Note: I began this post almost a month ago, thinking to post a multi-part essay over the course of my few weeks in Vietnam, but I never got beyond what’s here. I still intend to finish the essay, but thought I’d go ahead and post this opening bit to give myself some motivation. I find it hard to do extended writing when traveling; with luck, I’ll finish this as a short essay in the next couple of weeks.
There’s an English language bookshop just off Hang Bai in the French Quarter. There are a lot of art books and books of photographs of Hanoi and the usual range of English language instruction manuals for Vietnamese speakers and Vietnamese language manuals for English speakers, but the real value of the place is its extensive collection of (mostly) British classic texts from the 19th and early 20th century — Wordsworth editions of copyright-free texts on cheap paper that sell here for a couple of dollars — and since I increasingly find myself turning to the comforts of narrative, I feel grateful for the shelves full of Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, Daniel Defoe, George Elliot, and many others, including Dostoevsky’s great novel, which I read when I was an undergraduate but have mostly forgotten since, except for Myshkin’s winning and sometimes infuriating innocence. I bought the book on my second day in town — I almost got Robinson Crusoe, which I read last time I was here — but settled on the more ambitious project of The Idiot. I’ve been reading a few pages each evening without hurry, enjoying the switchbacks and asides as the narrative gathers way.
My days in Hanoi over my first two weeks in town had been alternately busy and dull. Vietnamese literary institutions move at their own pace, as they do in most places, no doubt; but it had seemed to me that the Writers Association, for example, though they have a designated “expert in external relations,” was not terribly interested in making connections and setting up meetings. As an organization, they seemed turned distinctly inward, creating a situation in which the foreign writer is welcomed ceremonially to hear a speech about cooperation and friendship. And then dismissed. Or, if that’s too harsh a judgment, just benignly ignored. The building in which the Writers Association is housed is a late French colonial affair of four floors with a staircase up the middle leading onto little warrens of offices. One suspects that it has always housed bureaucrats.
The Idiot begins with a journey. Prince Myshkin is returning to Russia, but it is an odd sort of return. It is as if he is returning to a place he has never been. That is something like the way I have felt coming back to Hanoi after eight years. [To be continued]