crossroads and lampposts
Hanoi Ink is quite excited to lay hands on a copy of Trần Dần’s mid-1960s novel Những ngã tư và những cột đèn (Crossroads and Lampposts), published for the first time ever in January 2011 by the Writers’ Association Publishing House in Hanoi.
Poet and author Trần Dần (1926-1997) came of age in the turbulent 1940s and 1950s in northern Vietnam. One of many writers who joined the revolution, he was present at the famous victory of General Giap’s forces over the French at Điện Biên Phủ and shortly afterwards wrote a novel about the battle, Người người lớp lớp (Men upon men, waves upon waves).
Through the 1950s Trần Dần and many other writers, musicians, artists and other creative intellectuals pushed for greater freedom of expression within the newly established society. They came to be known as the Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm group based on the names of a newspaper and periodical published by the movement in 1956. From at least the start of the 1950s Trần Dần – who has been described as something of a natural risk taker – was increasingly subjected to official criticism and sanctions linked to a range of issues, including the content of the political courses he taught as a political cadre to other artists and performers, his marriage to a Catholic business woman, his harsh criticism of contemporary artistic works that had received the official stamp of approval, and due to his own writings.
His poem Nhất định thắng (translated variously as Certain Victory, or We Must Win) provided a kind of touchstone for the movement. Initially it was strongly condemned by leading Party intellectuals. George Boudarel’s book Cent fleurs éclosent dans la nuit du Viêt Nam – for a long time the main source of information on this movement available outside Vietnam – describes how the authorities briefly backed off from this criticism in parallel to the hundred flowers campaign in China. However, following a brief period of intense, exciting and creative activity in Hanoi from 1956-58, the movement was shut down.
Incidentally, it seems that George Boudarel, a French teacher and Marxist who joined the nationalist Viet Minh forces in their anti-colonial struggle and was many years later accused in France 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.
Kim N.B. Ninh’s book A World Transformed: The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, 1945-1965 provides one of the most detailed accounts I have come across in English of Trần Dần – whom she describes as a “young, ambitious and impatient writer” – and the Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm movement, and the legal and administrative sanctions that were applied to the group leaders. Trần Dần himself was prohibited from publishing his work until the late 1980s, when he was basically rehabilitated after the adoption of the Renovation policy. He was awarded the Vietnam Writers’ Association Medal in 1994 and the State Medal for Literature and Art in 2008.
This novel is one of several written by the author during the 1960s, none of which have been previously published. The preface describes how the novel was written based on interviews with former soldiers of the French colonial regime who were imprisoned in Hanoi. Trần Dần was given permission to enter the prison in order to interview them, with the condition that he submit his draft manuscript to the police. He duly submitted the sole copy in 1966, only to lose contact with it until after his rehabilitation. The manuscript was returned to him by police in 1987 along with some of his poems. Trần Dần corrected and revised the manuscript in the following years, but it is only now, around 44 years after it was written and more than 13 years after his death, that it is being published for the first time.
A first glance at the novel. The back cover includes what seems to be an excerpt, written in the first person in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style: a man talking about the crossroads in his life, his confusion, pain and struggle. “I am a man: I do not suffer. But I want to cry. I am a man: I do not cry. But I suffer so much.”
A second glance, flicking through the pages. The language now and then seems a little strange to my inexperienced eyes: ‘agree” is rendered đồng í instead of the usual đồng ý, and “love” is iêu rather than yêu. With my limited Vietnamese language ability and background I don’t know if this reflects 1960s usage or is just a personal creative expression on his part, a forerunner perhaps of the language now used for text messages and online forums where phải becomes fải, yêu becomes iu and biết becomes bít.
Thế thôi! I’m off to start reading.