The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The Beauty of Humanity Movement
"Comrade, sir, I assure you we believe fully in the theories of Marx and Lenin," said Dao. We believe absolutely in communism, the most wonderful ideal of mankind, the youngest, the freshest ideal in all of history. But if a single style is imposed on all writers and artists, the day is not far off when all flowers will be turned into chrysanthemums." 

(The above was actually told by the Vietnamese intellectual leader, Phan Khoi, but the author has attributed them to her character, Dao, in this fictionalized story set in one of Vietnam's darkest times. - As mentioned in her note at the end of the book)

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a story about Vietnam - about one of its warring times that the United States had nothing to do with. In fact, the better-known US-Nam war is only mentioned in passing - almost because it actually happened, not because it had any connection to this story. Old Man Hung serves pho to his faithful customers every morning, although he doesn't have a license to operate a business nor does he have a decent location to set up shop. He keeps moving and sets up his stall in an alleyway, construction areas, parks or factory grounds, until he is yet again driven away by the police. It is on one such morning that Maggie, a Viet Kieu (a Vietnamese-born person raised in a foreign country) comes asking him if he knew her father. Soon, we are privy to Hung's many reminiscences about an age of beautiful artistic expression that the authorities struggled to contain.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement (that is, the movement itself) is a liberalized interpretation of a real movement (The Nhan Van-Giai Pham movement) that was formed by intellectuals, writers and artists as a means to express their thoughts and to demand freedom of speech. Although they abided by Communist principles, they opposed the government's attempts to stamp out any original thoughts. Dao, a member of this movement, and several of his colleagues would gather in Hung's then restaurant and have frequent discussions, which Hung relished. As did actually happen, many of these members were later arrested by the Vietnamese Party, tortured, imprisoned and murdered. "Reeducation" is a scary phrase used throughout. Although it sounds much like a benign classroom lecture, it was anything but. It was a method of forceful brainwashing and torture through which the party tried to bend the straight proud backs of the intellectuals and make them a distorted shadow of their selves, failing which, they were probably murdered.

This book is primarily about the events of 1955 - 1959, and also of Maggie's search for some proof that her father existed (the government destroyed every writing, painting, etc that it could get its hands on), and it is Hung who ties together these various strands. Dao's son, Binh, and grandson, Tu, are also pivotal to this story as the protectors of Hung, to whom they feel much obliged for many reasons. Hung and his pho have together seen history change wildly and been privy to a lot of secrets and also tragedies. Hung is a character I deeply respected - for how well he stood by his principles even without being a member of the movement, how he strove to protect the works of the writers and the artists, and how he felt it was his duty to look after his neighbors when there is a scarcity of food in town.

Camilla GibbI really enjoyed reading this book. It started out slow for me, and I didn't expect to get really engrossed in it. Most of this book requires patience to get through - a sentiment I've heard expressed previously. It's not the kind of patience you would need to read books like Ulysses, but rather, right when the author builds up interest in a topic, she changes the subject immediately. For me, that meant getting frustrated at not knowing what was so important that it had to be tantalizingly dropped in front of me and then pulled away. It's not suspense at all. I'd call it character investment - getting really empathetic with the characters and aching to know what's happening to them. Moreover, I loved reading about the movement and its members fight for individuality. It was a recurrence of the Dark Ages and the Renaissance in Europe. It most reminded me of George Orwell's book, Animal Farm. Now, most wars and revolts are originated mostly by word of mouth and mutual suffering, it feels alien to imagine writers and artists being punished for their work, and yet it is a reality of many countries.

I thoroughly enjoyed this look at Vietnam's history. Although it took me a while to get used to Camilla Gibb's descriptive writing, I began to appreciate it more as I continued reading. There are more sentiments in this book than those of the revolutionists and the intellectuals. It explores the attitudes towards the Viet Kieu and the alienated feelings of the latter (a sentiment I can relate to). It also shows how even decades after the creation of the movement and its eventual suppression, people in the current generation still harbored some form of revolutionist thoughts - for instance, although Tu would never imagine having another internal war in the present, he cannot embrace certain forms of art or support their existence. The author makes a wonderful case of showing how certain behaviors still outlast the revolutions they brought about - in a much milder form, but never fully stamped out.

TLC Book Tours
I could have however done with a not-so-well-patched-together ending. After a really rich sieving of the story, some parts of the ending fell flat on me. Not that they weren't believable or that they should have been more tragic, but the rhythm of the story suddenly changed gear and I felt it very out of place. Overall though, I will definitely recommend this book. In spite of the slow start, it compensates through the rich description of the characters, vivid portrayals of a history that is very much lost to a guzzling revolution, and the genuine thoughts and beliefs of the characters during the various tests of humanity.

I received this book for free from the publisher via TLC Book Tours. The Beauty of Humanity Movement is being released in the US on March 17, 2011.

17 comments:

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

Wow, it stuns me that the government wanted to obliterate original thought. This book sounds important!

Misha said...

The book sounds like a very thought-provoking one. I think I would love to try it.
Thanks for the review!

Juju at Tales of Whimsy... said...

Interesting selection!

Juju at Tales of Whimsy... said...

Sounds very thought provoking.

hcmurdoch said...

I am not sure this one is for me, but it sounds very intellectual and chock full of ideas and heavy issues.

Niranjana Iyer said...

Glad you mentioned the descritive prose--she writes beautifully, doesn't she? Restrained, intelligent, and a quiet humor through it all. (Spoiler) And I really enjoyed the positivity of the ending--such a refreshing change from the oppression narratives that tend to dominate literary fiction of this sort.

Athira / Aths said...

It would have been a hard time to be born in. Everything you do was observed. And you couldn't do anything that could result in a popular opinion even slightly against the party.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm sure you will enjoy it too! I will be looking forward to your thoughts!

Athira / Aths said...

It truly was!

Athira / Aths said...

Funnily it isn't. It reads like a breezy fiction. And while there's a lot of history and important issues, none are written in a heavy manner. I realize my review is to blame for it because I wrote all the heavy stuff in it. Instead I came away with all those heavy messages, because it really left me thinking a lot (in a very non-depressing way). I would still recommend this one to you. It actually left me surprised, because I expected it to drag.

Athira / Aths said...

I have to agree - I liked that the ending was positive. In fact I do like the ending. I think I just had a minor issue with the way it was paced out after a slow three-fourths of the book. But the writing is certainly beautiful (descriptive without being yawn-inducing).

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I don't know nearly as much about Vietnam's history and present condition as I should ... sounds like this book would be a real education for me.

Thanks for being on the tour.

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome, Heather. This book was certainly "educating" without being dry. I definitely enjoyed reading it and learned a lot about Vietnam.

Carina (Reading Through Life) said...

I agree about the pacing of the story - it definitely started slow, but built up to a much more rich and complex narrative. I didn't mind the ending as much as you did, but I'm certainly thinking back on it now.

Athira / Aths said...

I worried initially that I may not get into the book, but luckily the threads picked up. I wasn't really too bugged by the ending itself, but I felt like some volume changed over there, it's kind of hard to explain, maybe i'm just over-reacting.

Colleen said...

This topic really interests me - I visited Vietnam a few years ago - but I worry about the book being slow or difficult to read. thanks for your honest review!

Athira / Aths said...

It is slow initially, but isn't really difficult to read. It's slow because there is some background buildup, but all that is worth it. I hope you give it a try, it's wonderful!