Athira (Reading on a Rainy Day)'s Reviews > The Beauty of Humanity Movement

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb
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's review
May 11, 11

really liked it
bookshelves: 2011, fiction, source-review, source-own, f-literary, personal-library
Read from March 13 to 15, 2011

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.

I 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.

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.
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