I’m better at speaking Vietnamese in the morning. This morning I went to buy a small shoulder bag to carry around my wallet and notebook and dictionary. I already knew the street where such things are sold so I headed over there and began looking around. One of the shops seemed to have several bags that might do, so I went in and, speaking Vietnamese, asked for a shoulder bag, a small one. For five minutes or so I looked at various bags, asking for different colors and sizes, then negotiating the price (The owner knocked a dollar off! I’m such a tough negotiator.) I did the whole thing completely in vietnamese. Must have been the shot of espresso I had after breakfast. This afternoon, on the other hand, wrung out from the heat, I couldn’t even manage to order a Mango smoothie in the language. I really should stay ot of places that cater to tourists, where the staff (rightly) wants to help me by speaking my language. I have the best experiences when buying from the street, where people’s English is minimal to non-existant. Anyway, I certainly was not fluent this morning, but I conducted an extended transaction — a stylized conversation — completely in Vietnamese.
Arrived yesterday after a very long trip but without incident. Was met as arranged with a driver from the hotel, which made the last leg of the trip as seamless as all the rest. I’d been absurdly afraid that Vietnam would be somehow less challenging — smoothed out by modernization — but I need not have worried. Same crazy traffic, same utter disregard for Western notions of zoning, same water buffalo being led across lanes of traffic from the airport by little boys.
Item: I did notice a couple of changes — everyone who rides a motorbike now wears a helmet (though some are pretty minimalist in design) and, in town, the street hawkers seemed much less aggressive than before. Maybe I was just too dazed to notice.
Item: I find that when I have the vocabulary I can generally make myself understood in Vietnamese, but the biggest difference is that I can hear spoken Vietnamese better than before. I chalk this up to drill with the computer, however sporadic, over the last few months. It’s my intention to make this trip an exercise in intensive language study.
Item: The long Cathay Pacific flight was very pleasant — more room in coach than is usual, I think, with attentive service. The amenities may not have been quite so nice, but any slight economizing that’s taken place since the last time I flew the airline didn’t detract from what was a very comfortable flight. It didn’t hurt that the airplane was only half full and that I had my entire row to myself. I slept a fair amount and read quite a bit, finishing another of the Patric O’Brien sea novels I’ve become re-addicted to recently. I tried to watch Sweeney Todd on the video screen, but I couldn’t get into it — I liked the music, but the pacing was tedious, perhaps to make space for the music. The whole Tim Burton night-of-the-living-dead / teased hair and black eye-shadow way of imagining the nineteenth century just did not seem convincing to me, not that I require historical fidelity. Add a comic book conception of good and evil and you don’t have a very convincing package.
Item: Just had my first Skype experience, a call from Carole, with video! When I first came to Vietnam more than a decade ago there was no such technology — only very expensive land-line calls. The quality of this call with Carole was remarkable, especially when you realize that it was free. I don’t have a video camera, so she couldn’t se mee, but I could see her — and Candy sitting on her lap. Over her shoulder I could look out the window at the Northern New Yoek spring. Amazing.
Language: I’ve noticed a slight shift toward increased competence in my ability to hear and understand spoken Vietnamese; also, I was looking at a Vietnamese newspaper online the other day and found I was just beginning to be able to make out sentences. My vocabulary is still too small, but my sense of the language is much deeper than I had realized. I guess the drill, which I find deadly boring, is paying off.
“Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence.” [The rest of Banville's short statement is here.] While I don’t subscribe to the young Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of language, in which every proposition is a picture of reality, as a writer, I have the strong sense that every sentence is a line thrown out into the world in order to retreive something of the real. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t. But that metaphor doesn’t quite catch it either; the sentence — as opposed to the fragment, which is always self-referenmtial — the sentence tries and fails. It is the pattern of those trials and errors that give us what access we have to the real.
Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.
As I prepare to go to Vietnam in the spring, I have been in contact with friends there, asking them about poetry in contemporary Vietnam. Part of my project involves interviewing Vietnamese poets and that means thinking of the sorts of questions I want to ask. I know a bit about the history of Vietnam and its literature, particularly in the 20th century, but I want to know how that history is affecting the making of poems now, in the first decade of the 21st century. Here is a first pass at some questions, or pre-questions — the sort of questions I need to ask in order to find out what the real questions are:
- Who are the most interesting poets now working in Vietnam?
- To what extent is contemporary Vietnamese poetry connected to the poetry of the past?
- What is the nature of the connection, to the extent that it exists?
- Do contemporary poets make use of the extensive folk traditions, for example, of Ca Dao?
- What has been the effect of urbanization of Vietnamese poetry over the last twenty years or so?
- Have the changes in the Vietnamese economy over the last generation affected Vietnamese poets?
- Are there marked generational differences among younger and older Vietnamese poets?
- To what extent are Vietnamese poets aware of and interested in poetries in other languages?
Those are the questions I’ll be asking poets I already know as I get ready to go to Vietnam; presumably, these questions will lead to others that are more detailed and take into account the individual situations of the writers I’ll be meeting. If anyone happens by this space who has answers to the questions posed above, please feel free to chime in.