The Zenith by Duong Thu Huong

Duong Thu Huong’s The Zenith (Viking, 528 pp., $32.95) is a complex doorstop of a novel that examines the lives and thoughts of a group of top Vietnamese leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. The cliché “It’s lonely at the top” sums up one of the main points of the book, but also gives little of the sense of this enormous novel.

I found the English translation (by Stephen B. Young and Hoa Pham Young) strange. Often it seems as though the finished product was translated from a couple of other languages, not just one. I checked in the front of the book, though, and the only other language acknowledged is Vietnamese.

Perhaps the translation is brilliantly loyal to the original Vietnamese, but I have no way of knowing.  All I know is that I found this novel very hard to read and much of it hard to follow—very much as I have found some giant Russian novels a challenge, especially the ones with casts of hundreds and with characters with similar-looking names.

A section at the front of the novel listing the characters and their names, alternate names, pet names, and nicknames would have been a welcome courtesy to this reader. It also would have been helpful to have had a brief paragraph about all the main characters, explaining who they are, who they fictionally represent, and how they figure in this story.

The sort of guide produced for James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake could be models. To be fair to Joyce, I found his novels more of a pleasure to read and ultimately more rewarding. But to be fair to Duong Thu Huong, James Joyce’s novels were written in my native language. Novels in translation are always potentially problematic.

The Vietnamese culture is also more alien to this American reader than the Russian and Irish cultures, both of which are essentially Western. There are many culture-shock moments in The Zenith related to food, sex, and death. The novel itself acknowledges this difference between their culture and that of the “American bandits.”

The dust jacket has laudatory quotes from Le Monde, L’Express, Le Figaro, Elle, and Telerama.  All of them are French magazines, so I suspect there is a French translation of this novel, too.  A further clue is that the author lives Paris. I wouldn’t be surprised if her French is as good or better than her Vietnamese. That is pure conjecture and could be dead wrong, of course. Most of the dust-jacket praise gives no real sense of this huge novel, or convinces me that the reviewers have read it all the way through.

Duong Thu Huong

I’ll quote from a typical sentence to give a sense of the awkward English in the book.  “In this line of work, if you are not the chief honcho of a pit, having bags filled with cash and a brain filled with devilish schemes, then most likely you take up working in the pit as an ordinary ruffian or rascal, unafraid of quarrels with guns and knives, or you might be at a dead end, without another livelihood, ready to throw your life away as so much straw or grass…. In actuality both  ‘old men’ were born gamblers.” Yikes.

“Chief honcho?”  Isn’t the expression, “head honcho?”  I guess I am nitpicking here, but many sentences have to be read two or three times to make sense of them.

One of the delights of the book is the frequent food references, often in list form. There are hundreds of them. Here’s one: “She made snail stew with banana stems, frog stir-fried with pepper and bamboo shoots, catfish soup with vegetables, shrimp braised in rice wine, or eel in turmeric.”  That sounds good. On the other hand, I’ve eaten in many Vietnamese restaurants and don’t remember ever encountering one of these dishes.

More than anything else—more than a book about Ho Chi Minh being marooned on a mountain top during the American war, surrounded by guards, forbidden to have a private life, his wife murdered and his kids hidden—this is a book about the importance of food in Vietnamese culture. On page 361 there is a detailed recipe for deep-fried mung bean paste. It is so detailed it even debates the difference between frying the paste in peanut or sunflower oil.

I read so many references to roast pork that I had my wife buy me a pork roast to cook.  I was also tempted by the references to shrimp soup with fish bladder and steamed rooster and pork pie with fungus, but I wasn’t sure where to send my wife for fish bladder or what sort of fungus to direct her to buy for me. As for steamed rooster, I wasn’t sure if I steamed it with the feathers on or off.

So those dishes remain in the book. As for duck’s blood with pig’s intestines, that one did not even tempt me. I’m too Western, I guess.

Awkward idiomatic expressions figure in this book as often as food imagery. “He suddenly remembered that his wife was in bed and for sure was still awake.”

“For sure?”  Was the translator a Valley Girl?  That expression occurs often. I started circling it every time I saw it, but soon my arm got tired.

Also, one of the female characters is said to have fig innards on her teeth. “Innards?”  Maybe fig seeds. Figs don’t have innards. Also, don’t scorpions sting? This author has them biting. Seems wrong to me.

All the above being said, I do recommend this book to any reader with energy. You must be willing to put in a lot of time and to keep detailed lists of characters and names, which I had to do to make sense of the book.

I can’t say it better than L’Express:  “The Zenith is a stunning reflection on the tragedy of power when it is taken hostage by totalitarian ideologies.”

I’d like to see a cookbook from Duong Thu Huong. She could produce a stunner.

—David Willson