Vietnamese writer’s English novel is another excellent, masculine war narrative

By Thuy Linh , Thanh Nien News

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 Cover of Vinh Quyen’s novel “Debris of Debris” written first in English and published by the College of Saint Benedict in the United States in 2011. Photo provided by Vinh Quyen
 Vinh Quyen’s Debris of Debris, a novel about post-war Vietnam written and published first in English and now in Vietnamese, is an enjoyable work of masculine sensibilities.
American War narratives have been drawing attention lately with Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the US.
While The Sympathizer deserves a separate reading, Quyen’s novel, titled Manh vo cua manh vo in Vietnamese, has also created a buzz.
Published earlier this year in Vietnam by the Writers’ Association Publishing House, Quyen’s novel won the second prize at the Vietnam Writers’ Association’s competitive 2011-2015 Novel Prize.
Quyen’s work shared the second prize with two other novels and there was no first prize.
Yet, long before it was recognized by Vietnamese literary circles, the novel had caught the eye because he wrote it first in English rather than Vietnamese, making himself the first Vietnamese writer living in Vietnam to ever do so.
Quyen was inspired to tell his own story about Vietnam in English by the Canadian writer David Bergen. While visiting Vietnam to research for his novel The Time in Between, Bergen often met with and heard Quyen tell stories about Vietnam.
In his acknowledgements in The Time in Between, which is about an American veteran returning to his former battlefields in Vietnam, Bergen mentions Quyen as a friend who, through conversation and company, guided him deeper into the heart of Vietnam.
Quyen said some of the characters in The Time in Between were based on his stories, his friends, and the people he saw around him every day.
This prompted him to ask himself a profound question that had never occurred before: “Why don’t I myself tell the story of my people to the world?”
Quyen then painstakingly completed Debris of Debris with the help of some good friends who helped correct and edit his English. With luck, he also found foreign publishers for the work. The novel was published as a limited edition for in-house use by the College of Saint Benedict in the US in 2011, then printed commercially by Austin Macauley Publishers in the UK in 2014.
And now Manh vo cua manh vo is available in Vietnamese, providing yet another view on the American War in Vietnam: not the view of Northern soldiers like Bao Ninh’s well-known work Noi buon chien tranh (The Sorrow of War) or other mainstream stories coming from post-war Vietnam; nor the view of American soldiers like the works of David Bergen, Tim O'Brien and other Western writers.
Rather, Quyen from Vietnam and Nguyen from abroad seem to be moving from opposite directions toward a common meeting point to help create a richer, more complete picture of Vietnamese identities and interpretations about the American War.
The two interpret the war with a humanistic attitude that seeks to see different sides of things through equivocal narrators (or main characters) who can’t be easily defined, while at the same time providing captivating, enjoyable writing that good writers, however sad and serious, often achieve.
If the narrator in Nguyen’s novel is a South Vietnamese officer who fled to the US after the war but remained a communist spy throughout, the main character in Manh vo cua manh vo is a South Vietnamese intellectual who stayed in Vietnam after 1975 and remained unimpressed by the communist government.
The story of Kha, a high school teacher in Da Nang hailing from an old royal family and whose late father was a high-ranking official in the South Vietnamese government, frames the novel. After the war, Kha is spared the re-education camps which are reserved for more “dangerous” groups such as former military officers, policemen and government officials of South Vietnam. Kha’s punishment, however, is to be relocated to an inferior rural high school.
Kha has an easier post-war life than other major characters many of whom fought for North Vietnam and some for South Vietnam. The numerous stories of their individual lives during and after the war are smoothly interwoven and told through many flashbacks in a narrative journey that travels back and forth in time to recount the havoc of war, especially the great romantic relationships that war creates and then tears apart, and pick up those old relationships again in the post-war era. Some relationships reach happy conclusions while others suffer unsalvageable damage.
Written in a sparse, minimalistic style, Manh vo cua manh vo is quite fast-paced and dramatic and with a good dose of sex, suggesting commercial appeal for such a serious topic. This energy isn’t lost on local critics.
In an essay written for Van Nghe (Literature and Art) magazine, literary critic Nguyen Chi Hoan said that perhaps no novel after 1975 had ever told such a youthful post-war story as Manh vo cua manh vo.
This novel is also reminiscent of some action-packed popular old Vietnamese war movies about Southern spies and rangers working undercover for North Vietnam such as Van bai lat ngua (An Upturned Game of Cards) and Biet dong Sai Gon (Saigon Rangers).
Indeed, besides Kha, the other main characters in this multi-character novel are a group of young men, some of them Kha’s old college friends in Hue who, unlike him, fight for the communist cause and work for the rangers in Da Nang during the war.
A large part of the novel is devoted to the stories of these valiant heroes - Quang, Phan and Long – and how they meet their lovers during the war and try to reunite with them, or fail to do so, after the war.
Each of the men have their own interesting stories which can be read as individual short stories, showing Quyen’s resourcefulness as a storyteller.
In fact, over the years, the writer has sometimes teased out these stories and published them independently.
Cover of Debris of Debris published by Austin Macauley Publishers in the UK in 2014. Photo provided by Vinh Quyen
One of the best stories is that of Phan and his lover, Lai. Lai is a prostitute. During the war, when Phan tries to flee from the Southern police after his unit is busted, Lai shelters and saves him. The two fall in love but part ways as Phan has to continue fighting in the jungles. Lai stays behind, gets pregnant but can’t keep the baby, quits her work and works for a hospital instead.
After the war Phan and Lai reunite and get married. However, the social stigma against prostitution causes too much trouble for Phan (though he doesn’t mind them) and guilt for Lai. She decides to leave Phan and go back to her home village in the southernmost region of the country. Phan searches hard for his wife and finds she has gone back to her old profession. The two make love and Lai leaves again. Phan runs after her while Suchia, a young, innocent local girl who happens to meet and help Phan during his trip and is now falling in love with him, runs after him.
This love story, especially its final chapter with Phan, Lai and Suchia, shows Quyen at his best. The writer is able to capture in an elegant, compact plot a seemingly inexhaustible topic: the impossible romantic love in which a man and a woman are thrown together and then torn apart through events they cannot control. The three characters are also neatly drawn. Lai is the quintessential prostitute with a tainted body but a heart of gold; Phan is a seasoned soldier, a man’s man; and Suchia is a pure, impressionable girl who is obviously still a virgin who can heal Phan in every way.
Interestingly, however, it is also here -- and elsewhere throughout the novel -- that Quyen’s work reaches its limit - a limit he doesn’t have to cross but can serve as a mirror for anyone interested. It is the limit of a novel written from a fine, subtle, maybe unconscious, but essentially vain and complacent male point of view. It is the limit of Quyen taking women simply as they are found in history or in reality, of not being aware of their deepest problems which have nothing to do with war but with eons-old gender inequality, and of not exhausting options to help them.
With some extra touch, some of Quyen’s seemingly hopeless “debris of debris” of war can perhaps be patched up together.
Take Lai’s problem,for instance. The unhappy ending to her love story is one that Quyen can’t blame on the war. Lai was already a prostitute before the war; she isn’t pushed into prostitution by the war in any obvious manner. So the social stigma against her that she deeply internalizes and prevents her from finding happiness has more to do with traditional patriarchal double standards that glue women to sexual purity on the one hand and allow men sexual freedom on the other, which Quyen does not explore.
In fact, the writer lets Lai flagellate herself with her guilt. Somehow, Quyen seems harder on Lai than his male character Phan. Phan doesn’t mind Lai being a prostitute and would never exchange her for anything. Yet Quyen, in a profound way, trades and negates Lai with the creation of Suchia, a woman who is everything she is not.
Is there anything in the internal logic of a good story that makes Suchia an absolute necessity? If not, there is no reason why when Phan and Lai break up he is offered such a good alternative so soon, so easily. He could have stayed single.
Quyen’s virile heroes are in general a lucky lot, especially Kha. Women fall for them easily and when one woman fails, there is surely another to fill her place. Through the novel, Kha has good sexual or sexually charged relationships with five women. Another interesting thing is that the women in the novel often offer to have sex with the men when they fear they will be killed in the war.
They say the same thing, “Love me,” to the men, but the men don’t crassly jump at the offer. One of them, Thang, a documentary filmmaker who has a talent for distancing himself from life (a talent that truly befits filmmakers, artists, writers and abstract thinkers in general, who, thanks to historical patriarchy, are often men), even politely declines an offer. All of this sounds as if for women sex with men is life’s greatest gift and protection in the face of death.
In terms of storytelling, in Manh vo cua manh vo, it is also men who narrate the stories. Even if some stories seem to be recounted by women (Vinh Quyen smartly adds two letters written by the female characters), women don’t offer any new voice but simply fill in some missing facts, repeat and reinforce men’s accounts, and, especially, reaffirm their undying love for men.
The presence of exclusive male voices is shown most clearly in chapters 15 and 16 in which Kha, now a publishing house editor and writer, intends to write a collection of short stories about women during wartime. What is both interesting and ironic here is that those stories about women are told to Kha by men, not by women themselves.
Kha lists five such stories. The obvious reason why there are no women to tell Kha stories is that they are either dead or missing or otherwise absent and thus unable to tell their stories. If so, then Kha, Vinh Quyen, or other male writers should let the matter rest or make it clear that they are telling men’s stories.
It is because wars in patriarchal societies, including the American War in Vietnam, are men’s wars. Women are most likely just dragged into them and there may be no unique voices from womankind regarding wars to take account of.
That said, when there is no pretension or confusion from male writers regarding this issue, then their works are a pleasure to read, even to their most hard-hearted, hard-headed feminist readers.
A photo provided by Vinh Quyen shows the cover of Manh vo cua manh vo, which was published in Vietnamese earlier this year by the Writers’ Association Publishing House. Vinh Quyen himself designed the covers for the three editions of his book. He said the foreign publishers opted for his designs rather than use the designs of their own artists, explaining they didn’t know enough about Vietnam to design the covers.

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