Nguyễn Thụy Đan (阮瑞丹), Tự Việt Thạch. Hiệu: Hồng sơn ngoại sử
Dưỡng chuyết trai chủ nhân, Khoái Ông.
Nghiên cứu sinh Tiến sĩ ngành Việt Nam học, Trợ giảng khoa Ngôn ngữ và Văn hóa Đông Á Đại học Columbia, New York
PhD student at Columbia University in the City of New York:
Graduate Teaching Assistant at Columbia University in the City of New York
Photo: Uyên Nguyên
“Scattered rain against the roof; a soul sifting water,
A small boat lets go, against the harbor of Emptiness”
I was born when the Second World War was coming to an end. Just a little after I reached the age of reason, hearing stories told by grownups about this and that battle fought here and there was as interesting as fairy-tales. In fact, it seemed that throughout my childhood I more often heard such stories instead of fairy-tales. Every now and then, a grownup would disappear from my family. Stories would be whispered in hushed tones. Uncles and cousins who had held me in their arms would suddenly become characters in such fairy-tales. The way that grownups told these stories made them even more mysterious.
By the time I was able to read a little foreign language, stories about war suddenly turned into reminiscences. Or rather, it seemed that they were merely reminiscences – for they were a past that I neither saw nor heard. However, it was impossible to erase them from my memory. Past and present had already been confused in entanglement. When I understood that past, it was filled with so much loss. Those who had left never returned. In turn, people my own age began to leave. I was fortunate to remain. Looking around the classroom, the chalkboard, the schoolyard. Life continued to relentlessly drag men forward along with struggle and toil.
War, hatred, and, somewhere from the very depths of longing and thirst, Love and Death are a haunting shadow, the very material for awareness of existence. Of these there is a separate world of poetry and song reserved for sensitive souls, for those captivated and shocked senseless by a painting of a dead bird. However, its language is transformable. Love, disappointment, passion – these are the fervent waves on the surface; who knows what could be hidden in the depths?
“Distant waters flowing away to the distant ocean
Deep within my thoughts, a few drops remain close by”
Lines of poetry such as these are truly rare in a busy life. But how was activity and distraction to be avoided when, all around, one’s friends began to steadily depart one by one. Some crossed rivers and streams, entering into the jungle. With hearts kindled by the fire of heroism, they followed the summons of hatred, of blood and fire. They left the city with a song: “They have left, left to the high mountains…” A few others left, leaving behind choked sobs, crazed and chaotic: “Tomorrow I go to receive my husband’s corpse; Let me drink that I will not recognize myself”. Love and hatred suddenly became a dichotomous dialectic.
Several decades later, like equatorial sunlight taking over the flickering torch of the past, a new generation began to mature. Occasionally, with difficulty I would search for a few lines of poetry here and there in order to reflect on a past time – a time in which I had lived, had thought, had worried, had gone through the reckless foolery of youth. Old acquaintances, fearing vague dangers lying in wait, avoided me; stories of the wide ocean, of long rivers, existed only in paintings, in memory. Once again, a refrain of vaguely melancholic reminiscence.
I can’t predict what impression these four lines of poetry would make on a young lover of poetry, should he today chance upon them. However, for those who grew up in war, in whose hearts love and hatred were in restless conflict, these lines bring back memories of a particular time, or rather, of a particular impression, even if only flashing by in a fleeting instant.
“Evening returns on part of the river
Around me, muddy waters weave about
The rippling water’s depth unfathomable,
My sadness cries out within the furnace of human existence”
This is a dying breath, sunlight barely touching the water’s surface, without the silent profundity of the great sea. A few blades of green grass, oblivious to the surrounding desiccation of fields burnt dry by fire. But who can critique a few blades of non-sentient grass? Such is the impression of one reading poetry within the heartless destruction of war.
Then peace came to the nation. The people rose from the smoke of war, letting hatred transform into love. Simultaneously, a generation of writers was rejected. Their understanding of love did not conform to the defining dialectic, in which love could only mature out of hatred and destruction – “The blood of men brings forth love”.
Sitting atop the hills of Trại Thủy, in the midst of Nha Trang, below I saw a group of young schoolchildren coming out from the village. They shouted slogans welcoming the Revolution, crying “down with corrupt reactionary culture and education”. I knew I was being rejected. And the rejection was real. First I was a parasite, then a danger, then degraded to being the refuse of society. A death sentence was temporarily lifted, that I might receive the gracious blessing of living the remainder of my life. Once again, old friends followed one another in departing. During the war, there were those who entered the jungles. During peace time, there were those who went out to sea. The people suddenly reverted to the myth of the nation’s founding. Those who followed Mother, at times despising and reviling their brothers, retreated to the jungles. After a period of time, those who had followed Mother into the jungles returned to the city. Terrified, others fled, returning to the ocean.
“The king met Âu-Cơ when traveling by water
With her, stirring the waters of eternity
Bonds dissolved, she forced her children into the mountains
Those who followed their Father have suffered till this day”
For thirty years, one half followed Father, the other followed Mother. However, the epic of this poet has still forgotten some of those were orphaned. With Father nowhere in sight, they were abandoned by their very brothers on the soil of their Motherland. Fatherless, motherless, I followed the traces of the Trường Sơn mountain range: “Your homeland is atop the Trường Sơn mountains, let me send along an everlasting lament”.
I speak not of hatred. But a certain injustice causes my words to appear delirious. Old friends are still around, still close as before, a period of both sadness and joy. Perhaps old friends are wary – afraid of hearing those things that others think I will say. In truth, I am not permitted to say anything at all. I am still limited to standing outside of a society in the process of integrating into civilization. Other past acquaintances, or rather old friends, have now scattered to the four corners of the sky. I have no idea what they are doing, what they are thinking. Each follows his own style in a wide and multicultural world, so I have heard.
Whether here or there, regardless of two separate fronts of literature sharing the same Mother tongue, countless skeletons remain in the depths of the sea.
“Desolate river deltas by the East Sea
Piles of charred bones like those of beasts from deserted jungles
But there is no jungle, and hence no beasts
Men die, their corpses sinking into a watery grave”
Hatred and enmity is easily erased. However, the inscrutable still haunt our conscience. The living still forever carry the love of the dead, whether in the jungles or beneath the sea, whether for personal enmity or for love of the people. In former times, the Funeral Lament for the Ten Classes of Living Beings by Nguyễn Du was not simply written as debt to literature – it was a desperate cry echoing back from the dead. I read the poem “Calling the Souls” in the Thủy Mộ quan collection in a similar condition:
“On the Sea of Blood, a single boat floats back
The evening bruised black, the sky brilliant with pain
Bodies sink into frigid streams, now parting
White waves surge forth, covering the vast seas”
“In green algae appears shadows of the countryside
Crossing the sea to return under the sky of the old country”
The poem does not carry a rhythm that brings about an instant feeling of unease. However, impressions scattered here and there within the Thủy Mộ quan poetry collection create an atmosphere of phantasmal terror and horror:
“A virgin, unjustly drowned, floating amidst the current
Her pure body, across a thousand miles returns to the river
Around there is not a single person to mourn
Only the fish of the sea accompany her”
Regardless, the country is reviving. Those people who left are steadily returning together. Enmity and hatred between brothers remains an aching wound. Literature now remains a choice, or rather, a personality. “Poetry expresses the will”. Everlasting literature, the heart-mind of the universe. From the very depth of his heart, every poet shares in the same eternal feelings, despite the fact its manifestation has bitter hatred and enmity. I wish to fit the description of Viên Linh:
“Where were you born that you wandered everywhere,
Speaking and laughing with a hundred tongues
Tomorrow should you return to your old home,
I hope we will still share the same sound of crying”