piled up books in Hue

A recent work trip took me through Huế a few days ahead of the biannual Hue Festival. Having performed at the festival a few years back, I was a bit nostalgic seeing all the preparations underway. One big improvement since that time is that they have moved the festival from June to April, when it is much less hot. It was a bit of a killer performing outside in the heat, and not so great for the audience either.

This time I was on a short work visit with a pretty full schedule, but I was keen to sneak away for an hour or so looking for a few old bookshops I had read about online.

The first of these, Hoàng Thổ Book Shop, was not so difficult to find. It is located on Hùng Vương street, in a small row of shops more-or-less opposite the Thừa Thiên-Huế Radio and Television (TRT) building, and just down from the Hue Pedagogical College (Trường Cao Đẳng Sư Phạm Huế).

Once inside the shop, however, actually finding out what was there was not so easy. The shelves are very full, with some very precarious stacks (it is possible that I may have precipitated a small avalanche at one point). On quite a few shelves, including most of the Vietnamese literature section, the stock is stacked in piles with the spines not facing outwards, making it very difficult to browse.

Hoang Tho book shop, Hue

I think my camera is losing focus 😦

Curiously, the bookshop had what was probably the smallest collection of English and other foreign-language fiction I have yet encountered in a second-hand bookshop in Vietnam. Mr. Huy, the owner, pulled out a couple of half-boxes: maybe 40 books in all, in a mix of languages. There was a bit of an African American theme in one box, with works including the 1964 book The Negro in America by Arnold Marshall Rose, as well as the predicable Roots by Alex Hayley alongside a much less predictable Dutch language edition of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, The Heart of a Woman (Het Hart Van Den Vrouw).

The shop is apparently pretty active about re-binding books, with a large proportion of the books in re-taped bindings with hand-written titles on the spines. A couple of the English-language novels had apparently lost their title pages along with the covers before being repaired, as they had been re-bound with the carefully handwritten book titles “Preface” or “Contents” on the new cover and spine.

I didn’t find anything too amazing here, but walked away with a bunch of books anyway, including couple of different soft-cover high school textbook editions of Nguyễn Du’s classic Truyện Kiều from 1972 and 1984, and a collection of essays from 2003 on the poet Chế Lan Viên.

I also grabbed a German edition of Phạm Thị Hoài’s 1995 short story collection Sonntagsmenü (Sunday Menu) which I plan to pass on to a German friend in Hanoi. And a copy of poet Xuân Diệu’s Công việc làm thơ (The work of writing poetry) from 1984 for another friend who collects his books.

My final finds were a couple more charming publications from the former USSR. The first was a bit surprising: I grew up reading Gerald Durrell’s books, starting with My Family and Other Animals, and it turns out that so did probably many children in Russia. But still it is interesting that back in 1969 there was an English-language version of his 1961 book The Whispering Land published by Education Publishers (Издательство “просвещение”) in Moscow.

The second of these Soviet finds was Fata Morgana and Other Stories, an English-language collection of translated stories by the 19th and early 20th century Ukrainian author Mikhailo Kotsyubinsky, published by Dnipro Publishers in Kiev in 1980. A socialist and a contemporary and friend of Russian author Maxim Gorky, Kotsyubinsky’s writings drew on Ukrainian rural society. He contributed to the development of various literary styles including ethnographic realism, modernism and impressionism. His work was later honored in the Soviet Union during the period when social realism (i.e. “social romanticism”) was the dominant literary form.

At a little over 100 pages in this edition, the main story in the collection, Fata Morgana, is set in the Ukraine in first years of the 20th century. It recounts a story of the peasant families living in a village by a large landed estate who, together with similar villages all over the country, are beginning to move towards political awareness and direct action against the landlords and factory owners. Their efforts dissolve into nothing, however, due to lack of organization and because many people just want either to wreck and loot the estates and factories that have oppressed them, to secure slightly better terms to their oppression, or just to have a small piece of land for themselves. The ending is brutal. The message of the book is that a complete transformation is needed, not these short-sighted and piecemeal efforts chasing after a mirage, a “fata morgana”.

There is a lot in Mikhailo Kotsyubinsky’s writing that reminds me of Vietnam’s early efforts towards similar socially engaged pre-revolutionary writing, such as Nguyễn Công Hoan’s Bước đường cùng (Impasse) and – Ngô Tất Tố’s Tắt đèn (The light is out) from the late 1930s.

I had to cut short my browsing in the Vietnamese literature section to rush back to a meeting. Having come across vague rumours of another bookshop on Phan Bội Châu street, as well as some sidewalk sellers on Nguyễn Trường Tộ, I stole a half hour more at the end of the day looking for these, without success: the bookshop was not to be found and the evening rain washed away my hopes of any sidewalk finds.

~ by hanoi ink on May 10, 2012.

2 Responses to “piled up books in Hue”

  1. i’m jealous of the guy who gets that xuan dieu book you bought.

  2. In Hanoi there any bookstore like this?

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