Introduction - Wayne Karlin


(about An insignificant family – a Da Ngan ‘ s roman)



An  Insignificant Family follows the life of Nguyen Thi

My Tiep, a woman whose girlhood was spent as a guerilla

fighter participating in a war for national liberation and an

ideal society and whose adulthood became a struggle for

personal liberation and individual love. Tiep's Journey and

the journey of her ('insignificant family', coincide with her

country s journey from the end of the Viet Nam-American

war into the twenty-first century, from the headiness of

liberation and reunification (at least for the winning side),

to the disillusionment and deprivation caused by post-war

policies that fostered corruption, inefficiency, and a continued

enmity between losers and winners, and finally to the time

of renovation-doi moi -  and beyond, as the country

addressed and attempted to redress many of the mistakes of

the past-sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and always

with a host of new complications.

While Tiep's story occurs within and can represent these

three epochs-liberation, deprivation, and renovation-Tiep

herself is never merely symbolic: Da Ngan has created a fully-

realized individual, the antithesis of the stereotype of the

pure-minded revolutionary prevalent in war and post-war,

pre - doi moi, Vietnamese literature, or the Confucian ideal

of the submissive woman. The author makes us conscious of

the struggle to be such as individual by making Tiep a writer,

and thus someone-unlike the rest of her more conventional

family-whose horizons and sense of choices have been

opened and expanded by her exposure to literature:

There was no doubt but that she and her loved

ones lived in two different worlds. On their

side there was no First Circle of Hell, no quietly

flowing Don River, no Lover, not even Les

Miserables. . .while her side was full of novels and

notebooks, pen and ink, movement and desire . . .

The women of her family, who knew only too

well how to exploit their control, cared only

for hierarchy and order, for the four traditional

feminine attributes of industry, appearance,

speech and behavior, and above all for peace and

comfort. To them, the Job of a cadre was to bring

glory to the family by advancing one's position,

and the Job of a peasant was to be industrious

and solicitously attend the family altar. Tieps

newspaper articles they could grasp, but this

thing called literature that aged her night after

night was deeply suspect . . . ~

Tiep, always a revolutionary and always a reader, refuses to

see the world through either traditional or ideological prisms.

During a time, for example, when people were forbidden to

speak well of those Vietnamese who had been on the other

side of the war, and in spite of her own fight against that side,

she admires the integrity and strength of character of the wife

and daughter of a former South Vietnamese colonel, homeless

and desperately poor because of its connection with the

losing side, more than the apparatchiks and hypocrites with

whom she works. In this, as in many other ways, the novel

reveals both social context-here the split in the country that

remained after the war's end in 1975 - and Tiep's strength of


Tiep's paternal and maternal families, Southerners, from

the Mekong Delta region, are both traditionally Confucian

and also traditionally revolutionary. After her father dies in

a South Vietnamese government prison during the war, Tìep

and her brothers all join what those on the other side of the

war called the Viet Cong, the southern National Liberation

Front guerillas fighting against the government and against

the Americans; a struggle she also joins when she is only

16. When she first meets Tuyen, the man who will become

her husband, he is also a combatant, and their relationship

is intensified, and indeed-she later reflects-perhaps even

created by the intensity of the war:

Tiep hunkered deeper into the foxhole with

this young man who might die with her in the

shower of fragmentation bombs, penetration

bombs, duster bombs; whatever they were,

in that impenetrable and tireless chorus of

bullets, dollars and wealth that was trying to

make mincemeat out of that river fork and their

sheltering Combretum tree. Tiep s ears rang but

her eyes shone with emotion because Tuyen had

pulled her up by the hair and had pressed her

down into this grave of a foxhole. She cackled,

and then her cackle changed into whimpering,

and then the whimpering gave way to sudden

silence as she realized two hands were pressing

her down, and the buttons of her blouse somehow

had come undone, and there were her breasts

hardening and trembling under two greedy

hands in the water the color of dirty milk. How

strange. This delightful feeling of being caressed

while at the same time the torment below as her

body lifted and sank rhythmically in water that

stank of hell. . . . Urgency mixed with pain and she

wanted to scream out her survival her exposure

her ecstasy her complete abandonment.... So it

was that the taking of her virginity had what

should have been au the ingredients of a great

love: gratitude, commitment, the intensity of life

in the face of death . . . .

Da Ngan here becomes one of the few modern Vietnamese

writers to directly explore the sometimes thin line between

death and eroticism that occurs during war, and by implication,

the seductive blindness of war itself. The bold lover, full of

courage on the battlefield, becomes the sycophantic, fanatical

bureaucrat and indifferent father and husband in the years

of peace after the victory, "absorbed, diligent, and utterly

pitiful? The fervid idealism of self-sacrifice and closeness to

death that made their first love-making so exciting does not

survive the pressures of peace-time life, and Da Ngan uses

Tiep's sex life as a gage of that disappointment:


Afterwards-after that unforgettable day of

enemy soldiers pouring out of helicopters and

unexpected, electrifying kisses and young bodies

partaking for the first time afterwards she

and Tuyen had found plenty of opportunities

for further exploration. They shared shelters

and boats, death and survival, and most of all a

common need for physical intimacy when life

and death were measured in hours and days.

But after [their son] was born, their sex life had

turned suddenly uninspired. Despairing of her

husband s character and soul, and especially

his dwindling reserves of basic humanity, Tiep

resigned herself to Tuyen's approximations of

lovemaking. . .


While many vietnamese writers, from Nguyen Du, author

of The Tale of Kieu and the 18th Century poet Ho Xuan Huong

onwards have used sex to explore character and social mores

(and vice versa) , the direct descriptions of Tiep s sexuality are

rare, at least in translated Vietnamese literature we've seen.

Tiep's dissatisfaction with Tuyen and her search for a more

idealized, emotionally fulfilling love, leads to one disastrous

affair, an even more disastrous attempt at reconciliation with

her husband, and finally a tumultuous twenty year saga, as

Tiep and Dinh, the married Northern writer with whom she

falls in love, deal with the complications of divorce, children,

career, and re-marriage, as in the microcosm of this one

"insignificant" family, one sees a rejection of the struggle of

the country itself. While the tasks that faced Viet Nam after

the devastation of the war were momentous, Tiep's sense

of disappointment that the fighters who were so efficient

at defeating the enemy, were inefficient at creating a viable

society is pervasive and tragic. An Insignificant family is filled

with vivid descriptions of petty acts of corruption, hypocrisy

and favoritism, and the severe poverty and endless queuing

for scarce goods and food that followed the war:


Tiep asked Dinh, "If you had to do a sociological

thesis about Hanoi in this era, what image would

best encapsulate your ideas?" Dinh licked his lips

thoughtfully, a sign that he was about to launch

into his familiar biting sarcasm. "Well of course

a thesis has to have illustrations. Me, I would

draw a zigzag row of broken bricks, worn-out

hats, old baskets, blunted brooms, torn thongs,

broken plastic containers, and ripped shirts... the

sort of things that are usually used as stand-ins to

keep people's place in queue. I think that if you

arranged them in front of a very still background,

they would start to take on a life of their own.

They have their own fates, their earmarks, their

aspirations, even their own souls... they wear the

faces of people like me, or my little sister, my

friends, and someday, my children. Yoư've never

laid eyes on such a bizarre queue, I'm guessing.

Everything is so much easier in the South, eh?"

As Tiep struggles to be with the man she loves, and as she

struggles to define love itself and what shape it should take

in her life, Viet Nam struggles to define itself and the future

it wants for itself, and as Tiep makes mistakes, learns, and

is transformed, so is Viet Nam. Visiting the capital today, its

streets lines with thriving shops, its restaurants and cafes filled

with energetic people, and a sense of dynamism everywhere,

one can no more envision the universal poverty and hunger

of the seventies and early eighties than one can envision the

bombs that fell on these same streets in the years of the war.

There is still poverty and repression, and all the new problems

that come with the tension between the modern and the

traditional and the onset of globalization. But there has also

been an almost miraculous transformation. The novel takes

us to 2005, with Tiep and Dinh, and their country, still plagued

by unresolved issues, still struggling with self-definitions, but

epochs away from the war and the devastated years after it: "As

for Hanoi itself, it was churning with underground currents

a new age: barriers were being broken, enterprises launched,

opinions voiced, chains thrown off, hope emerging..?'

Wayne Karlin

 BẢN TIẾNG VIỆT (Vietnamese Version) ( NQ Thân chuyển ngữ)