The Long View

Nguyễn Khắc Viện and Hữu Ngọc (eds.) Vietnamese Literature: Historical Background and Texts, 1,043 pages.

*Update: more information about this anthology is available here and here

The English edition of an anthology published initially in French. My copy is curiously undated and with no publishing information. Part one contains a detailed overview of Vietnamese writing divided into major periods from the 10th century until 1975. Part two includes brief biographical sketches and writing samples of almost 200 authors and poets following the same historical periods. Some old favorites here: Nam Cao, Tô Hoài and Vũ Trọng Phụng. Poems by Nguyễn Khuyến.

Vietnamese Literature: Historical Background and Texts

The editors are familiar names in Vietnam. Nguyễn Khắc Viện was a legendary scholar and interpreter of Vietnamese literature, culture and history for the West. Active in Vietnam’s political struggle for independence, he was a leader of the Vietnamese liberation movement in France in the middle of the last century before returning to Vietnam in 1963. He then headed the Foreign Language Publishing House until his retirement in 1983 at 70 years of age. Presumably that answers the question of who published this volume.

Hữu Ngọc I have encountered before. I have a copy of Wandering through Vietnamese Culture, a collection of newspaper articles published over the years in the Sunday edition of Vietnam News. I have heard him speak as well, a wonderful and joyful old man now well over 90 years old.

There are gaps of course, perhaps most clearly in the 1950s. But judged on what is included, rather than what is not, this is an amazing resource.

The most moving, and unsettling, piece that I have come across so far? A poem by Phạm Hồ from 1950:


I fired at him
tender and beautiful days gone by
could not hold my hand

tender and beautiful days gone by
he has forgotten them all
but i remember still:
the fields of my village, huge ocean of rice
the morning dew, white pearls by the roadside
us two
our school books clasped together
our clothes crumpled by sleep
our bare feet moving together side by side
in swinging hands the handful of rice
our mothers ground in a leaf of areca palm
our wide conical hats with their bands too long
in a pocket a matchbox, a cricket inside…

how beautiful, how gentle they were, these days gone by
and yet these days for us had no tomorrow
he left the village to follow the invader
many years ago
to my sorrow and my anger
I tried to win him back several times,
he answered me with dark crimes…
I met him this evening
I fired at him
beautiful and tender days gone by
could not hold my hand

his body lay on the dike
no longer the boy I knew of old
I looked into his face
and regretted his childhood days

How to react to such writing? It went straight to my heart: I loved it immediately. But it is horrific. Powerful, beautiful, luminous, poignant, pure and … horrific.

It seems Phạm Hồ was an author of children’s books and an occasional poet. I mean to look for this poem in Vietnamese.

~ by hanoi ink on October 12, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Long View”

  1. […] Viện and Hữu Ngọc’s massive sampler of Vietnamese literature that I wrote about in my last entry in the library at L’Espace in Hanoi. According to the inscription on the title page, that […]

  2. […] Incidentally, it seems that George Boudarel, a French history professor who joined the nationalist Viet Minh forces in their anti-colonial struggle and was many years later subject to strong criticism over his role as a political commissar in re-education of French prisoners in Viet Minh prison camps in the early 1950s, also played a role in at least the French edition of Nguyễn Khắc Viện and Hữu Ngọc’s anthology of Vietnamese literature that I have written about elsewhere. […]

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