B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
a pair of deadly serpents accompany Her.
a pair of black dragons escort Her.
I think my prison companions felt the same as I did: prison life, however intense, seems to suspend time, encouraging inmates to look back at their past, at their childhood and the apprenticeship that marked the course of their life.
I came into the world one night in 1912, toward the end of the Year of the Rat. The village custom was to allow a lapse of time before registering a birth, so that if the infant was carried off by evil spirits the parents would be spared having to revisit the registrar to declare the death of their newborn. So I was officially born in April 1913.
Whenever a woman in the village gave birth, my mother was summoned. She helped as best she could, relying on age-old practices. When her turn came to give birth, she cut the umbilical cord herself with a strip of bamboo bark freshly cut from our hedge and as sharp as a razorblade. I was born swathed in a purple membrane — a sign of good fortune, my mother said.
When the 1914 War began, my older brother — Brother Seven — was of the age to be drafted into the infantry, i.e. to pay his blood tax and become either cannon-fodder or a killer of poor people. The village notables* forcibly seized young peasants and sent them to France. Those who resisted were tied up, suspended like pigs from a thick pole, and transported to the Village Hall. Elder Brother Seven escaped by lying low in the pineapple grove and then leaving for the city to hide out in the home of Sister Five.
In January 1916, 150 to 200 peasants from the adjoining region, armed with machetes and a few rifles, attacked the Village Halls where the notables were proceeding with such voluntary enlistments. Seizing their guards’ guns, the prisoners mutinied and joined the peasants. The agitation spread throughout Cochinchina, culminating in February with an attack on the Central Prison in Saigon. Around three in the morning on February 15 an armada of small boats brought in some 300 peasant rebels armed with spears, swords and machetes. In front of the Central Prison they killed the sentry and wounded other guards. The Guard Post, however, succeeded in blocking the entrance and opened fire on the assailants, who dispersed in the greatest confusion, leaving dead and wounded all along the sidewalks. More than 150 peasants were immediately tried in military courts. Thirty-eight were executed; the rest were sent to the Poulo Condore penal colony.* In the course of the year, more than a thousand rebels or suspected rebels from the countryside were charged with conspiracy and belonging to secret societies.
Haunted by the repressive atmosphere pervading the country, my father took the precaution of removing the handle from his machete, which he customarily used to prune the thick spiny bamboo hedges around the house.
I was five years old when my father, though only a small peasant, was able to put a tiled roof over our heads, very close to a pineapple grove. We gathered dead branches in the grove to cook our food. My mother pulled tendrils from the pineapple leaves to use as sewing thread. Our ancestors rested under the broad, outstretched arms of the cay go, a massive, century-old tree in which our Guardian Spirits dwelled. In a hollow three meters up its trunk lived a family of owls. My brothers captured the baby owls, which we cared for inside the house. For several nights we heard the mother owl moaning miserably, but our childish hearts remained pitiless! We caught frogs and toads to feed those warm little balls, so touching and so voracious.
In the shade of that tree of life my mother had a small temple set up for the worship of her Guardian Spirit, Ba (Great-Lady). Anh Tu, the village magician and my cousin by marriage, officiated at the solemn inauguration of the temple. The aromatic smoke of incense sticks, mingled with the fragrance of burnt sandalwood, rose skyward in transparent swirls. My mother meditated alongside Anh Tu as he chanted incantations:
Ba di co cap ran trun,
Ba ve co cap rong mun dua Ba.
[Great-Lady departs, a pair of deadly serpents accompany her.
Great-Lady returns, a pair of black dragons escort her.]
Suddenly, to our astonishment, a turtledove swooped down from the tree’s branches, flapped its wings several times and alighted on the magician’s shoulder. Then the messenger of Great-Lady flew off again.
Later, one night when my mother saw a sparkling meteor traverse the sky and disappear at the top of the tree, she told us that it was a chariot drawn by black dragons taking Great-Lady back to her home.
My father, who was literate, belonged to the village Council of Notables and kept the registers in Annamite nom, composed of ideograms taken from Chinese script.
My parents, my three elder brothers — Brother Seven, Brother Ten and Brother Twelve — and I, Brother Thirteen and last, all lived under the same roof.* Brother Seven was born of a previous marriage. Three buffalos — our workforce and beasts of burden — were also part of the family.
In the evening, I would fall asleep lying beside Brother Seven as he chanted the popular epic poem Luc Van Tien. He was also the one who taught me the ABCs and, with a pointed strip of bamboo, showed me how to trace a, â, or ê on banana leaves.
When I was little, my task was to keep the hungry roosters and hens from eating the unhulled rice spread out on a rush mat to dry in the sun. Lying in the shade of a grapefruit tree in our courtyard, I watched the long processions of red ants climbing its trunk. They carried their prey to their globe-shaped nests that hung from the branches, globes composed of leaves that had been stuck together with perfect artistry.
Sometimes I spent whole days perched on the back of the buffalo we called Trau Voi (Elephant), playing a bamboo flute made for me by Brother Ten. My job was to look after the buffalos in the fields that stretched from the front of our house to the distant stream below. A thin but still visible scar on my right forearm bears witness to an adventure that haunts me even today like a bad dream.
It’s almost nightfall. Huge black clouds gather dramatically on the horizon. The wind rises with increasing violence. The clumps of bamboo bend over, the tall grass flattens. In the space of a few seconds a soot-colored sky obscures the earth. Sensing the oncoming storm, the buffalos start on the return path by themselves. Suddenly great sheets of rain pour down, stirred by the wind, and the buffalos break into a gallop. Terrified, I flatten myself and cling to buffalo Elephant’s back. As we approach the house our buffalos, instead of taking their usual route alongside the bamboo hedge, all of a sudden lower their heads and charge through its thickest part. These animals are not stupid: instinctively they are taking the shortest way to the stable. Plucked from my perch by the spiny branches, I fall into the middle of the hedge, bristling with steely points. It’s pitch black and the deluge continues. Unable to move, I feel all around me the menace of the thorns. Terror-stricken, I wait for an eternity until finally, from far away, comes my mother’s call: “Con oi, con o dau, con o dau?” (Son, where are you? where are you?) Then, in the torchlight, the gleam of my mother’s eyes and the happy shouts of my brother accompany my extraction from the fearsome trap.
Great Uncle, who lived a dozen kilometers away on the Plain of Cucumbers, sometimes sent a Moi slave on horseback as his messenger. He had acquired the slave back when he used to barter with Moi tribes living in the mountainous Loc Ninh and Hon Quan regions. He would load up salt and salted sardines in an ox cart and exchange his goods for resin gathered by the Moi deep in the forest.
Our affectionate nickname for that messenger was Anh Lo (Brother Lo). I loved his smooth face tanned by the sun. My brothers and I marveled at the sleek stature of the noble brown horse he rode, like a steed out of an ancient tale and so different from our familiar mount, the stocky black buffalo. When the horse whinnied and bared his teeth, it seemed to us he was laughing uproariously, and we laughed with him. But Anh Lo always had to leave at dusk. What beauty there was in the pure silhouette of the slender rider, smoothly gliding past the curtain of bamboo!
Our father, though sometimes cross, was tender-hearted and loved his offspring. One day, touched by our enthusiasm, he came home with a horse as handsome as Anh Lo’s, which he had borrowed for a while from a friend. Our new friend, attached to a stake by a long rope around its neck, grazed peaceably on the sparse grass in the field next to our house, making his impressive lips vibrate with an amusing b-r-r-r . . . that enchanted me. In the evening we took him into the stable; the buffalos moved to the other side of the house in the open air. My brothers closed off the narrow entrance to the stable by fitting two hewn crossbars into holes on the doorposts. To hold the ends of the crossbars firm, they used a mallet to drive wooden wedges into the holes.
One morning, my brothers gave in to my entreaties and hoisted me up so that, straddling the stable entrance, I stood with one foot on either upright post and my hands holding the roof joists. The plan was for my brothers to remove the wooden crossbars, at which point the horse would come out and I would simply let myself drop onto its back. My heart beating wildly, I fell on the rump of the horse, but with one bound it dashed into the courtyard, and there I was with my butt on the ground. After turning its head briefly toward us, as if to say So long, kids! our guest trotted away, down the same path Anh Lo had taken the other evening. My father was relieved to learn that the horse had returned to its home.
My pastoral childhood ended when I started at the village school around 1920. I can still picture the horizon reddening at dawn as my mother and I left home on that journey into the unknown. After leaving the hamlet, we went through some woods, the songs of invisible birds troubling my timid heart.
My schoolmaster’s name was Thay Giao Dong (Worthy Teacher). He looked very tall to me, and even his smile seemed stern. He lived a hundred paces down the same stony road as the school, in a gray straw hut hidden behind a thorny hedge.
To the right of the house a grassy track faded into the fields: this was the path we took to school. On the left was a cluster of several other straw huts, dark and dusty. They adjoined the village Communal House, an old one-story structure of wood with a tiled roof, whose façade opened onto a verandah with columns of whitewashed brick.
What distinguished our school — the Little Market School — from the other straw huts was its roughly whitewashed plank walls and a verandah that sheltered us from the sun and rain during recess. The caretaker’s hut was on the left. The narrow courtyard surrounding the buildings was entirely enclosed by a dense hedge of prickly bamboo. Along the back hedge stood a line of small, oval-shaped earthenware jars. The schoolchildren urinated in them during recess, and the old caretaker collected the liquid to fertilize his meager market garden. Under the scorching sun, the stench from those piss-pots behind the school became unbearable. For our other needs, we had to cross the hedge and hide behind the underbrush.
Our schoolmaster taught two classes, small children and older ones, totaling about thirty peasant children from our village and the surrounding hamlets. During recess we were allowed to quench our thirst by dipping a coconut shell fitted with a handle into a large earthenware jar in front of the caretaker’s hut. If the jar was empty, we had to beg water from the local fishmongers.
The schoolmaster’s wife sold fowl and vegetables. Every morning she set off, carrying a pole on her shoulders with a woven bamboo basket hanging at either end, to buy chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, cucumbers or bamboo shoots from peasants on their way to the market. She then sold her goods to merchants who resold them in Saigon and Cholon.
My mother awoke every morning at cockcrow, at the end of the fifth watch heralding the Hour of the Dragon. What is a watch? Nighttime was divided into five watches, each lasting about two-and-a-half hours. The middle of the third watch, the Hour of the Rat, was at midnight. At the Communal House a watchman, appointed by turns from among village youths in good health by the Council of Notables, marked the beginning of each watch by striking three times on the cai mo, a large resonant wooden cylinder set on trestles. The sound could be heard from afar. With a continuous drum roll, the watchman warned the village in cases of disaster — a fire or a fight or piracy — signaled by the victims’ cries of “Lang xom oi!” (Village and hamlet, help!)
Around five o’clock each morning we gulped down our first rice. As soon as we saw the first crimson rays of dawn break over the horizon, we set off for school. During the rainy season, the sky was often overcast, but usually my mother still managed to see us off on time. If it did happen that on the way we heard the ominous drumming of the distant tomtom, we knew we were late and would set off running so fast we lost our breath.
The big red tomtom, which hung from a beam at the back of the schoolroom, signaled the beginning and end of the recess period and of the school day. Sounding the drum was not assigned to any particular pupil. The master simply waved his finger, and one of the older children would leap to the tomtom. That red tomtom exerted an irresistible attraction on me. One day, aided by one of my older brothers who hoisted me onto a desk, I succeeded in grasping the round-tipped stick and, taking careful aim at the center of the circle, made the red monster thunder.
From time to time, an unpleasant surprise awaited us on reaching school in the morning — a cleanliness inspection. Any boys who had dirt behind their ears were made to squat naked around the well like skinny toads. Then one of the sturdier boys in the class, perched on the edge, lowered a woven bamboo bucket into the well, drew up water, and doused his unfortunate schoolmates. The cold water made them flinch, then jump around frantically. With their frail hands they scrubbed behind their ears. At the end of the session some were still shivering, and rubbed themselves down feverishly before getting dressed. The girls, who stayed shut up in the classroom, were spared this vexing experience.
During the rainy season, our schoolmaster sometimes let us shower ourselves under the torrents gushing from the roof — rare moments of joy when we could frolic about freely.
One of my classmates was assigned to fill the teacher’s water jars, which meant trotting back and forth several times to fetch water. The teacher once sent my brothers and me to gather deadwood for his cooking stove. A hundred meters from the school, we entered the same woods we crossed every day. I kept the lookout while my brothers climbed up the trees to break off dead branches. I could hear the sharp sound of the wood cracking. Suddenly the silhouette of an old man appeared at the edge of the woods. It was our father! I was rooted to the spot.
“What are you doing here? he asked.
“I’m waiting for my brothers — they’re gathering firewood for the teacher.
My father caught sight of them climbing around in the branches and began beating a path toward them through the undergrowth. They came down hurriedly and tried to dodge his slaps.
“If your teacher wants firewood, all he has to do is let me know and I’ll bring him cartloads. You’re not to climb trees. You could break your arms and legs! From then on, we were excused from the chore of collecting wood.
Sometimes the teacher got bored. He would take several swallows of rice liquor from a flask he hid behind the map on one of the wallboards. In a state of euphoria, he would then set off for the old caretaker’s hut to play chess, leaving the class under the supervision of one of the pupils. One evening upon the teacher’s return, the pupil assigned to this rank of informer denounced several of his classmates for rowdiness. His face pale with rage, the master seized stiff stalks ripped from the guava tree near the fence and thrashed the wrongly accused boys with all his might. The scene terrified me.
An unusual event occasionally interrupted our daily routine — the School Inspector’s visit. One day toward the middle of a sunny morning while we were at recess, an elegant cart drew up in front of the school. The barefoot Annamite driver jumped to the ground and held the horse’s reins and a man dressed in an impeccably white French suit buttoned up to the neck descended ceremoniously. It was Inspector Tuan. Like a flock of sparrows, we darted back into the classroom, sat at our desks, and folded our arms over our closed exercise books. An unusual silence reigned. When the Inspector entered the classroom, at a signal from our teacher we all stood up in unison. With a gesture of his right hand, the Inspector motioned us to sit down. Although he was Annamite, he spoke with our teacher in French. None of us could understand what they were saying. He stood by my desk and, without saying a word, leafed through my exercise book, then took a small tube out of his pocket from which a pen sprang as if by magic. On the last page he scribbled a cabalistic sign “vu”* in the margin to indicate that he had seen my work. Then he returned his pen to the tube.
During midday break, pupils who lived nearby went home to eat. Those who like me lived farther away brought their lunch over the long dawn hike — a lump of cold rice topped with a piece of dried fish or sugar cane, the whole wrapped in a dried areca palm leaf. After gulping it down, we would wander off into the countryside. I sometimes crossed the empty lot behind the school to the Phuoc Tuong pagoda a few hundred meters away. In the torrid midday heat I was drawn to the calm of this religious site, shaded by old trees. In the cool, dark silence of the main pavilion a giant golden Buddha was enthroned on the altar, legs folded on a seat of lotus petals. Eyes half-closed in meditation, Buddha dominated a group of smaller Buddhist deities, gilded or brightly painted. It was there that I first understood who the otherworldly being was that my mother invoked every time some misfortune befell us.
Gradually I became more familiar with these sacred precincts. The few monks living there ignored my presence, but the Venerable Superior noticed the young schoolboy’s frequent visits. Once when my father came to the pagoda, the Superior proposed to accept me as a novice. For small peasants, such a proposal was attractive and much sought after. Thus it was that I almost ended up leading a life of asceticism, head shaven clean, wearing the robes of an apprentice monk, and being taught Chinese characters so that I could piously pore over sacred texts and copy Buddhist sutras. Had this been my austere fate, I would have followed in the footsteps of Shakyamuni (Buddha) down the path to ataraxia, renunciation of worldly life, of the ephemeral world, phu the, where every living being inexorably experiences the four sufferings: birth, sickness, old age and death. As I traversed this ocean of misery, bien kho, I would have striven to extinguish in myself all passions and desires. To this day I still shudder when I think of it.
One evening Elder Brother Seven took us to this pagoda for the great celebration in the Buddha’s honor, where those who were wealthy and pious made sumptuous offerings. This rare occasion gave rural laborers from the surrounding villages, young and old alike, an opportunity to gather together, meet, flirt, and generally enjoy themselves. Before the Buddha’s altar, in flickering candlelight and swirls of sandalwood smoke, youngsters clustered wide-eyed to watch figures of four hieratic animals made of brightly colored fruits, flowers, and leaves — Dragon, Ky Lin (a sort of unicorn), Tortoise, Phoenix — as they moved, animated by an invisible mechanism. At the end of the ceremony, huge amounts of fruit and multicolored sweets in charmingly arranged offerings were distributed to everyone amid general gaiety. On the way home that night Brother Seven explained the venerated preacher’s sermon to me, but my mind was still on the festival.
The Communal House about a hundred meters from the school was another place that especially attracted me. I often sought shelter there from the fiery midday sun, until the day that it ceased being a refuge and turned into a place of horror.
The Communal House was the village’s administrative center, where the Council of Notables gathered from time to time to debate and dispense justice. Otherwise no one was there except the caretaker, who lived in an adjoining hut. A closed room at the back of the house served as a cell. On the floor lay a long iron bar fitted with shackles that the notables used to fetter anyone arrested — usually peasants who were late in paying their capitation tax.*
One day at noon I entered the courtyard of the Communal House and stumbled upon a scene of beating. A poor wretch in rags was lying face down, his arms and legs pinned to the ground by three others. His tormentor was holding a long flexible rod at arm’s length and raining blows on the man’s lower back. At each of the twenty-some blows, the victim cried out and jerked convulsively. The solemnly dressed notables seated inside looked on impassively at the punishment of the man they had just condemned. It was the notables’ self-appointed right to intervene in disagreements between villagers and to judge and punish the poor people at their mercy. This scene of cold-blooded cruelty marked me for life.
I remember the time my family was the victim of a denunciation. At dawn one morning, a group of French and Annamite customs officials burst in on us. After searching the house from top to bottom, they confiscated the large earthenware crock and rudimentary equipment that my father used to distill rice liquor for offerings — at night, of course, and concealed in the woods. The spirits that were sold in the market from the monopoly distilleries of Thu Duc were truly disgusting. No one could possibly offer them to the deceased on the anniversary of their passing. After the officials had made an inventory of every one of our meager possessions, including the number of roosters, hens and pigs, these buffalo heads and horse faces took away Brother Seven in place of my sick father. The fine for Brother Seven’s release from civil imprisonment in Saigon was crushingly high. My mother had to borrow a gold necklace from Great Aunt and pawn it at the Chinese pawnshop. In the face of such adversity, did the invocations to Buddha comfort my mother? Perhaps.
Around that time my father began suffering from chronic spasmatic pains. He let lie fallow the patch of ricefield he had in the neighboring village, near the house of his eldest brother, Uncle Four. My mother was at her wits’ end. The conical hats she made for peasants out of latania leaves did not bring in enough for our daily rice. My two brothers stopped going to school and started working as plowhands and rice threshers, with or without our own buffalos, for farmers in and around our village. I was the only one still attending school, though I had to play hooky once to look after the buffalos in my brothers’ place because they were overburdened with work. The morning I returned to school, the teacher gave me two resounding slaps for being absent without permission.
We knew what deprivation was. To fill our stomachs, we had to add potatoes to our staple diet of rice. When the potatoes ran out, we hunted in our woods for cu nang, a farinaceous bulb-shaped root with spiny tendrils. To make the tubers edible, my mother peeled them and cut them in slices which she soaked for days, changing the water several times. One day I saw my father stagger like a drunkard, and then my brothers and I fell ill. The cu nang flour had not been soaked long enough. This incident reminds me of the kindness of a distant cousin, living in the next village at three hours’ walking distance. He often loaned us unhulled rice, which we went over to pick up in a buffalo cart borrowed from our neighbor.
After two years at the communal primary school, I was initiated into quoc ngu, the vernacular form of writing. At the end of the second year, though, it was time to say farewell to the communal school. Just before summer vacation, my mother took a beautiful plump rooster and some traditional cakes to my schoolmaster’s house. He advised her to have me continue my education at the district school in Thu Duc.
I was then about ten years old. The school was an hour away by foot. Just outside our hamlet, I had to cross a wood stretching along a large stagnant pool that teemed with skinny frogs and dragonflies during the rainy season. The path opened onto a gravel road right beside Lady Hieu’s huge banyan tree — Cay da Ba Hieu.* This sacred tree sheltered the gods of the domestic hearth, Ong Tao, spirits of Lime embodied in the discarded lime pots and fragments of smoke-blackened terracotta blocks that were scattered at its foot.
Five hundred paces further on, I would pass the Catholic graveyard with its strange grayish tombstones topped by crosses, interspersed among the hevea trees. I was told that their priests removed dead people’s eyes to offer them to Dog, the father of Jesus. My steps quickened as I imagined those souls wandering around blindly. All contact was to be avoided with Catholics, the co dao, who preferred to venerate a white spirit hanging on a cross rather than worship the dead and their ancestors. Long-standing mistrust of the Catholics, descendants of those who had helped the French occupy our country, stoked our imagination and gave rise to a tenacious legend in our village: that since the mother of Jesus had no husband, she gave birth to Jesus by coupling with a dog. This hateful legend is reminiscent of the Chinese legend about an emperor of China with an incurable wound on his leg, who promised his daughter to anyone who could cure him. The finest doctors failed, but a court dog licked his wound and healed it. True to his promise, the emperor put his daughter and the dog on a raft, which he had float downriver to the South, where they begat the ancestors of the southern barbarian tribes.
Returning home from school in the evening was even more frightening when an invisible chorus of cicadas atop the giant cay sao trees along the path began their clamorous chant. I was also filled with an uneasy dread when I passed Lady Hieu’s banyan tree or walked in descending darkness by the haunted pool at the edge of the woods.
I was accepted in the preparatory course at the school in Thu Duc. Thay Giao Nai (Master Stag) was a gentle man who (most exceptionally for a teacher) never raised his hand against his students. The following year, I entered the elementary course under the authority of Ong Thiet (True Director), who was known for his severity. Every morning when he entered the schoolyard, the pupils had to line up on either side, fold their hands and bow down as he went by.
In class, if his forehead glistened with anger, we waited for the lightning to strike. He would point his finger like a dart at a guilty party and shout: Come here! The boy would prostrate himself at the master’s feet. Immediately, the victim’s lower back was bared and he would receive a violent caning. Ong Thiet’s daily fury used up many canes. A large bundle of those horrid pliable stalks was stored alongside exercise books and record books in a cupboard at the back of the classroom. For a single yes or no, any of us could be subjected to torture. Like the other pupils, my back knew the cane’s wrath.
Our teacher Ung, newly graduated from the Teachers College, was in charge of the intermediate class. He used the cane less, but was adept at getting the pupils to do his personal chores. He was lodged behind the school. Many a time as we played marbles in the shade of the trees during break-time, he made us fill his water jars. It took two of us, bearing the ends of a wooden pole on our shoulders. On the way back from the public fountain, I walked in front of my taller companion, and the brimming tin oil drum swinging from the pole grazed my heels roughly at each step. Thay Ung also instructed me in the art of cleaning and whitening his canvas shoes.
At noon, after our cold rice, we sometimes ran off to one of the nearby sugar refining shacks to be given scraps of cane sugar.
One night a nocturnal bird swooped down into the courtyard, flapped its wings furiously and let out piercing screeches before flying off again. My mother saw this as a terrifying omen, and so it turned out to be: our father, who had been ill for so long, died.
To this day I am very moved by the thought of my father. Sensing that he was soon to be united with his ancestors, he said to my mother: “Ma bay tre, rang xoay xo cho qua ngay thang, dau sao cung dung do con.” (Mother of our children, try to get through the days and months as best you can, but never hire out the children at any price!)
My father had no doubt been affected by the fate of the four boys of our impoverished neighbor, Trum Nhut. Unable to feed them, he had placed them as ox-drovers and domestic servants with rich landowners, who had mercilessly abused them.
On my father’s death, my family invited a monk from the village pagoda to conduct the funeral ceremony according to Buddhist rites. The next day, family members and acquaintances made their offerings, accompanied by strident funeral music performed by an itinerant troupe of musicians on tambours, oboes, cellos, kettledrums and wooden clappers. I stayed by my mother’s side and naïvely tried to console her whenever she began to weep. The burial took place on the third day. The funeral procession, led by the monk, brought my dead father to his final resting place, a hundred paces from our house.
My father reposes in our woods under the shade of the old cay go tree. On the third day after the burial, the monk came to perform the “opening of the tomb door, a ceremony to allow my father to return home, where a shrine was dedicated to him. Every seven days my mother offered him a meal. At the end of a hundred days and then again on the first anniversary of his death, the eighteenth day of the eleventh moon, the family gathered to organize a commemorative offering. But after the second anniversary we discontinued any visible signs of mourning, since by that point we were supposed to have ceased to mourn him in our hearts.
With my father gone, my mother, faced with the worrisome task of providing our daily bowl of rice, redoubled her efforts to produce conical palm-leaf hats for peasants. I learned to help her, and my brothers worked as hard as they could in the fields so that I could continue going to school.
I started learning French when I was about eleven. The indispensable dictionary, Larousse Élémentaire, could only be acquired in Saigon, a fifteen-kilometer hike from Thu Duc. That journey marked a memorable moment in my life. I had to leave the house before dawn, in total darkness. Fatigue had no effect on me — I was too enchanted by my solitary walk through the night and then by the immensity of the rural landscape under the rising sun. At the Binh Loi bridge I gazed at the Saigon River, sparkling with lights. Up till then I had only known it as a blue line meandering across the gray map of Gia Dinh province.
I had gone to the teeming city of Saigon once before, on a trip with my father to buy bicarbonate in the hope of relieving his stomach pains. The pharmacy was opposite the Continental Hotel on Rue Catinat and next door to the Portail Bookstore.
In the early afternoon, under a blazing sun, I turned my steps homeward, the dictionary tucked under my arm. At each pause in the shade of a tree I could not resist the fascination of turning its pages to marvel at the plates of drawings, the illustrations, and the columns of words full of innumerable mysteries to penetrate.
At the end of the elementary year the teacher chose two pupils to enter a competition for a scholarship — myself and an older boy. On the eve of the big day, Brother Seven took me to Sister Five’s house in Thi Nghe, so I could get to the Gia Dinh county seat north of Saigon on time the next day. The examination was to be held at the Ba Chieu school.
The afternoon was humid and swelteringly hot. We walked along the road from Hang Sanh to Thi Nghe. All of a sudden a monsoon hit, blowing huge clouds that obscured the sky and the earth. A few seconds later, great daggers of raindrops shot obliquely down on us. I held my Chinese umbrella tight as a blast of wind turned the lacquered brown paper dome inside out and thrashed at the tattered shreds clinging desperately to the broken bamboo spokes. I wondered if that foul wind was not a bad omen and if my prospects for a scholarship were not shattered also. We reached Sister Five’s house at nightfall, completely drenched and my heart full of foreboding.
Nevertheless, I made it through the ordeal of competition without even forgetting the s in torchis during the French dictation. Then came the wait. In the meantime, one of our buffalos began refusing to eat and staggered around, moaning out of pain and exhaustion. With tears in our eyes we had to resign ourselves to leading it away to die in a distant wild wood.
A month later, the notable in charge of the village police summoned my mother, a widow with three dependent children, to investigate her financial situation. Eventually she was allotted 27 piasters every three months — a fortune for a poor woman struggling night and day to produce hats for 10 or 20 centimes (a centime was one-hundredth of a piaster).
Our schoolmaster, Venerable Thiet, was determined to see as many of his pupils as possible earn the Certificat d’études diploma, which would enhance the school’s reputation and especially his own reputation as its principal. One evening after school, he took me and another classmate to Saigon in a horse-drawn carriage known as a matchbox. He intended to arrange our upcoming Certificat exam. It was dark by the time we reached the city.
The coachman stopped the vehicle on a street in the Da Kao district. The master told us to wait there and vanished into a door a hundred paces further on. A silver moon shone bright in the sky. The horse, unharnessed by the coachman, grazed peacefully on wisps of grass beside the road and deposited droppings at the foot of an electric pole while we chatted with the coachman. When the schoolmaster returned, he looked very much out of sorts. Without a word to us, he signaled to the coachman to hitch up the horse. On the road home, no one broke the silence for a good while as the carriage tossed us about. Then, no longer able to contain his icy anger, he burst out: Balls! He wanted nothing to do with it.
In other words, the colleague in Saigon refused to go along with his little scheme.
I supposed that he would try to enter into contact with other teachers in charge of proctoring the next examination. But ultimately no one “helped me in either the written or the oral exam. Nevertheless, on Venerable Thiet’s demand, my mother had to pay him some thirty piasters as her share of his colleagues’ compensation for helping me succeed. For her that meant producing quite a large number of hats.
The following month, I took the scholarship examination at Chasseloup-Laubat High School. Fate struck once again. When my name was called, I realized I had left my student card where I was staying at my cousin’s. She lived in Thu Thiem, a hamlet on the other bank of Saigon River. The whole time from the school to her house and back, including the river crossing in a sampan, I was in a state of acute anxiety.
Then once again we waited for the result. Things looked hopeful when the head of the district summoned my mother to investigate her financial situation, a sign that I was admissible. Yet at the start of the new school year in September 1926, it was another admissible boy, from a well-off family, who prepared to enter Chasseloup-Laubat. His parents had taken effective “measures to sway certain secretaries in the Saigon Department of Education, and he was the candidate chosen. This was a bitter blow, the first time I came up against the invisible wall that my mother was powerless to cross. We felt miserable and helpless. With my local primary-school diploma I was qualified to be a village teacher; but I was only thirteen years old! My teacher felt sorry for me and made one last desperate move. At his own expense, he brought me to the Huynh Khuong Ninh boarding school in Saigon, crowded with children of native notables, in the hope that I would be accepted free as a day pupil or at least as a boarder for a reduced fee. I didn’t see how, in either case, my mother could continue feeding me for another three or four years. At any rate, all that bargaining was in vain because the purveyors of education turned their backs on anyone without money.
* * *
The most important person for me, as a child, was Anh Bay, Elder Brother Seven. When I was ten years old, he had to abandon his plough for a wrench and work as a mechanic’s assistant in the Di An railway depot, an hour’s walk from our house. A week before Tet — New Year’s Day — we went with Brother Seven to weed the grass around the family graves. On the twenty-third day of the twelfth moon, the day for celebrating the departure of the spirit of the hearth, he put up the cay neu — a long bamboo pole — at the far end of the courtyard. A small bamboo basket attached to the top of this pole contained offerings to the spirit on its way to the heavens. On the eve of Tet, via this same cay neu the spirit would return to earth to its own altar. Depending on the spirit’s report, the Celestial Emperor would prolong or curtail one’s life.
Elder Brother Seven also prepared bamboo firecrackers for our celebration and for friends in the village. I helped him grind burnt manioc stalks in a mortar into a fine charcoal dust. He explained exactly how much of each ingredient — charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter — I should add to make the powder, which I then packed in a cardboard cube. I learned how to encase the charge in long, finely cut slats of bamboo to give the firecracker a perfect cube shape. Positioning the fuse was a delicate operation. The quality of the firecracker is assessed by the duration of the echo that it produces when it explodes. One time the mixture of powder in the mortar ignited spontaneously and almost set fire to my brother’s straw hut.
Much later, when I was working in Saigon and Brother Seven was scraping by as a mason, living with Sister Five at Thi Nghe in the northern suburbs of the town where I often went to see him, he was stricken with malaria. I was able to stop his fever with intramuscular quinine injections; but then, in his convalescense, he suddenly felt himself transformed into a tamer of spirits and demons. Without warning, he left Thi Nghe and returned on foot to our village. Instead of returning to the family home, he went to the temple of the Guardian Spirit of the next village, walked straight into the inviolate sanctum, parted the curtains, stared into the face of the Spirit (in statue form) and began talking to him as equal to equal.
The much-feared occult influence of Guardian Spirits extended far into the countryside. Sometimes people with a disagreement settled their differences in front of the altar. To free himself from a false accusation, the accused would wring the neck of a live rooster, beseeching the Venerable Guardian Spirit to strangle him, too, if he spoke in bad faith.
This strange encounter of Brother Seven with the Guardian Spirit, an unprecedented event in the region, endowed him in the eyes of the rural world with a mystical aura and magical powers over the forces of evil that inhabited the invisible world.
Often he remained silent. At other times, in the presence of family or friends, his words would come streaming forth, following a logic different from ordinary language. Stretched out on a hammock night and day, he ate only at midday — a little rice with handfuls of red peppers. His way of drinking tea was to pour the boiling water directly into his mouth, onto the tea leaves resting on his tongue. He continued to baffle my mother and other brothers, who were extremely concerned about his condition.
The entry and exit of our house was by the two side doors, the front having been closed to outside view by horizontal slots of wood that allowed in light and air. One day of crisis, his face stormy, dazed and wide-eyed, Brother Seven suddenly took off. Leaping through the narrow space between the roof and the upper crossbeam and down onto the courtyard, he disappeared like a puff of wind into the tangled undergrowth of the pineapple wood. What to do? Brother Twelve tried in vain to find him. Our anguished household did not catch its breath until Brother Seven suddenly reappeared, unharmed, relaxed, his face serene. Not one tear in his white clothes, not one scratch on his naked feet after plunging into the lacerating brambles and barbed pineapple leaves.
The crisis eased with time, and Brother Seven eventually regained his habitual calm. But he was no longer our former Anh Bay. A peasant from the neighboring village called him to help with a possessed man suffering an attack. As soon as Brother Seven arrived on the scene, the man stopped thrashing about and threw himself, shaking and mumbling, to Brother Seven’s feet. As if the Evil Spirit had met its master, the poor victim was delivered. From that day on, the villagers came to consider Brother Seven not just as a healer but also as a seer, like the neighboring village’s learned Tonkinese man, and even a magician, like the man who had inaugurated Great-Lady’s little temple in our own village. He came to be able to remove ills and bring comfort. As the years went by, like the traditional itinerant doctor-healers, he prepared his remedies with plant-based potions used in the South as well as northern medicines that had come from China. Little by little, people began seeking him out, even from distant provinces. He lived on very little. In return for his help, people offered him shelter and a frugal bowl of rice. From poor people he asked nothing in return.
Most often, he arrived on foot, recognizable from afar by his lean, tall silhouette shaded by his white umbrella. The therapy practiced by Brother Seven remained an enigma. Perhaps the doctor friend who treated my father during his long illness had transmitted some tricks of the trade. Perhaps he had come across the medical compendium The Essence of the Spiritual Art of Healing in the form of Questions and Answers between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter by Nguyen Dinh Chieu, author of Luc Van Tien, the famous popular poem which Brother Seven knew by heart.
As he grew older, Anh Bay no longer traveled about. He was given lodging by the owner of a Chinese medicine shop in Thu Duc, and it was there that people came to consult him.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 2 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.
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