. Then, after they had crossed just two peaks, the storm had hit. Now the ground was scalding, feverish. The footpaths were strewn with rotten leaves, and steam rose off flowers crushed and scattered by the rain, glued to the tree trunks. Little by little, everything began to exude a horrific stench.

"Let's go home," Mien urged. One of the gifts in the group pointed to the mouth of the cave. "What? Do you want to be snake bait? Open your eyes! Look!" Mien kept silent. She didn't need to open her eyes wide to know that the place was crawling with snakes; they were slithering down the footpaths, leaping and darting from the treetops, ready to pounce. Above, the sound of lizards clucking their tongues echoed off the vaulted roof of the cave. Mien shivered and looked up. It was possible that a pregnant one, stifled by the heat, could leap down and bite one of them. A tall, corpulent woman who had been striking the plants in front of the cave with a stick turned to them and said, "Everyone get a stick. Just in case the snakes band together and charge at us."

Without a second's hesitation, the women all began to search for sticks to use as weapons. Then they stood back, still clutching one another, watching the glistening snakes slither down the footpaths, listening to the jagged sobs of the birds echoing in the distance. A dazed, numbed silence overcame them. They remained vigilant, waiting for the danger to pass, and yet they were as still as if they were asleep. No one dared say a word. As time passed, the sun slowly began to bake the tips of the rotting leaves and the trees gave off a nauseating smell as their bark shrank back in the heat. Stands of mud-spattered reeds at the edge of the stream straightened back into place, as slender and graceful as the blades of swords. The lilies swayed gently. Suddenly, a gust of wind rose, shaking the women from their dreamy stupor. They looked at one another. One of them threw down her stick and grumbled, "Another day lost! No use dreaming of honey. Let's just go."

Another joined her, sighing. "Yeah, let's go. It's already late."

And they all trudged back to Mountain Hamlet.

When they arrived at the edge of the forest, it was already dusk. The setting sun looked like crystal streaked with tiny fuchsia veins the color of wild roses. As Mien strode behind her friends, she felt the anxiety return, even more oppressive than before. She couldn't understand why from time to time her breath seemed to choke in her throat, or why her heart tensed, as if strangled by some invisible hand.

What's happening to me? Maybe Hoan has bad some problem at sea. Maybe it was the storm ... or even pirates. But they've been gone for years. Is he sick?

But none of these explanations satisfied her, and she kept walking, her gut twisting in pain, her heart racing, haunted all day long by the apprehension of some misfortune.

Mien's house stood on the road leading to the forest. It was one of the most recent in the village. Her husband, Hoan, had built their house at a time when the region had been deserted. But now a few young couples had settled next to them, making their home seem less marginal. Built into the side of a hill, the house was enclosed by a lush grove of orange and grapefruit trees. Farther to the west, the hills were ringed by coffee and pepper plantations. Here and there, Hoan had set up shacks with thatch roofs to store his pumps and to shelter the workers during their tea breaks. Their estate was the largest in the region; no one else had anything comparable. Hoan was both hardworking and clever. His pepper and coffee were always grown from the finest seed, the kind that required the best fertilizer and the most advanced technology, and that brought the highest price on the market. Eager to learn his techniques, all the planters in the region used to flock to his plantations, and after the harvest season, they would also clamor to be among those who rented boats with him to transport their products to the distant markets of Da Nang and Saigon. There wasn't a man in Mountain Hamlet who wasn't somehow indebted to Hoan. And Mien's women friends knew it. So when the group reached Mien's house and saw the throng of people at her gate and lining up all the way into the vast courtyard, they jostled each other, scrambling to get a look.

"What's happened? Why is there such a crowd in front of your house?"

"How should I know?" Mien replied. "I've been gone since dawn, too."

The crowd, buzzing like a hornet's nest, suddenly grew hushed when she entered the courtyard. Mien felt all eyes turn and settle on her, from the children to the old women, from her neighbors to people from distant hamlets. And their eyes gleamed oddly, at once curious and fearful, both defiant and threatening.

No one has ever looked at me so strangely ... What has happened?

From inside the house rose the sobs and heavy sighs of a woman whose voice was strange yet familiar to Mien. A voice from her past, one she strained to recognize, from a time she had chosen to forget. People shrank back as Mien walked past. Contrary to custom, no one greeted her. Even the rowdy gaggle of kids stopped their playing and jostling and fell silent. In front of her house, clusters of men just back from the fields, bare-chested or still clad in their black, sweat-drenched shirts or military fatigues stained with rings of salt, stood gaping and talking among themselves.

Did they call a village meeting here while I was gone? ... But the hamlet's administrative headquarters have already been repaired. They just replaced the tiles, changed the windows, and whitewashed the walls. The president of the commune even came with his briefcase to celebrate the inauguration.

While Mien was lost in these thoughts, the woman's shrill, ear-splitting lamentations suddenly rose again.

"Oh, my poor brother! Wandering in the jungle, along the riverbanks, for all these years! The others were so lucky. They got their peace, their happiness. While you survived on moldy rice and eggplant."

The screeching voice grated on Mien's ears like a file against metal. As she stepped over the threshold of her house, shadows obscured her vision, blurring the individual faces inside. All she could see was a dense, tightly knit crowd of people, some seated, some standing.

"Mien!" a deep male voice called out to her.

Mien didn't recognize it. Surely it wasn't her husband's?

Hoan hasn't come back. His boats must still he out at sea.

"Mien!" the man repeated.

This time, Mien replied, "I'm here."

She turned toward the man's voice. Her eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness now. She could see a square, gloomy face, rectangular eyebrows, eyes sunken into their sockets, a vague flicker, the dying light of a bonfire.

"Mien!"

The man called to her for the third time. His voice was furious now, as if he was ready to smash something on the ground.

"Hello, sir," Mien replied, searching for a place to sit down. An old man, naked from the waist up, rose to offer her his stool. His bony, wizened hand settled on her shoulder, forcing her to sit down facing the man with the rectangular eyebrows, who continued to stare at her, tense, his wrinkled face and pale lips trembling, contorted by a nervous tic. On those pale lips, the tic reminded Mien of a face shrouded in fog that she still didn't recognize. She could almost hear it, a name echoing from the bottom of a chasm, lost somewhere in a black, icy pit, drowned out by the howl of the wind. Suddenly, the man frowned. A long sigh rose from the bottom of that abyss, stirring Mien's memory. A blurry, shapeless face glided past her eyes. Beads of sweat broke out on the man's forehead. His ashen lips trembled convulsively, gaping open. Mien felt her hands and fleet go cold. Those open lips, those sad eyes, glistening under the thin lashes, she had seen them before one long-forgotten summer. Yes, summer, that season as fleeting as dying fire or the glow of dawn.

"Mien, I've come back."

The man leaned across the table, sweeping aside the half-empty teacups, and repeated, in an imperious voice, "I've come back ... I've come back."

Mien extended her hand toward him, as if she were blind, or deaf, as if groping for the sounds. "You're back? You are ..."

"It's me, it's Bon."

"I ... You ... are Bon?"

"Yes, I'm Bon, your husband."

The house went silent as a grave. The assembled crowd held their breath. Everyone waited for Mien to speak. As if delirious, she merely repeated what the man had said. "I am Bon, your husband. My husband?"

"Yes, it's me, Bon," the man replied, his voice muffled. Suddenly, he shouted, "I am Bon! I am back!"

Mien froze.

My husband? But Hoan is taking the pepper shipment to Da Nang. He promised to bring back a tricycle for little Hanh and silk for me. The night before he left, he asked me whether my favorite color was emerald green, purple, or canary yellow, Do you want anything else? he asked. No, I said, I don't need anything, that's enough. The sky is clear, the sea is calm. In less than a week my husband will be back.

"Mien!"

But Mien didn't hear him. She saw another face. A beaming, radiant face with finely drawn eyebrows arching over a wide forehead, a nose as straight as a Western man's, tender eyes, soft, warm, intoxicating lips.

"Mien, I'm back."

Now this man's voice was like a prayer, the hushed, muted whisper of the trees in springtime. The crude, bushy eyebrows rose again, the pallid lips trembled.

"Mien, I'm back."

Mien pulled her hand away. She understood; it was as if the voice had slapped the palm of her hand. They say that of all the parts of the body the palm retains sensations the longest, just as an elephant's ear holds the memory of the animal's seven previous lives. Only now did she fully realize who this man seated in front of her was.

She sighed, her voice listless. "Bon?"

"Yes," he replied. "It's me. I'm back."

Yes, he had been her husband once. The wandering soul that she had honored on the altar to "the hero who had died for his country" for so many years had suddenly been reincarnated in this sunburnt man with ghoulish skin and lips. Bon had come back. He was no longer the young man who had been her husband for the brief, fleeting space of a summer. Nor was he a wandering soul. No, he was something in between.

Night fell, shrouding the house. Mien retreated into the shadowy darkness. Someone spoke. "Light a lamp!" A hand darted out from somewhere, right under her eyes, seizing a candlestick from the table. "Quick, light the candles. But where is the lamp? Where are you, Mrs. Huyen?"

"She's outside. She went out with the little boy when she saw Mrs. Mien had come back."

"Lend me a box of matches. My lighter is out of fluid." From the other end of the table, Bon spoke again: "Mien!"

It wasn't a prayer anymore, but a supplication. Mien could see his gaze, even through the darkness. It was like the face of a drowning man.

He's come back from the front. What woman would ever dare turn her back on a husband returning from war?

Mien knew that a ghost who comes back to the living is three times as hungry for life as an ordinary man. The veteran returns to the special gratitude of the community and when he speaks out to claim his share of happiness in this world, no one dares dispute or refuse him. As a girl, Mien had witnessed the campaigns urging young girls to marry handicapped soldiers who had returned from the war against the French. At the time, she still lived in her village, her father was still alive, and the sun still shone on their home. Their neighbors, an old couple who were stonecutters, had a nineteen-year-old daughter named Hien. She was the deputy secretary of the Communist Youth League. So when the provincial Party leadership launched their campaign, Hien was one of the first to volunteer. She told Mien, who was still too young to be wed, "I'm going to marry a handicapped soldier so my family can repay their debt to the country ..." She promised to invite Mien to her wedding. "You'll be able to see the whole ceremony. They say the Festival Room at the city capital is filled with pretty lanterns. We're going to walk down red carpets, real velvet, not the fake stuff we get from the seamstress back in Ly Hoa commune."

They had giggled with delight, dreaming of the day when Hien and her new husband would walk down the aisle on that red velvet carpet. Hien kept her word. Two day's later, she invited Mien to come along with her to the provincial capital to pick up her future husband. In the village, a few other young girls had also volunteered. They woke up at the crack of dawn and set off, arriving just before seven o'clock in the morning. Just as Hien had said, the road was strung with red lanterns. The wind snapped the multicolored banners that lined the Festival Room; it looked like their village on a holiday. The "volunteers" were the guests of honor, seated on chairs covered with red velvet. Waitresses dressed in traditional floor-length silk tunics served trays piled with cakes and candies. Music played. After the salute to the flag, the district Party secretary gave a seemingly endless speech. Still just a girl, Mien had clutched the candies in blue and red cellophane paper tightly in her hand; they were melting, but she didn't dare eat them. She didn't understand a word of the secretary's speech, but the strange, solemn atmosphere terrified her. Mien waited until the end before unwrapping the candies. But the secretary had barely stepped down from the podium when the president of the Women's Union strode to the rostrum. Her speech was even longer. When she finished, a group of children came forward with drums and bouquets of flowers, one for each of the young women who were to wed the handicapped soldiers. The drum rolls echoed noisily off the ceiling and the columns decorated with red paper flowers, thrilling the women's hearts.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from No Man's Land by Duong Thu Huong Copyright © 2005 by Duong Thu Huong. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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