Tran Huy Lieu book street, HCM City
A few spare moments during a work trip to Ho Chi Minh City back in late April allowed a visit to another of the city’s book streets. After quite a few more moments since returning north, here is the Hanoi Ink rundown on Trần Huy Liệu street in Phú Nhuận district.
The first place I came to, Duy Tuệ Book Shop at 175 Trần Huy Liệu, would have to be the neatest and best-organized second-hand book shop I’ve ever been into in Vietnam. So much so that at first glance I assumed they only sold new books. But the sign out front said old books (sách cũ), so in I went. It turned out that all of the stock was second-hand, although the books were almost all in very good condition and arranged carefully on the shelves without any over-stocking. They were mostly fairly recent publications, and I didn’t find too much of interest, other than a series of miniature poetry collections by a wide range of famous Vietnamese poets, including Nguyễn Khuyến, Xuân Quỳnh, Nguyễn Bính, Xuân Diệu, Tản Đà and Hồ Xuân Hương.
It was starting to rain, so I hurried across to the General Old Book Shop 160 (Sách cũ tổng hợp 160). This was also fairly carefully arranged, but as usual the shelves were pretty overstocked, with piles of books reaching to the ceiling. I spent a fair bit of time browsing here, and left with a bunch of different books including a 1985 Vietnamese edition of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1950s book Thời gian để sống và thời gian để chết (Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, i.e. Time to Live and Time to Die) which I grabbed for a friend in Hanoi who is on a one-person mission to popularize this author in Vietnam. I also found a few more of the poetry miniatures, including collections from Chế Lan Viên and Hàn Mặc Tử from the Bình Định group of poets.
The next shop along, at 198 Trần Huy Liệu, was a bit of a disaster zone, with books and magazines piled up everywhere in a very haphazard fashion. To be honest, this kind of arrangement always raises my hopes of some random find, a forgotten treasure buried under the pulp fiction and back issues of current magazines. And while I didn’t really have the serious time required for this kind of excavation, I did find a few interesting things, including an English-language collection of poems from Soviet Tatar poet Mussa Jalil (Musa Cälil) that was probably my favourite purchase of the day. The collection was published by Progress Publishers in Moscow in 1981.
As a young man, Musa Cälil wrote revolutionary poetry and joined an underground Komsomol cell in his hometown of Orenburg in 1919. His poems were published in Tatar during the 1920s, and then in Russian translations during the 1930s. During WWII, he volunteered for the Red Army, and was captured by the Germans together with his unit in June 1942. As the Germans sought to form anti-Soviet national legions from the Eastern European nationals in their POW camps, he undertook resistance activities against the Nazis under an assumed name, infiltrating a newspaper and printing anti-fascist leaflets. He was arrested for these activities in August 1943, imprisoned in Moabit Prison in Berlin, and finally executed by the Nazis a year later, on August 25, 1944.
Musa Cälil’s poems written during his imprisonment were preserved by two other Tatar prisoners, and eventually published after the war as Moabit Däftäre (The Moabit Notebooks). He was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union award for his resistance activities, and the Lenin Prize for his poetry.
You can read the Foreword to the English anthology by Raphael Mustafin here. The English translations generally follow a fairly forced and simplistic rhyming scheme and honestly don’t read that well. I would love to know more about his use of Tatar language, what traditions he drew on, what forms he used, and what innovations he made.
The English anthology includes many of his Moabit poems, which generally express his bravery and commitment in the face of imprisonment and his death sentence. But the poem that particularly caught my eye was written in 1932, looking back more than a decade to his youth and early political activities, with a very sweet and human aspect. In translation it opens like this:
I imagine it was quite amusing
Our puppy YCLer* crush.
Members of one regional committee,
To the congress we were being rushed.
The train in clouds of freezing vapour
And us freezing under one fur coat.
(Excerpt from Our Love by Musa Cälil)
*YCL = Komsomol i.e. Communist Youth Union.
In this book shop I also picked up an old Soviet atlas and a slim, beautifully designed and extremely fiery undated but presumably 1960s publication from l’action etudiante contre l’oppression, denouncing imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, social injustice, totalitarianism and militarism in South Africa, Algeria, Nicaragua, Spain, Haiti, Angola, Mozambique and a bunch of other countries.
Based on information here it seems possible that a publication like this may have had Soviet funding. Although there is also an article strongly opposing totalitarianism and state interference in universities in East Germany…
Book Shop 207 had probably the most interesting books and magazines of all the shops I visited on this street. They directed me first to a bunch of English-language novels halfway down the shop by authors including J.D. Salinger, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert, Chinua Achebe and a bunch of others. They seemed pretty aware of their authors, also, noting the ones I was interested in and bringing out similar stuff. It was a bit like being plugged into the old Gnod music database, or Amazon.com: “Customers who bought this item also bought…”. The books were not in pristine condition but were pretty reasonably priced with some gorgeous cover art, and my stack of purchases was becoming a small hill at this point.
They weren’t done with me yet, though. The next stop in this shop was a series of stacks of magazines, including a very few pre-1975 publications and several different and very attractive sets of Soviet magazines from the late 1970s and 1980s. Seeing my interest in old magazines, they pulled out a bunch of smaller pre-1975 Saigon periodicals.
The most interesting of these was Edition 12 from April 1966 of the Vạn Hạnh journal, presumably linked to Vạn Hạnh pagoda and the former Vạn Hạnh university in Saigon. The university was established by Thích Minh Châu, and is notable for its association with 1960s faculty members such as Thích Nhất Hạnh—Martin Luther King Jr.’s nomination for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize—and Phạm Công Thiện.
The title of Volume 12, executed on the cover and spine in very simple calligraphy without any illustration, is Nghĩ về chiến tranh Việt nam (Thinking about the war in Vietnam). I may come back to this in a future post.
I also went into the shop next door, however a quick look didn’t really turn up anything new. One common feature of the bookshops along this street, neat or otherwise, was the friendliness of the shopkeepers. They were also very helpful in trying to work out what I was after, noting my purchases from earlier shops and bringing out similar stuff. But by this stage I was pretty much done, and very hungry, so I headed back to District 1.