Nguyễn Quang Thân was born in 1936 at Sơn Lễ, Hương Sơn, Hà Tĩnh, and has been writing since 1957. He is the author of 5 novels (The Choice, The Little Boy Who Could Open Any Locks, The Time of the Peony, Cast Off from the Promised Land (translated and published in France in 1998), and The Manchu Horse), as well as several film scripts and numerous collections of short stories and childrens stories.
He is particularly well-known for his short stories. His story The Man Who Missed The Train, which was published in 1980, was considered to be an early manifestation of the flowering of the short story genre in the period of renovation. Later on, The Waltz of the Chamber Pot and most recently, Autumn Wind, as well as many other stories, have contributed decisively to his success in this genre. His short stories have appeared in 10 collections of Mr. Nguyen’s work, and have been included in many multi-author collections. Several of them have been translated into English, French, Russian and Hindou. His work has received numerous literary award in Vietnam.
After the success of the The Lost Souls, a multi-author collection of short stories in parallel translation, we, together Sai Gon Culture Publisher with Trí Việt company, are proud to introduce to our readers yet another bilingual volume of Vietnamese literature: In And Amongst Simple Thing, this collection of short stories that you are holding in your hands.
It must be said that, while these 5 short stories were selected by two reputable translators Rosemary Nguyen, Mạnh Chương for different reasons and during different time periods, they are similar one respect: they are all representative of the diversity of Nguyễn Quang Thân’s subject matter and style. The style diversity of his range is easily seen, from the bitter, eerily prophetic stories The Waltz of the Chamber Pot and Thanh Minh to the almost brutal clarity of psychological analysis of his characters in The Portrait, to the abundant humanity and romantic inspiration of Autumn Wind and A Woman in the House.
It is our earnest hope that this bilingual collection, in addition to helping all Vietnamese and foreingner, to improve their language skills by reading these original Vietnamese stories along with reputable English translations, will once again introduce to the reading public 5 short stories from this well-know author.
By Nguyễn Quang Thân
Thanh minh is purity
(From a Vietnamese dictionary published during
the reign of King Hùng Vương the 16th).
After my father passed away, I was more than a little reluctant to return home to N. My old friends there weren’t many to begin with, and by now they had dispersed, each in a different direction. As for my father’s friends, there’s no point in even mentioning them, while my father was still alive, they practically tripped over each other to be first in line to visit with their incessant questioning day and night; now, one might imagine that they have to the last man followed my father over to that world on the other side. My mother managed to live with the loneliness in N. for a time. After meals she would sit, chewing on a toothpick and waiting for a familiar face to appear with some friendly conversation to pass the time, but no one came. I finally went to pick her up and bring her back to Hà Nội. In a train car overloaded with our family furniture, my mother said despondently, "Your father truly was born under an evil star!" Her sweet, round Buddha-face was despondent. She knew that I was in a bad mood because I had been pleading and cajoling and still had not been able to arrange for a truck. They all were polite but all refused, even the gentleman who had once helped my father transport a hundred-pound porcelain elephant back from Bangkok and had been rewarded for this splendid demonstration of his ‘God-given talent for transport’ with a promotion to the directorship of a company and direct control over hundreds upon hundreds of trucks.
Every year, after joining my mother for the family’s observance of my father’s death, I would always make my getaway and stay away for as long as possible…I didn’t understand at first why this year my mother prompted me, "This Thanh Minh festival you must visit N. for a few days. To see how your father’s grave is doing." Being reluctant to do this, I immediately cast about for excuses. "Father’s grave? They built up it by ferro-concrete, what are you worried about?" Perhaps I should explain: the tasks of burial and reburial,[ii] of building a proper grave, even the granite memorial-stone, were all undertaken with all due solicitousness by ‘them’, in other words, the government. Everything was carried out in a manner befitting a man of my father’s status. Before his retirement, my father had once taken the lead in arranging a funeral for an underling and had carried it off with exquisite care, leaving not a dry eye in the house. The deceased’s family didn’t have to put out a penny, and even came out of it several million dong[iii] richer from the funeral offerings. They built a new house, a big one. So it was that my father’s funeral had a prototype to follow. After settling all the expenses, I and my mother were able to upgrade ourselves to a color TV with 7 channels.
But my mother wasn’t comforted, despite my reassurances. She fidgeted nervously, as though harboring some secret whose time had not yet come to tell. Finally, she asked me, "Kiểm, do you remember Mr. Hoàng?"
I nodded. "Sure I do, mother. That old fellow that father used to call ‘boxer’ Hoàng because he was always sparring with somebody, right?"
"Right," My mother replied. "Two months after your father’s reburial, Hoàng started shooting off complaints in every direction. He claims that during the period of resistance to the French, he was imprisoned together with your father, and your father sort of gave in and talked about something or another."
"Well, father’s dead, why should you care about that now?" I said.
My mother wet her lips. "Unfortunately, he’s demanding that the provincial committee move your father down to Area B. He says your father is not eligible to be buried in Area A,[iv] where he is now. Uncle Bình just let me know about this the other day."
I pressed my hands to my head and ran out onto the balcony. My temples were throbbing, and a hammer was pounding away just behind my forehead. The January sky was high and bleak, although the breeze had warmed up somewhat. God above, how much longer until these problems released their stranglehold on my life? Throughout my student years in my parents’ home in N., not a night had passed that my ears weren’t filled to the brim with stories of power struggles and rivalries. These did not concern me, but once they had found their way into my inexperienced, young ears I couldn’t help but to think about them. The presence of ‘boxer’ Hoàng, invisible but constant, had dogged my father even during his free time and then poisoned my life as well. I had married, moved to Hanoi, and my father had died; just when I thought I had escaped, something like this happens. A dog’s life, this!
When I went back into the house, my mother was waiting for me. "It’s just our bad luck that Mr. Hoàng has a good deal of power these days. It’ll be child’s play for him to pry your father out of Area A and kick him down to Area B. I’m really worried." I replied without thinking. "Fine, I’ll go home this Thanh Minh festival." As soon as the words escaped my lips, I knew that if I went to the Thanh Minh festival, it would be only to make my mother happy and to light a few joss sticks for my father. Even if that old wretch did want to demote my father to Area B, what could I do about it? At any rate, at least I would have the chance to visit a few old acquaintances and get away from my busybody wife for a few days.
No doubt about it, I was sick and tired of my wife, sick and tired of my job, and very extremely sick and tired of worrying about graves and plots and A or B or what have you.
* * *
The dead outnumber the living in my home city of N., where they lie on a row of hills just over the river. During the Thanh Minh festival, the ferry is crowded to overflowing. On the ferry deck, bicycles and Japanese motorcycles are jammed together in a mass of interlocking tires. Crippled beggars lie wedged between the feet of the passengers, who themselves are wedged like sardines in a can, and appeal to their sense of compassion, reminding them to not be so solicitous of their family’s graves that they forget the living.
Something that felt like a cat’s claw was scratching at my leg. A fat man with a back as wide as a door was crushing against my chest, making it impossible for me to wriggle away. I had to use both of my arms and all of my strength to push him away before I was able to bend down. I saw a child with amputated legs sitting on the bare deck of the ferry, looking like a ragged gunny-sack. The child looked at me with wide, soul-less eyes.
"I beg you Uncle, give your little nephew here a few, and god will bless you for it."
The currency has been losing its value recently, so people usually leave off the zeroes for easier figuring. I tried to guess how much the child was asking for -- a few hundred, a few thousand, or merely a few tens? I reached into my pocket, pulled out two hundred in change, and handed it to the child. Suddenly the fat man, who had at some point turned back again, grabbed my hand.
"Just a moment there, comrade! This is a massive social problem, we have to look at things on a macro scale in order to find a solution. Don't give handouts like that, my friend, that’s the way the capitalists do it. These bums will get used to it, and then they won’t ever get a job. Giving like that just spoils them!"
I felt a chill run down my spine. I recognized Mr. Hoàng. But he did not recognize me, the son of his former political enemy. The realization froze me where I stood, like a statue with no heart left for listening to his lesson on macro-scale charity. Worried that he might suddenly remember and recognize me, I began to edge my bicycle away in order to put some distance between us. I really didn’t want to get involved with this person. I had already decided that I was here only to light a few joss sticks on my father’s grave and then return to Hanoi as fast as possible to take care of that little business matter I was involved in. Several of us were plotting a scheme involving X., the director of a service company. The rube had only a 5th grade education and a weakness for girls into the bargain. We were planning to relieve him of several million ‘within the confines of the law’; then whatever he did after that, whether arrange an escape or go to prison, was up to him. I was drunk on the prospect of using that fragile little economic engineer’s diploma of mine for the first time -- five engineers closing in for the kill on a 5th-grade dropout was a sure success -- and I was determined to forget about old ‘boxer’ Hoàng. Let him spar with the earthworms over my father’s body. As for my father’s spirit, who knew where it was now?
It took me a few moments of pushing through the crowd to arrive at the bow of the ferry.
In front of me was a head of hair.
Yes, I know, the reader might well question as to how I was able to recognize one head of hair amidst the veritable forest of hair that riding this crowded Thanh Minh ferry. But dear reader, have you ever loved? If you have, you shouldn’t find this strange at all. Because there was one certain Sunday, in one certain corner of a hidden pine forest by the sea, that this very girl had laid her head on my thigh while I immersed myself in the lunatic work of counting every hair on her head. At first I had thought it would only take an hour to complete the task. But Buddha did not appear,[v] so I spent an entire day at it and was only able to count a pinch of hair which if tied together would be just slightly thicker than a ball-point pen.
Our love ended because my father destroyed it. And when my father set out to destroy something, he always succeeded. In just four years while living in N. province, he managed to destroy for all intents and purposes the province’s forests, temples, and historic sites. Naturally it wasn’t his own hand that wielded the hammers and hatchets, but he was the commander of the campaigns to ‘take the place of heaven and make rain',[vi] then to ‘compel the forests to bring forth cassava and rice',[vii] then on to the ‘war on superstition’ by rounding all the statues of Buddha, the ceremonial cranes, and the stone tortoises and piling them together in one temple in order to free up the other temples for housing. Perhaps his soul was in hell now for these acts. Certainly because of my father’s destruction, I lost forever the opportunity to realize my dream of living together with her. Just as I would never know how many strands of hair are on her head.
I remained standing behind her and immersed myself in studying this achingly familiar head of hair while listening to her chatter with a woman who appeared to be her traveling companion. The comforting thought occurred to me that perhaps I was not an altogether unvirtuous person; for if I were, surely I wouldn’t be treated to such a bittersweet reunion as this during Thanh Minh.
The woman asked, "So your mother hasn’t won her case yet?"
"My mother’s been hard at it for three long years now but hasn’t been able to change a thing," she replied, her voice sad.
"I figure she should give up on it, just to have it done with."
"That’s what I think too. But my mother won’t leave off. It’s downright humiliating, that’s what it is!"
Fortunately, the ferry was docking on the far bank. A shiny black car nosed its way to the front. I saw Mr. Hoàng push hastily through the crowd, knock down a little boy, then slide into the car. A trail of exhaust, as fine as cigarette smoke, appeared and seemed to propel him and the car on their way as gently as though flying. No doubt he was also going to the Thanh Minh festival.
Once the ferry docked, the woman moved on ahead. An older gentleman with an air of secrecy about him was shamefacedly waiting for her. Probably they had made a date for the Thanh Minh festival, to visit the grave of his ex-wife or of her deceased husband. That was what I took the liberty to guess, at any rate. White-haired men seem to be in great demand these days; just as people are realizing that an old bamboo basket, if mended well, is more durable than a plastic bag.
So she was left behind, alone and forlorn, on the ferry. In her bicycle basket there was a bundle of large joss-sticks and a bouquet of flowers. Little pergularia buds peeked out of their banana-leaf wrapping like tiny crab’s eyes. I picked up my pace in order to catch up with her. Whose grave was she going to visit? It had to be her father’s. So Uncle Thiết[viii] had died and no one in my family knew about it.
Uncle Thiết had been my father’s chauffeur. Before the liberation of 1955, he had been a driver for City Hall. He was exquisitely composed, spoke French, always dressed properly, and was well-versed in the streets of the city. Everyone who saw him sitting behind the wheel couldn’t help but to think that he had been born in a car; he fit so perfectly that he seemed to be a part of the car itself. My father hired him to work as his chauffeur. The Party objected. You couldn’t trust anyone who had driven a car for the enemy in the past, and not only that, he knew French too. If he was driving a dumptruck full of rocks to shore up the riverbank it would be one thing, but this... They told my father, "This is a matter of protecting the very life of the revolution. We must be vigilant!" My father replied, "Me, I’m going to worry about protecting my own life first." Seeing that it actually wasn’t a serious problem, and that my father was not going to change his mind, they ran a thorough investigation and finally agreed to allow my father to use Uncle Thiết. At the time my father was not yet a bigwig so it was easy to overlook. And everybody knew that my father was a highly-strung person, afraid of germs, afraid of thunder, and afraid of accidents. In other words, afraid of dying. That was why if Mr. Hoàng claimed that my father had blabbed something or another while in prison, it probably wasn’t entirely unjustified.
Uncle Thiết’s oldest child was a daughter named Hương. Hương was three years younger than I. Because my father was so severe and overbearing, she rarely came to our house. I usually sat on the back of Uncle Thiết’s bicycle and he carried me to their house to spend free time. Uncle Thiết treated me like his own son. Since I was past the age of playing with toys, I would go to Hương's house to read books. Uncle Thiết had bought an enormous quantity of books. Hương had read them all by the second or third grade. I thought it very odd that my father had never once bought a book, nor did he ever read a book. He said that he had already read all the books he needed to read back at the Party Academy, and those were mimeographed so he didn’t even have to put out any money. He also said that there were people who had never read a book in their lives but were able to rule over close to a billion people notwithstanding. Etcetera, etcetera. I didn’t often believe what my father said, so I continued to read books regularly at Uncle Thiết’s house. At first, I read in order to have something to talk to Hương about. Once Hương told me, "Can you imagine, Jean Val Jean lay on the bishop’s bed and couldn’t sleep because the mattress was so soft. Beautiful!" I had no idea who Jean Val Jean was. After that, I borrowed all four volumes of 'Les Misérables' from Hương and devoured them in one sitting. That was how I found out that, besides all those terribly important issues that my father had a passion for, there were other pleasures to be had in this life. Like books, for example. It was a revelation for me as a teenager.
At the end of my tenth-grade year, I declared my love to Hương. At the time, she was only 14 years old. That Sunday, we went to the beach and I sat and counted Hương’s hair in a frenzy of desire and discovery. If only I could have known how many strands of hair graced her head, that would have been enough. I didn’t yet dare to kiss Hương, even a lightest brush against her body was enough to send me into a deep tremble, like a snipe’s.
But our love was not to enjoy smooth sailing. We were still just children, and what’s more, we lived in two different worlds. Come Sunday, when I wanted to go out, Hương had to stand in line to buy rice. One time, I put out the money to buy a brick[ix] which reserved a place for her at the head of the line. Hương refused it, saying, "You buy a living, breathing body for a pittance like that, it’s a sin, that’s what it is!" She was always like that, stubborn and old beyond her years. I was despondent. I felt that Hương was far above me, as distant as the heavenly vault, unreachable.
Another time, Hương met me on the street, and asked, "Kiểm, can you ask your father to buy me the two-volume set, 'The Red and the Black?'"
I was surprised. "Why do you want me to ask my father for that? When has the old man ever read books?"
"They announced that this book would only be sold to cadres of level 5[x] on up," she told me, "Your father more than qualifies for that."
In my house, my father was the only one sufficiently qualified to buy books. I asked him. My father summarily dismissed the idea. "Showoff! You think you are a level 5 cadre, to be demanding such things? I won’t buy it!" I gave up. Being unable to buy the book for Hương made me feel eminently worthless. For two weeks in a row, I didn’t dare to see her. I knew that Hương was sad too. Sad because she didn’t know when she would be allowed to read this forbidden book -- forbidden, at any rate, to common citizens and those whose political acumen was not yet up to snuff. How long would it take for Hương to become a level 5 cadre? -- probably not until her next life! An invisible barrier separated us and gradually opened up a chasm between us. If only Hương hadn’t been so proud, there might have been a chance. But as it was...
Another time, my father received an invitation to a screening of the film ‘War and Peace.’ The invitation reserved two seats. No doubt one seat was intended for my mother. But my mother wouldn’t go. She never appeared in public with my father. She hadn’t even once sat in the car that picked my father up every day at work. Then the Committee Chairman gave my father invitation reserved for him and his wife as well. I had noticed that this man took every opportunity to pass along perks to my father, although my father certainly was not lacking in anything. My father told Uncle Thiết, "You can bring your Hương along this evening. Come pick us up and we’ll all go together."
We drove to the theater. Hương sat next to me in the back seat, wearing her prettiest outfit and a festive expression as though she were Cinderella sitting in the wedding-coach with her Prince. We had together read this novel long before; now, what could be more delightful than seeing the film? But when we reached the theater, I froze when I read the chalk-lettered sign: This film is restricted to cadres of level 4 on up. Tickets are on sale at government offices. "Well, so much for our plans!" my father said.
"These are invitations, father, why don’t we just go ahead and go in." I said.
"Invitations still have to be used according to rules," my father said. "You and I will stay, and Uncle Thiết and his daughter can go home."
Actually, it was against the rules for me to stay. But these were free invitations, so my father in his munificence decided to bestow his favor on me. That night was the first time I saw Hương cry. My eyes blurred as well. I and my father sat and watched the film for a while but, seeing that the screen was filled with nothing but earls and dukes bobbing and dancing and feasting on lavish banquets, my father yawned. After his third yawn he dragged me home. Afterwards, I was always to regret that I had not stayed outside the theater and gone home with Hương. I was just a kid trying to be a lover back then; I hadn’t yet learned that love means one has no right to go in and watch a film in so despicable a manner, when one’s lover and her father stand disgraced outside the door. I was petty, greedy child; a dog who knows only how to wag its tail, and doesn’t know how to growl.
When I saw Hương again after that night she was noticeably thinner. I understood only too well that, outside of our lusty pubescent dreams for each other, we did not share the same miseries or nourish the same dreams. Uncle Thiết was as self-possessed as always, impassively accepting the situation that fate had determined for him. Once, he told me, "Your old man was in and out of prisons for so many years, they could give him even more privileges than he has now and it still would not be all that he deserves." I knew that Uncle Thiết was sincerely fond of my father. Not only that, he even respected him.
Hương and I were still close friends after that, although it would probably be an exaggeration to say that we were in love. More and more, I felt that I must never lose her. I had to see her, to talk with her every day. At times I wished I could run away from home and move in with Uncle Thiết and his wife. But such thoughts were nothing more than the foolhardy wishes of a dog who is far too attached to its kennel to ever take action.
Then my father was promoted. The first thing they made him do (or perhaps he took the initiative himself, I don’t know) was to replace his chauffeur. He called Uncle Thiết in and, without beating around the bush, said, "I must let you go. I’m quite unhappy about it. But what else can I do?" Uncle Thiết understood only too well. He understood that he was not qualified to act as chauffeur for a man of my father’s new status. I was there in the sitting-room that day, but I couldn’t tell if my father was speaking sincerely or not. Was he unhappy, or was he just unwilling to part with a good thing?
For Uncle Thiết had been helpful in many various ways. Once, a craftsman had submitted to my father his sketch for a work of carved wood portraying Nguyễn Trãi sitting on a covered verandah and writing his famous Bình Ngô Đại Cáo.[xi] "If it please you sir, may I submit..." the craftsman had said. "The roof of the verandah will be carved with designs in the style of the Vĩnh Lăng stele..." After the craftsman had left, my father turned to Uncle Thiết and asked what was the Vĩnh Lăng stele anyway? Uncle Thiết expounded for a few minutes on the Vĩnh Lăng stele. "So that’s what he was talking about." my father said. "Fine. I’ll approve his plan to carve the verandah roof in the Vĩnh Lăng style, and disburse half a million in funds." Whenever he had to receive foreign guests or expound Party instructions to scientists or intellectuals, it was none other than Uncle Thiết who would conscientiously help my father choose a tie or dress shoes of the right color to match his clothes. My father would fuss, "What a waste of time! I don’t know why I put up with this rabble!" I never did understand what rabble my father was referring to.
And now Uncle Thiết would no longer have the opportunity to serve my father. Also he had said that no matter how much devoted service he rendered to my father, it was only a fingernail’s worth compared to my father’s virtuous contributions to the public. So even on that day his expression was as cheerful and impassive as though my father had just presented him with a gift. He said, "I’m getting old anyway. If I’m greedy and try to work too long, my children and grandchildren will laugh at me. I request permission to be relieved of duties entirely." Three days later he picked up his paperwork and went home. His social security plan paid out all his benefits in one small lump sum because he had so little seniority. My father presented him with a beautiful vase that had been fashioned from an artillery shell. Uncle Thiết was most pleased, and immediately made a place for it on the family altar.
The second thing my father did after being promoted was to present his beloved son with a magnificent beating. While the whole family was still celebrating, my father told me to lie down on the decorative tile floor of our house and pull down my pants. Then he took a rattan whip from his desk drawer. No doubt he had invested in it some time before but had never yet had the opportunity to use it. Now, he pasted me in the rear with it. With every stroke came the cry: "Still wet around the ears and already in love! Well, love, schmove! From now on I bar that slut from our door! And you -- if you go lollygagging around her house, I’ll kill you!" My father’s lecture on morality, though short, took the integrative approach of including both theory and practice, so I absorbed it thoroughly.
But if I couldn’t go to Hương’s house, where would I go? My life had no longer held any meaning for me. Somehow, I don’t know how, the phrase ‘I bar that slut from our door’ reached Hương’s ears. She wrote me a note with the curt message: "From now on a certain party needn’t ever see me again." I took thirty-five sleeping pills, but they were able to save me. As soon as I recovered, I dropped out of school and ran away from home. I went up to the midlands and worked as hired labor making coarse bricks for three meals and three thousand in wages a day. After two months, I figured I was safe. I hadn’t forgotten the beating, and had no desire to return home ever again. Even so, my father was able to track me down. Several fresh-faced security police from the criminal division drove up with a sidecar to take me home. One of the young men told me, "You’ve really made life miserable for us. For the past two months we’ve been chasing around looking for you, and in the meantime the robber gangs have been breeding like flies!"
I had missed almost an entire semester but was still allowed to sit for my graduation exam. I heard the schoolmaster say to the head teacher, "What a relief! We’ll have to treat ourselves to dinner for this one. Our school is just lucky that Kiểm agreed to sit for the test." I couldn’t understand how I had managed to pass with such high marks. Next I entered a community college, a local one, naturally. After just one semester, my father pulled me out to go to work. Six months later, my office arranged for me to study by correspondence course. By this time, I had most definitely forgotten all that information that I had never really learned in the first place, yet still I passed. Then I graduated from university. Such was my fate, I guess. If my father had not died, no doubt I would have successfully defended my doctoral thesis in some foreign country by now. But that was fate too. And I don’t regret it, either.
These were my thoughts as I pedaled faster to catch up with Hương. I called her name. Hương turned.
"You’re going to visit the graves?" she said, blithely.
"Yes. And you?"
"I am too. My father was exhumed and brought here over three years ago now."
Well, everyone has to die sometime. By this time, I had most definitely forgotten all that information that I had never really learned in the first place, yet still I passed. Then I graduated from university. Such was my fate, I guess. If my father had not died, no doubt I would have successfully defended my doctoral thesis in some foreign country by now. But that was fate too. And I don’t regret it, either.
I was silent as I pedaled alongside Hương. Along the asphalt road, it looked like an enactment of a scene from The Tale of Kiều. ‘Horses and carriages poured out like water, clothing packed in as though wedged.’[xii] Except that now it was Japanese motorcycles and imported Thai clothing. Anybody who did not have fancy clothing and bicycles stayed at home. The dead surely did not reproach them for it. If your children are bankrupt it’s your own fool fault because you didn’t leave anything behind for them; it’s only fair that they should neglect your grave.
The surrounding hills were gaudy with the festive clothing of people cleaning and decorating the graves. Smoke from the joss-sticks, the color of an evening fog, drifted lazily in the air. Every face wore an expression of reverence and mourning. A grave, though an eternity may pass, is still a grave -- a somber boundary-post marking a passage into that world on the other side. One can only hope that, down there, our individual lives will dissolve into one another, to be re-formed into new and different entities which will be more suitable to that eternal world. Hatred and debt will be erased, leaving only love. Dictators will be despised. Greedy, obstinate people will be changed into gold and silver pack-asses, useless creatures with which nobody will know what to do. Who knows, maybe over there my father is driving a car for Uncle Thiết and hoping that he won’t be forced to retire suddenly in his prime. Ah, this tranquil promised land, where the only people allowed in are those evacuees who have dared to pay for their visa with their death, and then aren’t even able to send money home.[xiii] Inexplicable!
I walked beside Hương as we threaded our way between the graves. I asked, "It seems that Auntie is having some kind of trouble? Do you need me to help with anything?"
I remembered the book ‘The Red and the Black’ that had once turned me into a worthless, tattered rag. I wanted to salvage a modicum of self-respect that the severe regulations of my childhood had so bitterly ripped from me.
"There’s nothing you can do, Kiểm. For the past three years my mother has been trying to arrange for my father to be moved to Area C -- that’s the area reserved for cadres -- but no luck. They just keep saying that he has to stay in Area D, the area for the masses. What with my father being a chauffeur for your father all those long years, he’s got to be a cadre, right? There’s no way he could be construed to be just one of the masses." Hương smiled sadly and listlessly pulled up a clump of grass that was growing by the gravestone.
A stabbing pain cut through my chest. The clumps of February clouds that were sealing off the sky were slowly beginning to redden. The sky would clear up again after the Thanh Minh festival; now, it was as though a soggy rag covered the sky day and night. Uncle Thiết’s grave had been summarily built amidst a sea of the masses’ graves. Visitors were scarcer here than in the other areas. Who were Uncle Thiết’s neighbors here? A cyclo-driver, an old noodle-seller, a prostitute, or maybe some wretch who killed a man in the course of a mugging and got the death penalty for it? Who will they drive around now, who will they sell their noodles to and service the lusts of, who will they mug and rob if those with health and wealth all go to their rest in other areas? Who will lead them?
Hương lit some joss-sticks and stuck them into Uncle Thiết’s grave, then divided up the remaining joss-sticks and spread them evenly around the surrounding mounds. When she finished she pulled me away and pointed out another grave, this one lying forlorn and alone some distance from the others.
"That’s the grave of old ‘Oink’ Tân, the robber chief who was shot to death five years ago. He never imagined that the keeper of the graveyard would get rich thanks to him. Anyone who brings bones here for reburial, he tells them they have to bury their loved ones right next to Tân’s grave here. So they have to grease his palm with a little money before he allows them to dig their graves someplace else. My mother had to cough up several thousand for him too."
"Let’s light a few joss-sticks for him." I said.
"Up to you."
I stuck the joss-sticks into the little mound which was now a money machine able to support the graveyard-keeper in high style. Hương said that he had sent money back to his home village to build a new house and marry off his son. It just goes to show that the saying, ‘Death is the seed of life’ is more than just a philosopher’s chance guess.
Hương led the way. We passed Area C, then Area B, then finally came to Area A of that wide expanse of graveyard that seemed to go on forever; the restful backstage area lying in wait behind the noisy, chaotic stage of life. Hương’s shoulders traced a delicate and familiar curve through the air. I wanted to clasp those shoulders to me, and along with them the dreams that had haunted me throughout a lifetime. Suddenly a fierce desire exploded within me. I would take Hương away. We would go up to the midlands to make coarse bricks, or go to Dong Nai and pioneer a piece of that red-earthed land to plant cashews or coffee. We would live differently and die differently. Darling! If we could live a different life, even for just one day, we would be able to die happy. And we would be buried differently too.
My father’s grave was still resting peacefully at its original spot; as of yet, no one had touched it. We lit joss-sticks. I went through the motions of pulling up a few blades of grass. Hương scattered the last of her flowers over the cold concrete surface of the grave. "Right up until his death, he still barred me from your door." Hương said.
"My father barred people from doing a lot of things. But he can’t bar anybody anymore."
As we sat next to my father’s grave, our hearts quieted. I knew that Hương had forgiven all. I had forgiven all, too. Every generation must to learn to forgive. Gratitude and forgiveness are indispensable companions to filial piety. I decided to tell Hương about the plan that had suddenly presented itself to me. But just then I saw Mr. Hoàng. He was walking some distance away with the graveyard-keeper. His stomach was truly impressive. I couldn’t help but to wonder how, when the time came, that man would suffer the indignity of squeezing a corpse of such glorious proportions into a tiny concrete grave. But, like it or not, it was inevitable. Nobody can scorn the final haute couture that crowns every life. Mr. Hoàng was pointing and gesturing. The graveyard-keeper nodded his head repeatedly Then Mr. Hoàng got into a car, the same black car as before. The graveyard-keeper walked in our direction. I offered him a 555-brand cigarette. He took a long, healthy drag on it, making a squealing noise like someone smoking a water-pipe. After cheerfully dispensing with a few random remarks, he bragged, "I administer forty-five thousand human units here. All year round I live with ghosts."
I asked him, "That man you were just with? Whose grave was he visiting, Uncle?"
"Visiting his own grave, who else?" he replied. "Three years ago he inspected hundreds of sites before finally deciding on a really beautiful site here. Every year he comes to check on it and see if we’ve buried anyone next to him."
"No doubt you’ve managed to coax a little something out of him?" I said.
He laughed. "Well, whatever profession you find yourself in, that’s what you gotta live by, right?"
On the road back home, I tried to lag behind a little in order to better feast my eyes on those beloved little shoulders of mine. Hương talked impassively about her life. Her hair styling shop was busy, enough to live on anyway. I teetered on the verge of telling her about my intention to leave my wife and go to Đồng Nai with her to grow coffee. But I hadn’t yet found the right time to say it. My chest felt full to bursting with all my plans for the future. Suddenly, Hương stopped her bicycle.
"Kiểm, will you help me with something?"
"Whatever you ask, Hương."
"Can you set me up with a job in a government office? I mean, I just can’t go on being just one of the masses forever, can I? However much it costs, I’ll cover it."
Hương looked at me, then winked and gave an obsequious smile. I felt my chest burst into a thousand pieces, leaving only a gaping, empty hole. The palace built around my vain imaginings of past and future had collapsed. I said good-bye to Hương, then turned randomly off onto a gravel road that ran through an unfamiliar field. I sat down on a rock by the road. I cried. In the field, the newly-sprouting rice plants undulated in the wind. Perhaps these rice seedlings are the only ones who are satisfied with their fate of being one of the masses, I thought. The glorious and everlasting masses...
I returned to Hanoi on the evening train. One of my fellow conspirators met me at the station. In a panic, he told me the earth-shaking news. That damned director with his fifth-grade education, the one that five of us engineers had planned to butcher in order to get our hands on twenty million, had taken us for a ride. He had turned the tables on us and now it was us, not him, who had to dig into our pockets and come up with three million a head to pay him off. "The old fox," my comrade said, "Just pay him the money to get it over with. That’s how it always is -- the noblemen always lose to the rogues."
The only thing left for me to do was to beg my mother for the money to settle up this gambling spree that had left me with a hole burned in my pocket. She handed me an even three million, saying, "This is several years’ worth of your father’s envelope-money[xiv] that they’d give him at meetings. Your father never spent it, just told me to put it away so later on you can have it for capital when you’re starting out."
(Translated by Rosemary Nguyen – Seatle – USA)
For THANH MINH
[i] ‘Thanh minh’ is the name of a Vietnamese holiday dedicated to tending ancestors’ graves.
[ii] In some areas of Vietnam, the dead are buried twice. They are buried the first time for several years, until most of the flesh decomposes. Then the body is exhumed, the bones are lovingly washed, and the clean bones are reburied in a permanent resting place.
[iii] In 1991, when this story was written, the Vietnamese dong traded at the rate of about 14,000 dong to the US dollar
[iv] In Vietnam, some graveyards are divided into separate areas for separate classes of people. This custom probably stems from the belief that if one’s ancestors are not satisfied with their resting place, they might return to haunt the family. Area A is the area reserved for high-ranking Party members.
[v] In many Vietnamese folk tales, Buddha plays a role equivalent to the ‘fairy godmother’ of Western folk tales.
[vi] The name given to an ill-planned campaign to improve irrigation networks.
[vii] The name given to another campaign, this one aimed at increasing arable land for crop production. Unfortunately, valuable hardwood trees were cut down to make way for fields of cassava and other crops worth a fraction of the trees’ value.
[viii] ‘Uncle’ here is not meant to express actual kinship. The Vietnamese language makes wide use of familial pronouns to express relationships of respect/disrespect, familiarity/unfamiliarity, etc. The most famous example of this is, of course,‘Uncle Ho'. Here,‘uncle’ simply means that Thiết was an older male acquaintance whom the narrator respects.
ix During the period when the Vietnamese regularly had to queue up to buy state-subsidized goods, some creative entrepreneurs made money by arriving early to get a choice spot in line, then reserving their spot with a brick and selling it to those who came later.
x At the time of this story, Party cadres were ranked on a scale from one to six, six being the highest level.
xi Nguyễn Trãi was a famous military leader who led a successful campaign against the Ngo dynasty in China. The Bình Ngô Đại Cáo is his proclamation of victory.
xii"Ngựa xe như nước, áo quần như nêm" An excerpt from Vietnam's most famous work of literature, a long poem entitled Truyện Kiều which tells the story of a young woman’s tumultuous life. Written by Nguyen Du in the 18th century, it has been absorbed into Vietnamese life on all levels, just as Shakespeare’s writings have influenced life in English-speaking countries. .
xiii A reference to the fact that many Vietnamese who emigrate to other countries do so in part to make money to send home to the rest of the family.
xiv(15) Money given in order to encourage Party cadres-who are generally pitifully underpaid- to attend meetings. When they arrive at the meeting, they are handed an envelope with a sum of money in it as a bonus.