Got My Visa for Vietnam

I’ll be heading for Hanoi later this fall. On my early trips to Vietnam, beginning in the mid-1990s, I was mostly interested in the American War & it’s effects on the country. I read a lot of history. But you can’t really understand the war without understanding Vietnam whole. (This is certainly true of any country & makes writing history in the conventional sense impossible, I suppose.) Still, it is possible to work one’s way backward in time & outward in space (both physical & cultural) from the war. All the while hurtling into the future. After that early study of history, I mostly wanted to forget the war–or at least to quit framing the place I had come to love–in terms of the war. I forget the exact figure, but I think something like 70% of the population of Vietnam has been born since 1975 when the war ended & the country was unified.

Rainy evening in Hanoi (2012)

Over the last couple of weeks, though, I have listened to the audiobook versions of two books about the war, one I’ve read more than once & have used as a text when teaching a course on Vietnam, the other new to me: Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History 1 , and Lien-Hang T. Nguyễn’s recent (2013) Hanoi’s War. Neither book is a “straight history”–Karnow’s is a journalist;s history, with frequent first-person interjections into the narrative; nor is Karnow’s book a history of Vietnam: it spends part of its first chapter sketching in the long, long history of the country, but its focus is the twentieth century wars in Vietnam. Nguyễn’s volume covers essentially the same period, with even more focus on the American phase of the war, with the additional narrowing that a specifically diplomatic history requires.

Note: Before going further, I want to remark on that narration of these two audiobooks. Karnow’s text is narrated by Edward Holland, Nguyễn’s by Hillary Huber. Holland is a fine narrator, with good tone, pacing, and timbre, whereas Huber has few of these qualities. Still, Huber is the superior narrator because she took an hour or two to learn how to pronounce Vietnamese–not perfectly, but adequately. It was very difficult to listen to Holland pronounce “Ngô Đình Diệm” as “No Din Dee-em” some 500 times. There is a difference between a barred Đ and an unbarred D: the first is pronounced as in English, but the unbarred D is pronounced more like Z. This is only the most egregious of the narrator’s errors, which accumulate until anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Vietnamese will be tempted to stop listening. This is not the snobbery of one who has learned a little Vietnamese–I would not expect either narrator to try to pronounce the tones 2 of Vietnamese, but basic phonetics is, well, basic.3

The two books complement each other. Karnow’s account has helped to shape the conventional wisdom about the war while Nguyễn’s account self-consciously sets about to revise that same conventional wisdom. Karnow relies on interviews & journalistic sources for the most part while Nguyen makes extensive use of Vietnamese archives that have only recently become available. 4 The conventional view of the war is that Hồ Chí Minh directed the North’s efforts until perhaps a year before his death in 1969. Nguyễn’s research makes clear that Hồ Chí Minh & his general Võ Nguyên Giáp were largely sidelined in the early 1960s by Lê Duẩn & Lê Đức Thọ (the “brothers Lê”). Furthermore, Nguyen argues persuasively that Hồ Chí Minh & Võ Nguyên Giáp were, at least within their peculiar historical context, moderates who might have shortened the war by negotiating with the US years before Lê Duẩn was prepared to make that move. Continue reading “Got My Visa for Vietnam”

Show 4 footnotes

  1. The audiobook is a reading of the 1997 2nd edition, which was extensively revised from the original 1983 edition.
  2. The three syllables of the former president’s name have, in order, a level tone, a falling tone & a low constricted tone.
  3. The narrator of the audiobook version of Mark Atwood Lawrence’s The Vietnam War, Peter Berkrot,  is perhaps the worst offender in this parade of mangled pronunciations: He says “un-go” & “un-guy-en” for, respectively, the Vietnamese names Ngô & Nguyễn. At the same time, he gives correct, if somewhat westernized, pronunciations to the names of Chinese leaders. Lawrence’s book is a useful overview, however.
  4. Nguyễn notes that many more archives relevant to the North’s conduct of the war remain unavailable to scholars.

This Poem Seems Appropriate Today

Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifiuto

For certain people there comes a day
when they are called upon to say the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has
the Yes within him at the ready, which he will say

as he advances in honor, in greater self-belief.
He who refuses has no second thoughts. Asked
again, he would repeat the No. And nonetheless
that No–so right–defeats him all his life.

–C.P. Cavafy [Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn]

Andrs Neuman’s Traveler of the Century

Just finished reading Andrs Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’sprotagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19thcenturyEurope & the confluence of poetics & politics.

I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.

That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattvawho dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog areimpostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that isprogrammedto make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

Redundancy & Style in Vietnamese

Vietnamese poetsthis may be common in everyday speech, but I havent run across itwill pile up two words with essentially the same meaning. Here is an example: The poet T Ngọc Thạch begins a line with the phrase Lớp lớp địa tầng in which, as near as I can tell by dictionary crawling, both Lớp lớp and địa tầng can straightforwardly be translated as layers or strata in English. I dont know whether I should render this as just layers or strata or something more like layers of strata. Clearly, I need to seek the help of a Vietnamese poet on this, but I’m beginning to think that Vietnamese writers use these doublings & sometimes triplings to elicit shades of meaning. That is, redundancy — that’s what we’d call it in the West — is a fundamental element of style in Vietnamese, particularly in literature, but also in everyday speech.

Music & Speech

Daniel Bowling really ought to do this study with Vietnamese speakers. In Vietnamese, there is a long tradition of interaction between the six tones of the spoken language & the (mostly pentatonic) music used to accompany songs & poems. Last weekend, I was invited to the home of a family of very talented traditional musicians & treated to an informal concert of various forms of Vietnamese music. In most of these forms, because the language itself is tonal, the poet or songwriter has followed forms that place rising or falling or level tones in particular places in the verse line. Theinstrumentalist(s) & vocalist, also following a set of conventions, but also improvising within the conventions, perform the text so as to emphasize & play with the composer’s intentions. My sense is, though I’m not entirely sure of this, that, contrary to the Western art song / lieder tradition, the music is driven by the vocal text rather than the other way around.

The musicians I listened to played the đn tranh & the đn đy, stringed instruments with a pentatonic tuning & the ability to bend notes in order to suggest the tonal slides & glides of the Vietnamese language. There is also a two-stringed lute that has no natural tuning & can be tuned to any of the other instruments. Half-way through the concert the other night, a young man showed up who was a virtuoso on this instrument, playing incredibly complex runs of notes on the raised frets. In the south, I have seen Western guitars with the spaces between the frets scooped out in order to play microtones.

 

Mưa Sớm

Hanoi shop keepers — because their goods spill out onto the sidewalk — have a seemingly infallible sixth sense about when it is going to rain. When you see them putting up their awnings or moving things indoors, take cover because it will rain soon (mưa sớm).