Duong Thu Huong's political novel Beyond Illusions speaks of a broken romance. Written by a female Vietnamese political revolutionary, it shows the passion and commitment that goes with political activism.
When the story begins, Linh, a school teacher, has just learned that her adored husband, the journalist Nguyen, has compromised his politics, his life and – worst of all – truth. Admittedly, Linh is quite naive. Both she and her husband are living a fairly well-to-do life. Did she really think that honesty had brought them such ease and comfort? Linh slowly realizes how difficult life is if one commits to truth. Nevertheless, she cannot love a man who has betrayed her illusions of him.
Although she has not divorced Nguyen, she falls in love with Tran, a seemingly perfect older composer. Tran is married, too, to a wife whom he hates but whom he finds politically helpful. Although he has had countless affairs and feels himself to be in love with Linh, Tran will not divorce his wife. Linh suffers socially, financially and professionally because of her idealized love of ideal men. For her, their love is beautiful, joyous – although strangely melancholy – and this passionate idyllic love is the stuff of myth, great sacrifices and high ideals. She is like a political Madame Bovary. The question is, will she realize that the world is imperfect and one cannot always live a truthful life? Or will she suffer everything to cling to her ideals? While we see her life, we also see how the aftermath of the revolution has affected social relationships and sexual relationships. And there is always Nguyen at home waiting for her to return (he has one sexual diversion but that doesn't really count).
Stories are told for different reasons. And by different authors. Duong Thu Huong is a writer who was incarcerated in prison. She is also a writer who divorced her husband in a country where women aren't supposed to divorce their husbands. It would then be safely assumed that this is a woman who has thought much about whether life is worth living without truth. Beyond Illusions is a story about noble purposes, lost dreams, lost loves, lost souls. Perfect lovers are perfect because they have kept their souls pure and have not allowed themselves to be tainted by a world which cannot receive truth. A fine line separates the noble from the unreasonable, and often what determines the difference is the reader's sense of what is practical.
That said, the book is not a boring lesson about ideals. It is a love story and a study of a lost generation. Melancholia pervades its atmosphere. What do people do with lost ideals? Deceive themselves, deceive others, cloud their mind with sex, parties, false glory? Throughout the novel, the characters repeatedly speak of the old revolution. I suspect revolutionaries of the sixties might identify with the characters' sorrows. But the irony is light and the sense of loss is so well explored and so creatively done that the reader is never bored.
Beyond Illusions is about betrayal, self-delusions, and the stories idealists invent for themselves to deal with their failures -- or their humanity. It is hopeful, however. Or perhaps it sticks to its ideals. That's up to the reader to decide.