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Reading Tim O’Brien in Hanoi
Vietnamese are not so interested in stories about the American war, since they won it and don't care for amoral chaos.
By Matt Steinglass
Last month, on a typically dull, gray late-winter Hanoi day, I stopped in at the city’s sole respectable foreign-language bookstore, the Bookworm, for a conversation with a Vietnamese fan of Tim O’Brien. “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien’s celebrated collection of linked stories about the Vietnam War, has just been reissued in a 20th-anniversary edition, and I was interested in gathering a Vietnamese perspective on O’Brien’s work. But it took me days of calls and e-mail messages to find anyone in Hanoi who had read any of it. Finally the manager of the Bookworm suggested I speak with Tran Ngoc Hieu, a lecturer at Hanoi’s Pedagogical University. I needed a while to track him down, as he is perhaps the only person in the city who does not use a mobile phone. Hieu, 30, looks young for his age, and compensates by wearing a sport jacket and speaking a careful, deliberate English with an exceptionally rich vocabulary, interrupting himself frequently to apologize for not speaking English well.
“Vietnamese authors should learn to tell their war stories the way O’Brien does,” Hieu said. “With parody, nonlinear plot exposition. The fusion of reality and dreams.”
It shouldn’t have been so hard to find Vietnamese who could talk about O’Brien. He is, after all, a seminal American novelist of the Vietnam War, and one would think his books — including “If I Die in a Combat Zone” (1973) and “Going After Cacciato” (1978) — would be reasonably well known to Vietnamese readers. They are not. In fact, almost none of the major American novels about the war are known to Vietnamese readers; they have not been translated and published here. You can buy photocopied English-language editions of Robert Stone’s “Dog Soldiers,” Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke” or many classic American works of nonfiction from wandering booksellers who ply the tourist neighborhoods in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but like most people around the world, few Vietnamese read in foreign languages for pleasure. A small group of the literary elite read unofficial translations of some American works on Vietnamese-language émigré literary Web sites, like Talawas. But for the most part, Vietnamese are simply unfamiliar with American fiction about the war.
To some extent, the lack of familiarity stems from censorship. Vietnam today is in many ways a rather open society; Vietnamese can surf the Internet (though writing blogs on political topics can get you arrested), foreign television streams in via satellite and cable, and pirated DVDs circulate freely. But when it comes to books, the old Communist machinery of censorship remains in place.
But censorship is only part of the story. Vietnamese also seem largely uninterested in foreign accounts of the war. For example, Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” is available in translation, but most Vietnamese I’ve spoken to dislike it. They find the book’s main Vietnamese character, the beautiful Phuong, demeaning in her passivity. The lack of interest extends to movies, too. You can purchase a copy of “Apocalypse Now” at any DVD store in Hanoi, but even the Vietnamese film buffs I’ve asked have not seen it. Last year, Vietnam’s first chain of modern multiplexes showed two movies one would never have expected to make it past the censors: “Watchmen,” which includes a sequence in which an American superhero ensures that Nixon wins the war, and “Tropic Thunder,” a parody of serious Vietnam films like “Platoon.” Audiences here yawned at both.
In the case of “Tropic Thunder,” Vietnamese simply didn’t recognize the themes it parodied. The film was essentially a burlesque of that central motif of Vietnam in American culture, the “heart of darkness” story: the descent of innocents into savagery, the dissolution of reason in a violent encounter with an incomprehensible alien society.
The Vietnamese, obviously, are that society. And they don’t find themselves particularly incomprehensible. Nor do they find themselves silent and mysterious, like Greene’s Phuong. Moreover, the current Vietnamese government is descended from the side that won the war, a condition much less conducive to irony than America’s experience of quagmire and defeat.
A triumphant political narrative, enforced with deadening rigor in textbooks and museums, limits the kinds of stories that can be told in Vietnamese literature about the “American War.”
As Hieu puts it, it’s not just that censorship restricts the contents of most novels, but that it pushes even rebellious authors to concentrate on breaking the barriers of factual content, rather than on aesthetic innovations.
“Vietnamese writers are still focused on telling the ‘true stories’ that aren’t taught in schools, the secret truths,” Hieu said. Most forgo complex formal approaches. “If you watch Dang Nhat Minh’s film of ‘Don’t Burn,’ you’ll see.”
“Don’t Burn” (published in the United States in 2007 as “Last Night I Dreamed of Peace”) is the most important recent work of war literature in Vietnam. The diary of a young Vietcong doctor named Dang Thuy Tram who was killed in 1970, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies when it was published in Vietnam in 2005. Vietnamese found Tram’s sincere, emotionally direct writing powerful and unexpected. Reviewers in the United States, though, mainly found it trite.
What Vietnamese literature seems to be missing, from an American perspective, is the kind of amoral chaos we have come to expect from war stories. Americans tend to embrace those Vietnamese works that do have a bit of the dark and the surreal. Bao Ninh’s 1991 masterpiece “The Sorrow of War” (published in the United States in 1995) includes images of senseless death and waste on the Ho Chi Minh trail, presented in an ironic, nonchronological style that recalls O’Brien or Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” For the North Vietnamese soldiers in this novel, life in the mountains and jungles is every bit as alien and terrifying as it is for the Americans in O’Brien’s.
In 1997, a fragment of “The Things They Carried” was published in the Vietnamese literary magazine Foreign Literature. The publishing house Nha Nam will publish the first full translation later this year, in a print run of a few thousand copies, typical for novels here. If O’Brien ends up translating better than other English-language writers of the war, it may be because he explodes the expectations of readers, American and Vietnamese alike.
For example, in a startling chapter in the middle of “The Things They Carried,” he depicts the telling of a story by Rat Kiley, the unit’s medic and a narrator whose reliability is explicitly undermined from the start. In the story, a G.I. somehow manages to bring his gorgeous blond high-school sweetheart to his firebase. She gradually acclimates to the war, takes up with the Green Berets, and winds up padding through the jungle on weeklong ambushes and returning wearing a necklace of human tongues. We eventually realize we are reading an absurdist parody of the “heart of darkness” story.
In an earlier chapter called “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien tells us that if it matters whether it really happened, then the story isn’t “true”: “Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen — and maybe it did, anything’s possible — even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story doesn’t depend on that kind of truth.”
O’Brien is suggesting that what American soldiers discovered in Vietnam, amid the horrors, was a particular modern way of being that demanded a surrealistic kind of storytelling. And Vietnamese are interested in surrealism. (Haruki Murakami, for example, is hugely popular here.) They just aren’t terribly interested in the war.
Matt Steinglass is the correspondent for the German news agency dpa in Hanoi, where he has lived since 2003. This article appeared in The New York Times Book Review. Image by Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma, via Corbis, Saigon, April 30, 1975.
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