Ngo Van, Relayer of Living History
Ngo Van lived through almost the entire twentieth century (1912-2005) and his life and work are intimately intertwined with the revolutionary hopes and conflicts of that century.
In his writings he speaks not as an academically neutral historian, but as a participant actively engaged in the events he recounts; not as a party spokesperson, but as a humble individual struggling alongside so many other anonymous, unknown persons, the wretched of the earth who are also the salt of the earth, fraternal, generous and inventive. With them he experiences those sublime moments when people unite to attack the sources of their exploitation and enslavement; when they break through the bounds of the possible and strive to create a life worthy of their deepest dreams and aspirations. With them he also experiences the merciless repression the established powers invariably resort to when they sense that their system is in danger.
After emigrating to France in 1948, Van continued that struggle as a resolutely independent individual, without label or party, in groups of councilist revolutionaries and alongside other rebellious workers in the factories.
It was a time when anticolonial movements, in the colonized countries and the West alike, were dominated by the ideology of Third World-ism” an ideology that obscured the real enemies while weakening or paralyzing truly radical social criticism. Faced with this situation, Van sought to transmit the real, hitherto unwritten history of Vietnam, to challenge and refute the official histories propagated by the masters of the present”* and uncritically parroted in Europe and America by the self-proclaimed supporters of the struggles of the Vietnamese people. Following his retirement in 1978, and with the constant support of Sophie Moen (his partner from 1952 until her death in 1994), Van devoted the next seventeen years to researching and writing Vietnam 1920-1945: révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale (1995). In that book he brought back to life the era of fierce class struggles that preceded the two Vietnam wars, a period when the workers and peasants believed that putting an end to colonialism was inseparable from a social revolution. In so doing he also exposed the devious maneuvers of the Communist Party as it seized control over those struggles through double-dealing, lies, intimidation and murder.
I first met Van in November 1995, and there was an immediate rapport between us an alchemy of elective affinities and of shared dreams and convictions. Having just finished Vietnam 1920-1945, he was wondering whether to undertake an autobiographical account of the same period before returning to his more strictly objective history. I and several of his other friends convinced him to do so. It is hard to convey just how exciting it was to share in this project. Though it involved returning to the past, it was at the same time a march forward, a call for new perspectives, a defiance of time. Nine years of companionship in shared journeys, readings, writings, discoveries, friendships. . . .
Van’s memoirs of his Vietnam years, which form the first part of the present volume, were published in 2000 under the title Au pays de la Cloche fêlée. The title alluded both to Baudelaire’s poem La Cloche Fêlée (The Cracked Bell)* and to a subversive journal of the same title published in Vietnam in 1923-1926 by Nguyen An Ninh, a journal that influenced a whole generation of anticolonial revolutionaries. Van shared a period of detention with Nguyen An Ninh in the Saigon prison and remained permanently marked by the encounter.
Having completed Au pays de la Cloche fêlée, which he considered essential in perpetuating the memory of his departed comrades, Van envisaged a sequel that would recount his years in France. He did not have time to complete this project, except for a few fragmentary chapters, but he had already chosen the title. As chance would have it, during the last twenty years of his life he lived in a small apartment on the Île de la Cité, an island in the heart of the most ancient part of Paris, near the home of the medieval philosopher Peter Abelard. Led by his insatiable curiosity, Van explored the audacities and misadventures of this great spirit and of his brilliant student and secret lover, Héloïse. The story of these dissident and tragic lovers inspired the title of the second part of his autobiography Au pays d’Héloïse and their correspondence became part of his personal literary pantheon, alongside the libertine poetry of Claude Le Petit (burned at the stake in 1662), the fiery poems of Louise Michel, Père Duchêne sung by the implacable Ravachol as he climbed to the guillotine, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Céline, Traven, and last but not least the classic Chinese writings populated with rebels, bandits and cantankerous hermits. Ever on the lookout for sparks of poetic freedom, he was delighted to discover connections between the anarchistic Taoists of ancient China and the enemies of capitalism the world over. His researches in this area led to the publication of an erudite study, Divination, magie et politique dans la Chine ancienne (1976), as well as to a smaller and more accessible book, Utopie antique et guerre des paysans en Chine (2004).
A chapter is missing from Au pays d’Héloïse that Van particularly wished to include: what he called The Story of the Book. The reputation of Vietnam 1920-1945 had soon spread beyond small circles of radicals to reach a much larger readership among Vietnamese people throughout the world. For many of them the book was an unhoped-for chance to reconnect with their own history. Enthusiastic responses arrived from the diaspora and from within Vietnam itself (where a number of copies or photocopies had been smuggled in). People were moved to discover their old friends and comrades mentioned in the book by name. Researchers furnished Van with precious information drawn from difficult-to-access archives. Others provided him with dissident texts, old and new, or with accounts by other survivors. Support from these diverse contacts also enabled him and his publisher friends at Insomniaque to print a Vietnamese-language edition of the book, making it much more accessible to the people most directly concerned.
These new-found contacts and collaborations also paved the way for several trips to Barcelona, London, Edinburgh, Boston and New York. Van was particularly interested in sharing experiences with Americans, who in their different way had also been so strongly affected by the Vietnam War, and was thrilled to hear their stories of draft refusal, demonstrations and other forms of antiwar resistance, both in the United States and among the soldiers in Vietnam; notably including the practice of fragging, that desperate act echoing the mutinies of 1917-1918 and putting into practice the famous cry: Let’s save our bullets for our own generals!”
On the opposing side, too, not all the soldiers in the North Vietnamese army submissively marched off to slaughter. Although the exact numbers are unknown, many did indeed desert and many were executed. Van was able to hear several firsthand accounts when, after forty-nine years of exile, he finally made a trip back to his native country in 1997. He had intended to tell the story of that visit in the second part of his autobiography, but there was not enough time. He did, however, succeed in completing the second volume of his history of twentieth-century Vietnam, Le Joueur de flûte et l’Oncle Hô: Vietnam 1945-2005, and that book contains some references to his trip back to Vietnam, though in a less personal form.
One day as we wandered around in Hanoi, we kept running into the huge mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse is enshrined. As a fitting tribute to the despicable occupant of that temple of servile submission, Van sang Céline’s Le Règlement [Payback] at the top of his lungs:
Mais la question qui me tracasse
En te regardant:
Est-ce que tu seras plus dégueulasse
Mort que vivant?
[But looking at you, I can’t help asking myself: Will you be any more rotten dead than alive?]
One of the consequences of the American intervention was that it enabled the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam to conceal the destructive nature of its own system of oppression. In Le Joueur de flûte et l’Oncle Hô, Van shows how Ho Chi Minh rose to power, and how this master of a system of coercion and terror modeled on Stalin’s succeeded in becoming Uncle Ho, a figure admired by millions of devoted anti-imperialists around the world who either did not know anything about the Vietnamese people’s actual fate or preferred to ignore it in order to avoid tarnishing the image of the charismatic leader. Ho’s bloody agrarian reform and his repression of dissident intellectuals in the mid-1950s were every bit as vicious as the repressions in other Stalinist countries during the same period, from Mao’s double-crossing of the Hundred Flowers movement* to the Russians’ crushing of the revolutionary insurrection in Hungary. And over the decades since that time we have continued to see the same sorts of sordid manipulations at the summit of the state machine rivalries, plots, betrayals, along with a number of suicides and accidents.”
Upon his return to Saigon, Van was brought close to the daily lives and working conditions of present-day Vietnamese people, thrust by the new economy into development projects funded by South Korean, European, American and Japanese capital. Le Joueur de flûte et l’Oncle Hô provides numerous firsthand accounts by workers at companies like Nike or Coca-Cola, whose foreign owners are pleased at how easily the exploited workers can be kept in line by the police-state machinery. The book also provides information on strikes and other signs of revolt against these conditions and against the current regime.
By a tragic irony of history, the heirs of the old anti-imperialist generation in Vietnam, although still professing an obligatory devotion to the memory of Uncle Ho, have turned to the country’s former enemy for support, welcoming the almighty dollar while the heroic masses continue to struggle for survival. But this new-found complicity in Vietnam between private capitalism and state capitalism came as no surprise to Van, who had always said that those enemies were in fact blood brothers.
When we were in Barcelona on the occasion of the publication of the Spanish version of Au pays de la Cloche fêlée, someone asked him: “Why, after all this time, do you so stubbornly persist in bearing witness to this past history?” He replied: “Because the world hasn’t changed.”
During our Vietnam trip, Van also returned to the village of his birth. Nieces and nephews whom he had left as children told him candidly, and often with humor, about their life during the decades of war, when they had been caught in the crossfire between the Vietcong, the Binh Xuyen pirates and the South Vietnamese army, in some cases joining one to protect themselves from the others, thus becoming alternately deserters and new recruits.
Each night when we went back to our hotel we would discuss the day’s events and conversations, so as to compare and then record our recollections. During one of those sessions Van described his encounter with one of his nephews:
He urged me to come back and stay with them. Come back and I’ll build you a room. You can live with us and when the time comes for you to die, the children will be around you as you go to your final resting place. Ancestor worship is very strong. He wants me to be buried in the family graveyard. His idea is that in my final hour the children and grandchildren will surround my mortal remains. We must lie among our ancestors, that way we will always feel close to them and won’t be lost in the world. But me, I’m a wanderer. I’ve always believed that once you’re gone, you’re gone, and there’s nothing more to say. I couldn’t care less about how I go.
Then he began softly singing this fragment from Brassens:
J’aimerais mieux mourir dans l’eau, dans le feu, n’importe où,
Et même, à la grande rigueur, ne pas mourir du tout.
[I would prefer to die in water, in fire, anywhere at all, or even, if it were possible, not to die at all.]*
Then he continued: “It’s life, the instant of life, that is eternity. . . . I feel immortal, I feel eternal. You may die tomorrow or right now, but when you really immerse yourself in some project you’re living beyond the hundred revolutions of the earth around the sun. Actually, time has nothing to do with it. When you’re eternal, you’re eternal.”
*See Translators Notes.
Memoir by Hélène Fleury in Ngo Vans book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010). Translated from the French by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury.
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.