The Forgotten South
Kỷ niệm một năm ra đi của ký giả và nhà văn
Mark Frankland (1934-2012)
[NĐT sưu tầm]
THE FORGOTTEN SOUTH
Philip H Melling
At a conference on Vietnam and the West held at the University of Wales, Swansea, in 1988, the English novelist Mark Frankland spoke eloquently on the problem of “The Forgotten South” and of the difficulty he felt existed in re-creating a word that “had disappeared without being properly recorded” -- a world that not only had “vanished” but also that too many people easily “despised.” Frankland knows Vietnam not as a soldier but as a correspondent based in Saigon from 1967 to 1975. After his departure he recalls seeing The Deer Hunter. “It seduced me with its marvellously accurate American scene,” he writes, “but it repelled me by its ludicrous depiction of the Vietnamese.” The film, says Frankland, “set a pattern for many later American movies and novels about Vietnam in which the South Vietnamese and the French who dragged America into the first Indochina War against the Viet Minh came to be represented as the worthless cause of the degradation, mutilation and death of young Americans.” For Frankland “the process had reached its almost logical end in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. My memory may deceive, but I think that the only South Vietnamese in Kubrick’s movie with speaking parts -- and they are tiny ones -- are two pimps and two prostitutes. There is also a Vietcong girl sniper whose role is similar to that of the brave but lethal Indian in Westerns. The American Vietnam War movie -- I mean those centered on action in Vietnam -- will have achieved perfection when there are no native characters to be heard or seen at all”.
In Frankland’s novel The Mother-of-Pearl Men (1985) the “native” world of Vietnam and, in particular, the City of Saigon, reveal their identity in layers. Frankland offer us the chance to consider a country that is visibly beautiful but culturally obscure. Obstructions to clear-sightedness are placed in our path. Vietnam requires patience as well as stamina. Saigon is hazy, sometimes smogbound; in the morning it is wreathed in the smoke of charcoal fires. As a political and business capital the city is overcrowded and suffocating; we feel the tensions of a densely packed, thinly partitioned city, with its émigrés and infiltrators. We enter a place of subversive and seething energy overridden with the paranoia of eminent collapse, an underground old labyrinthine tunnels, shacks, and back alleys, and obscure rooms, of windows and doors that open up to an atmosphere of “bad temper” in the streets and offices, an aggressiveness made worse by the realization that in the stifling, midsummer, oriental heat, one cannot go anywhere “without being spies on” (15). But for all the burden of tension the novel carries on its journeys through the alleys and boulevards of Saigon, there is an openness of spirit in Frankland’s work, a willingness to ignore the risks and encumbrances and wander through obscure passage ways. It is in these places and in these rooms, airless and smelling of incense, that Vietnam finally reveals itself, amid the obscure, unattended furniture and the forgotten contents “thick with dust” that sometimes glow with “the faint luminescence of mother-of-pearl” (109). Frankland’s Vietnam reveals itself to those who observe it as an imaginative exercise and to those who pursue it with courage and tenacity. Little is conclusively proved by that pursuit and, as a dramatic experience, little of substance is achieved or resolved. The complexity of Vietnam’s transaction with history and cultural identity on the country is exposed and peeled away only in layers. Frankland is aware, as Lucy Nguyen tells us, that “Vietnamese culture is strikingly syncretic” and that to know the country is to understand the overlay of “Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Roman Catholicism” that “co-existed harmoniously there until the advent of Communism.”
In The Mother-of-Pearl Men the legacy of colonial influence -- the presence of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, French -- has resulted in an eclectic range of belief, one that predates the arrival of Western capitalism and the Marxism-Leninism of North Vietnamese. The willingness of Vietnam to assimilate -- though not always successfully -- a variety of dissimilar cultural and ideological influences, all of which have played a part in the making of the country, manifests itself in the peculiar openness and a genuine spirit of inquiry as well as a feeling of restlessness. It is the spirit of the past -- the conflicting influences of Eastern and Western imperialism -- that has given the country its dense, subliminal graining, the “mysterious glowing colours” (136) of mother-of-pearl and ivory inlay.
The nature of syncretic faith and feeling is expressed in the Cao Dai religion. Caodaism combines Eastern and Western faiths -- Buddhist, Confucianist, and Christian imagery -- in an extravagant “show” of color that befits “the invention of a Cochin civil servant.” In The Quiet American the Cao Dai festival at the Holy See in Tay Ninh is a fantasia of color in which “all truth are reconciled” (85). Partnership is the key word. “A Pope and female cardinal. Prophecy by planchette. Saint Victor Hugo. Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolor”(83).
The Mother-of-Pearl Men extends the range of Greene’s suggestions. Frankland gives us a novel that is both a celebration and a lament for a country that cannot resolve its generous yearnings for the outside world or provide for itself an affirmative definition of its own self-image. As the repository of trend and traditions Vietnam is to Frankland what it is to the filmmaker Emile de Antonio in Year of the Pig (1969), “the site of competing discourses rather than... a single unified text, a fact.” In an age of American cultural imperialism the country’s achievements are easily overlooked. When confronted by the vast displacing power of the American military establishment, the syncretic quality of Vietnamese history is something “no one cares much to think about any more” (8).
Frankland’s Vietnam is an oblique place. Like E. M. Forster, Frankland approaches the Orient as a land of mystery, and he interprets its effect on those who live in it and those who come to it. Both writers explore the relationship between the ancient and complex patterns of Asian civilization and the more “advanced” beliefs and activities of the West. Both writers question which worldview more effectively satisfies humanity’s quest for certainty, although the answers both these writers provide are neither confident nor entirely spiritual. In A Passage to India and The Mother-of-Pearl Men the clash of cultures is between a subject people and a colonial regime. In both cases the host environment is found to be equivocal, intricate, and strange; for the Western visitor nothing is immediately identifiable, nothing quite fits, and reason and form are easily frustrated. In India the natural world is implacable and malign; in Vietnam it is debilitating and deceitful. Vietnam abolishes barriers between animate and inanimate forms, confuses the essential distinction between objects, and encourages feelings of profound irritation. Like A Passage to India, The Mother-of-Pearl Men is able to temper those feelings of irritation with a promise of discovery. In both novels man’s capacity for curiosity and the boundless possibilities of his imagination lead him to assume that there are always further realms to be penetrated.
In Frankland’s novel that sense of possibility is beyond the reach of most American civilians who work and live in Vietnam. The cultural complexity of the country of the country is something the Unites States is ill-equipped to deal with, for it sees Vietnam as a place in which to seek confirmation of the truth of Puritanism and colonialism. Vietnam exists to be controlled and administered as a fortress. The elliptical manner of the Vietnamese people is seen as a plot to deceive the virtuous. Any real intercourse is avoided, and despite the cry of bringing “civilization” the American purpose is merely to patronize the culture of a subject people. Official relationship take the place of human ones, social intimacy is limited, and those rely on colonial goodwill must ingratiate themselves in order to receive it. Divorced from the land and the people who live on it, the American Raj lack intellectual curiosity and act like cold fish in the excessive heat.
Frankland sees the American in Vietnam as an interloper, a stranger who lacks the cultural experience to unravel the delicate web of Vietnamese life. Culturally underresourced, its appreciation of Vietnam impoverished, the American mission does not distinguish between the various classes of life in Vietnam -- peasant and merchant, bureaucrat and aristocrat, métis and bourgeois. Instead, the Americans see the Vietnamese as an undifferentiated social mass, a melting pot of unpredictable “adolescent” (141). According to Phap Long, the eccentric devionist monk in the Pagoda of True Enlightenment, the Americans do not begin to compare with those who have come before them: the French, Japanese, or Chinese. “Strangely, one hardly notices the Americans,” says Phap Long. “They are noisy but very obsessed with themselves. They do not know how to sting us like the French” (106). To identify with the spirit of Vietnam is to rid oneself of cultural conceit, “to understand,” as Michael Bishop tries to do, “how seductive” Vietnam “must have been” for the first French settlers who were given the “chance to combine Europe with the tropics in a kind of beauty the earth had never seen before” (10).
Bishop is our guide and Frankland’s choice of a lucid reflector, an innocent abroad who is capable of perceiving the seductive linkages that exist between Europe and the Orient. Bishop is a diffident character whose gentle manner is considered most likely to win the confidence of the mysterious Thai, an English-educated Vietnamese half-cast who, as the novel opens, is wanted by the West and has defected to the Viet Cong. Bishop, who works for a commercial bank in Saigon, is given the job of persuading Thai to leave the Viet Cong and then delivering him safely to British control. Bishop is selected for his job by Gruson, a British diplomat who works in Saigon, because he has that “aura of reliability that someone like Thai finds very reassuring” (119). Bishop is also curious. He is willing to peer into the depths of the Vietnamese underworld, to ignore the presence of Puritan ghosts, until the Vietnamese people reveal themselves -- like the frog that comes at night into his garden -- without fear of betrayal.
Bishop’s Vietnam is an uncertain world of eclectic belief, a country that chooses not to offer the reader the “clean adventure” or the sort of story that is “only appealing” to the ignorant (131). Bishop’s work takes in extremes of etiquette and aesthetic manner; his inquiries show a keenness to observe those acts of “casual American discourtesy,” a willingness to record the small, flickering gestures that might provide some essential clue to the climate and culture of Indochina. The quest is generous yet doomed to failure. Bishop’s Vietnam is constantly attempting to escape itself, to obscure the torment of its own divided personality, to resolve the dilemma of a disparate mind. The country puts up contradictory signs. It is symbolized by the Saigon barman with “a cast in one eye that protected him from enquiring stares,” yet still allowed him “to enjoy the impression he made” (178). Bishop’s talent is an ability to discern the styles of assimilation and discord, the coupling together of dissimilar energies and modes of expression. Yet little if anything of what Bishop discovers is shared by those ensconced in the Western enclosures: the hotel bar on Tu Do Street, for example, to which most of the Americans in the novel gravitate and from which they observe a hostile and unreceptive word.
Bishop avoids a life of static encounter; he moves through the city and “the countryside” (165) in search of practical and aesthetic experience. As he says, “the chance to do something now that it had been presented to me, seemed more attractive than an evening with a whisky bottle” (137). His opportunism gets him involved, as Maurice Tan says, in “a very complicated business” (41), a world rich in artefacts and memorabilia, a country layered over with inscriptions and colors and the fragments of a barely observable history.
In the house of Thai’s cousin we come across something of the essential range of that historical experience, the extent to which the affairs of life are governed by the pursuit of exotic manners:
I walked round the big room. There were three large cupboards against the back wall, each inlaid with fine mother-of-pear flowers, far grander than the ones in the old woman’s house. I found the mother-of-pearl’s acid, underwater colours oddly threatening. Incense sticks and a bouquet of plastic flowers, their colour almost vanished beneath the dust, stood on the top of each cupboard. Photographs hung on the walls, showing people in both Vietnamese and Western clothes. In one of them some young men in flannels and shirts stood round a low, long-bonneted car. . . Perhaps they were Thai’s father and his brothers, so alike then but now scattered by years of war and transformed into fighters and non-combatants, sceptics and believers. (62)
Bishop observes the clothes, the costumes, the decor of Vietnam, the clutter pilled up beneath the hard and simple surface of violence. By rummaging through up beneath the hard and simple surface of violence. By rummaging through a discarded past Bishop is able to discover the comings and goings of a culture that is caught up in the business of protecting itself, a country that is “sensitive,” as Do himself is, to the faintest “unwelcoming look” (123). Bishop’s Vietnam is a country of impressions where identities merge one with another and the reference points of social exchange appear to dissolve in the shifting light.
For those who lack empathy the natural world is a source of irritation. As the seasonal rains fall and bring relief to Saigon, Bishop’s journey to rescue Thai nears its completion. For Harry Wynant, a young American banker, the ceremonial quality of the rain has no meaning. “What a country” he says, “what a goddamned country. Nothing here happens by halves. It’s either dry or it’s pissing down” (148). For a man with a petulant manner Wynant could hardly be further from the truth. The soul of Vietnam, as Thai once says, is in “no-man’s land” (95), perpetually engaged in a dialogue with history, torn between the promise of an eclectic inheritance and the ideal of realizing an imagined self. For Wynant, Vietnam is unfamiliar territory. Since it is unfamiliar it can be resisted, cleaned up, detoxified. Heat requires not rain but good air-conditioning; tension is alleviated not by natural process but by switching “parties” or one’s choice of hotel. “I’m just off to the Continental to have a drink with some friends,” says Wynant to Bishop. “That Caravelle slays me. The air-conditioning’s only fit for a morgue. It beats me why they don’t build places like the Continental any more: solid walls, plenty of air and ceiling fans” (149).
The need for a “solid,” protective, Puritanical environment is indicated on a number of occasions. The American embassy is described as a “prison-like mass” with “high white protective walls” (128), and the military base Bishop drives past on the road to Bien Hoa is ridiculed by Bishop’s companion Ba. “American had only a ghost-like existence for him [Ba]. They were a flock of exotic birds who by some chance of nature had broken their flight in Vietnam but would not stay for long. He often commented on them but never suggested that they would ever change anything that was important in his life and thinking” (29). Ba rejects the American presence as a historically valid or valuable experience for Vietnam.
American social attitudes inherit the development of a genuine rapport. The lack of conspiracy in America’s relationship with Vietnam is exposed by the Francophile sympathies of the Vietnamese. The importance of French as a conversational language and the prevalence of Catholic religious activity in the “villages” (29), gives some indication of the extent to which colonial affiliations remain a possibility in the contemporary world. Bishop comes to understand what the French have achieved, in spite of the heat and “the noise and harsh sunlight”. He has an artist’s eye for landscape and the willingness of the traveller to enter that landscape before the sun is up. Bishop wanders through the streets of Nguyen Du in appreciation of its picturesque forms. “It was very pleasant there, with handsome brown-tiled villas built by the French and tall, smooth-trunked trees along the streets. It was beautiful in the early morning when the light was gentle and the air was grainy and smell of charcoal fires.” In a reflective mood Bishop believes he is walking back into history, so strong is the presence of “the dream of the Frenchmen who had built the city and planted its trees” (10). The foundations of the city streets offer an exemplary statement on those charismatic acts of partnership in history. As the narrator of Into a Black Sun puts it; “Vietnamese streets are a mixture of France and Asia, an octopus sitting on a chessboard, some intersecting in a grille pattern and others radiating from an open hub” (130).
In Saigon the Vietnamese have retained the styles of architecture that testify to the achievements of the past and to European standards of civility and cooperation. The Cercle Sportif club has “not changed since the time of French rule, with no air-conditioning but fans in the ceiling, old copies of French newspapers and huge armchairs designed for European bodies.” Gruson, whose attitude toward the Vietnamese is similar to that of the American Raj, regards the mongrel culture of Vietnam as a debasement of true ideals. The food of the club “French in concept and Vietnamese in execution” (22) is, for him, a measure of the way the Vietnamese “have attacked” (rather than experimented with) “the decent old colonial standards of this club” (21) -- whatever they were. Bishop, in order to uncover his quarry, must disregard such beliefs. He must look to an understanding of the meaning of partnership and overcome a tendency to regard the Vietnamese a mere “children” (22).
Acts of partnership, when properly undertaken, bear rich fruit. For Bishop the seed is sown when Ba -- whom Gruson regards as a hopeless character who hangs around doing odd jobs for journalists” (23) -- calls at his house two evenings a week. “He had apparently decided to take me under his wing and to help me ‘understand the situation’ as he put it. This meant telling me the latest Saigon political gossip, a jumble of names, rumours and intricate theories of plots and intrigues. The lessons began the moment I pulled back the grille” (39). What Bishop begins to learn is that Ba is not always reliable as a guide” (40) to Saigon, he is a perfect exemplar of Vietnamese culture, that “world of half-Eastern, half-Western sound” that one hears in the nightclubs of the city and in the “yearning” expressions of life in the village (124). Through Ba, Bishop gains access to a society that is colorful and “restless” (7). He learns a language of life that compels his attention because of its “energy” (8) and unworldliness. At time that energy is diffuse and abstracted and the mind gets tangled in the shifting loyalties of the moment. With Ba, to a greater extent Thai, the mother-of-pear quality of Vietnam is flawed by an absence of self discipline, by too much “confusion” and “contradictory opinion.” (40)
Occasionally the energy is more focused and persuasive. Thai’s uncle, Maurice Tan, is a skilled performer and informer whose style is rooted in the confidence of his class. Tan’s “costume and manner” reminds Bishop “of photography I had seen of fashionable Vietnamese taken in 1930’s” (47). With glossy hair and black-market Gitanes, Tan drinks scotch and ice in a club called the Pink Night. He also drives a “black Citroen, the kind you see in old French gangster movies,” the body “beautifully polished and the walls of the tyres... painted white (41). Who Tan works for and what he is after we are never sure except that his main concern is to collaborate with Bishop in getting Thai, his nephew, out of the country and away from the clutches of North Vietnamese who threaten to undermine the values of his “home” (42). Tan’s aspirations are those of a man who sees himself as a connoisseur of the values of the old South, the artful collaborator who has borrowed his manners from the West in order to convey his affinity with Western culture. Tan speaks fluent French, was baptized a Catholic, and lived in Paris as a student. France was “marvellous” (44), but Tan has also fought with the marquis against the French in Vietnam. Tan steers a difficult course, therefore, between acting as an acquaintance and as an accomplice. For Gruson, “he’s too close to the communists and he’s too close to the French” (51), yet from what we can see he remains his own man. If he disapproves of the overwhelming infusion of colonial artefacts, he willingly appropriates what he wants.
In his quest “to combine Europe and the tropics” Tan is intolerant of Vietnam’s failure to do likewise, its lapse into the syncretic at its most vulgar. He sees it as a duty to instruct the Vietnamese on their occasional crassness, to show how life ought to be conducted, how one ought to behave artfully in public. In the Pink Night Club a Vietnamese woman in white trouser sings a song to the music of the “Blue Danube Waltz” white “the audience listened with astonished admiration.” Tan is horrified at the lack of decorum. For him it is “astonishing” that “after one hundred years of Western civilization” the Vietnamese people are capable of acting in such a “ridiculous” way (44). To prove the artful capacity of his race Tan takes Gruson and Bishop to a restaurant in a “dusty little town” outside the city. There he delights in “teasing” (55) his guests with an order of eggs that contain fertilized yolks and the embryos of chickens. Having unnerved Gruson, he then sets about the job of restoring his confidence. He does this “in a theatrically conspiratorial manner” (58) with a plan to get Thai out of the countryside and into Saigon. As a master of provocation Tan is successful because of his willingness to explain himself through illusion and disguise, his ability to sharpen his wits in public, which is one of “the specialities” of the Vietnamese (54).
Yet Tan is politically weak in that his propositions have little to sustain them other than the whimsical energies of partnership and the Vietnamese love of a “change of skin” (43). Vietnam is littered with layers of skins, the cast-off faiths of fathers long dead. The Vietnamese, compelled to express their sense of self in social relationship, are committed to pursuing new forms of experience with those who visit them. As relationships shift and displace one another, the metamorphosis of Vietnam, the sloughing-off of skin, involves a transformation of manner but not of identity. In the world of cultural tourism, entertainments might change but most of the activities remain the same. As the girl says in Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants,” “That’s all we do, isn’t it -- look at things and try new drinks?”
New drinks, like new faiths, may imply lack of strength or long-term stability. As Father Quan says, “We Vietnamese have a talent for martyrdom. Do you know that there are many martyrs in the Vietnamese Church but not one saint? I often think about that. The communists -- they have plenty of martyrs, too. Poor Vietnam. So many martyrs, while what she needs is just one or two saints” (137).
The waywardness of Vietnam is self-evident to a pragmatist like Gruson. For him the Vietnamese are “a melodramatic people” who like to feel sorry “for themselves” (43), even though, says Gruson, “feeling sorry for yourself ... can become a habit.” Better the stability of an enduring faith than the talent of enduring martyrdom. “Let me tell you a good rule.” says Gruson to Bishop. “When things get tough, pick a side and stick to it... If you want to get anything done you have to pick a side” (180). Thai cannot pick such a side; he wanders from one intellectual view to another. The affiliations may change -- French colonialism, Marxist-Leninism -- but for Gruson they remain an expression of Thai’s -- and Vietnam’s -- fecklessness and “arrogance” (180)
Other potential problems remain. Partnership cannot always be supervised; social relationships are difficult to assess. South Vietnam is not always committed to aesthetic partnership or cultural assimilation; the etiquette of the country has become hard-edged and much of its idealism has been overturned by the presence of unwelcome strangers with their harsh accents and uncompromising manners. These exiles, northern refugees who came to Saigon after the Communist victory over the French in 1954, have a different understanding of cultural exchange. Tan regards them as unprincipled opportunists who do not fulfil the promise of generosity in their social affairs. They are possessed of a selfish and entrepreneurial cunning, says Tan, and their understanding of culture is limited to the principle of selling one’s soul to the highest bidder. For Tan, the spirit of northern affiliation is not expressed through a love of the European culture and civilization earlier embraced by the South, but through a hard, grasping materialism that finds its fulfilment in the narrow, acquisitive values of America.
Tan sees the relationship between the northern emigrant and the American colonizer as an affront to civilized partnership, a business deal that offends against the spirit of mutual tolerance in Vietnam and that, therefore, breeds suspicion. Thus “when the Americans came it was the Northerners here who learnt fastest how to get on with them. One of our cousins who was a general until he annoyed the president told me that most of the Americans agents here are Northerners and I believe it. They are selfish and cunning” (43). For Tan the dominant ideas of partnership in the South are now determined by the marketplace. The quest for new opportunity by the exiled northerner, and the American desire to protect a valuable commercial market in Southeast Asia from falling into Communist hands, mean that Vietnamese society has become much less concerned to register its sense of a relationship by upholding a belief in grateful or commemorative objects. Relationships now exist for reasons of personal and political gain; transactions flourish that provide no benefit to the social community.
In the new Saigon the need to maintain one’s privacy, to protect one’s world from unwelcome intrusion, breeds paranoia. Altruistic life has been ruined: the city is now full of “foreigners” (91). Those who work in the service of foreigners are easily threatened by the prospect of unverified alliances. Colonel Dinh, for example, forces and innocent métisse like Jeannette to spy on Bishop by becoming a whore. Dinh, who is head of the secret police, is deeply neurotic and appears in public dressed in a “tight-fitting camouflage combat uniform” (45). In a world of fluid and shifting relationship Dinh’s ruse de guerre is also an expression of insecurity. As Tan says, Dinh “isn’t really sure what’s going to happen here,” and so he acts “like a man on a raft in the middle of the sea . . . he does very nasty things to anyone who he thinks might overturn it.” In the city where violence is indiscriminate Dinh is “nervous and . . . very dangerous” (46); for this reason he will ruin anyone who seeks to threaten him or is capable of “playing a trick on him” (111). Dinh is in the business of denying Vietnam the art of its own illusion, symbolized by the mysterious texture of mother-of-pearl. Dinh has brutalized himself and his culture; he moves in a world of Western energies and false collaboration and revives those memories of expatriate life in the postwar American novel in the twenties. In Frankland’ Saigon we enter once again a war-hangover environment where the contours of reality are vague and distinctions between civilian and soldier are no longer possible. Here are the hard, impersonal transactions where the innocent are ruined by the ruthless, “where one day’s friend might be another day’s enemy” ( Into a Black Sun , 60). In the whimsical banality of those who threaten aggression -- in the grenade-tossing antics of Tam Heo -- we confront the cruelty of the war-torn mind and the boredom of those who wander the city in search of casual destruction.
There is, however, the promise of redemption, the promise of an act of good collaboration between Thai and Bishop that reminds us of the partnership between Jake and Montoya in The Sun Also Rises . Thai is the opposite of Colonel Dinh; for him partnership is not a protection racket but an act of self-exposure or risk. If Dinh is the spiritual northerner, Thai is the master of the art of illusion, and his remoteness is spiritual and self referential. To investigate Thai is to enter the polychromatic world of history, to lose one’s bearings, to allow oneself to get blinded by a light that shines at different states of intensity and reveals a landscape in a state of continuous change. “Soft colours were coming back to the overgrown garden and the palm trees beyond it. The air was fresh. It was a different country from that of the midday sun: gentle and hopeful where the other was harsh and despairing. But which was the real country? The search for Thai seemed to be taking me more and more deeply into the midday with its exhausted colour and pressing heat” (70). In attempting to enter that country Bishop suffers from obstructed vision and refracted experience. Given the element of surprise and self-transformation in the Vietnamese landscape, it is not always easy for him to identify those who seek legitimate partnerships. In pursuing Thai, Bishop must enter “no-man’s land” (95) where appearances change and identities merge with little explanation.
Thai’s Vietnam is a battle-changed landscape of warring knowledge and indeterminate belief; he is its symbol, riven by the complex divisions that exist between religion and ritual, between the politics of violence and the comatose life of the opium den. Thai’s restlessness is Vietnam’s; its shape and his: its protean form, its history and idealism that shift back and forth between affiliation and rejection, between various aesthetic experiences and the histories that shape those experiences. Thai travels in the spiritual landscape of the métis, the halfway world of the half-cast, the pigmy warrior wracked with the anguish of his particular intelligence, and the particular appearance of his body: “half child, half old man” (80). Thai’s Vietnam is the dissolving crystal of his own history, a world that breaks under the strain of containing the anguish and ambiguities of the self. As Bishop and Jeannette make love he cannot help “thinking of the contrast between Jeannette’s body, smooth and firm like a new fruit, and her face which when ill-tempered had looked as old as rage itself” (86).
Self-contradiction is a feature of the country’s social life; it is confirmed by the secretaries that Bishop works with who wear the ao dai with cardigans over them, as if “putting them on gave them a different, more substantial and European air.” This sense of barely endured cultural schizophrenia is a constant concern for Bishop in his attempt to understand the Vietnamese obsession with opposites. The problem is outlined early in the novel when Bishop spends “an uncomfortable evening” with one of the senior bank officials. This character is a man of outward calm at his work, but in the presence of his wife, he is someone who appears “on the point of drowning.” The conflict within the official is intense. “He seemed to look upon his prosperity -- a little villa, a Peugeot, large diamonds in his wife’s ears -- as fairy gold that might vanish at any moment.” The worry does not last. At work the following day, Bishop watches him, “his calm restored and seemingly a different man” (15).
Such changeability gives the impression of incompleteness. Insofar as this manifested in an evolving political will, the problem, as Gruson puts it, is “that most people in this awful country are fed up with both sides.” If this “adds up to a sort of freedom” (118), the tension created can be unbearable. As Thai enters the pagoda to achieve an “exorcism” (73), so Vietnam rids itself of divided belief through the purgatorial experience of Marxism. Just as the country strives for “tranquillity” with a “plan” (122), so Thai accepts the “extraordinary calm” of the monks in the pagoda. As one of them tells Bishop: “You are right to help Thai. I have talked to him in the past. He is restless but good. He is worth saving for he can help others” (74).
Whether Thai, who is overloaded with idealism, can help himself is never conclusively shown; Thai “has seen both sides and he knows that neither is whole” (139). Thai sees himself, therefore, as the bearer of Vietnam’s history and destiny, a man who carries the yearnings of those who, unfulfilled, died an early death, the “wandering souls” who have “nowhere to go” and enter the bodies of “living people” in order to “possess them” (75). Thai’s confusions are those of his country and, through him, Frankland reminds us of the lapses of political and religious will that are endemic to Vietnam. If the guerrillas celebrate the arrival of Tet on a Sony radio, Thai does it with a “Vietnamese swiss roll.” What Frankland gives us is that comic dependency of a “serious” (34) world on the things that are also sentimental and transitory. Nothing is funnier than Thai’s fixation on Cornel Wilde as a curly-haired Chopin in A Song to Remember, or the Toyota calendar that decorated the wall of the Pagoda of True Enlightenment where the monks are nourished on processed cheese, French bread, and cocoa.
Thai cannot be saved by the political rescue that Gruson proposes; nor can Vietnam be rescued through the archaic political mission that the United States proposes. As Bishop realizes, “How did you rescue anyone in this country? How did you rescue Thai from the battles that were going on in him as much as around him” (140) If Bishop must lose his naïveté he must also retain his humanity and trust. “Suspicion was part of the curse. It could paralyse you as effectively as any fear of Tam the pig” (54). Without the friendship or loyalty of a man like Ba nothing is remotely intelligible. On its own Vietnam is merely “a theatre of fools in which I had become a bit part player” (172). For this reason Bishop is angered by the injury to Ba’s son and the killing of Do, and he feels affection toward Father Quan and the métise Jeannette, both of whom “had been hurt in some way” (179).
Bishop’s ability to find out who has caused that hurt is never conclusively demonstrated. Thai disappears into Cambodia, perhaps “because he wanted to” (186). Or he may have been killed -- be whom and for what reason remain unclear. Nor do we understand the motives of the Cambodians or why Thai’s mother should wish to have a relationship with them, without the approval of Gruson, (who then loses interest in the whole affair). Bishop’s achievement is the effort he takes to arrive at a point where all possible lines of inquiry have been pursued, and his refusal to indulge in those tantalizing strategies of deception that occasionally take his fancy. Bishop learns to deal respectfully with a world that trusts him only fitfully, a world without rules or guaranteed outcomes, a world of tension in which the heat is unavoidable and the rains are slow in coming. “And though I longed for a resolution of the tension I must have known that it would not come. I had left the world of games played according to rules, of family propriety and honourable business without realising what happening and there was no easy escape back to it” (132).
The honesty of the inquiry shows up in the quality of writing and the quality of feeling that lies behind it. Bishop’s strength is that he avoids complacency and the easy moralizing of the disenchanted like Wynant. “I’ll tell you one thing,” says Wynant. “This country has a curse on it. It is bewitched’ ─ he stretched out the two syllables -- ‘and anyone who’s silly enough to get muddled up with it has only himself to blame if he gets hurt” (148-49). The idea of Asia as a muddle takes us back to E. M. Forster. The contempt both writers have for the arrogance and closure of the colonial mind is overt if not absolute.
In Frankland’s choice of Michael Bishop we see a way of accepting the necessity of Asia as a mystery in language that avoids the need for a muddle. Bishop’s language conveys a sense of a prose not bound by its own thesis, a prose that can stretch itself, that can enter a landscape that lies beyond American graffiti and American myth. In his observation of the middle class, Bishop takes us into a society that for most writers does not exist. We encounter a society that ignores “the bars that made money from the Americans” (134) and that spends its time in the evening observing the “latest material in the tailors’ shop” or “the craftsmen’s boutiques that sold ivory and lacquer ware and objects glinting with mother-of-pearl inlay” (134). Yet beneath the illusion of contentment in Bishop’s landscape lies the menace of something threatening and obscure, but nonetheless powerful force of self-disagreement or self-disgust. The language of the novel has a tension and an edge to it; it indicates tranquillity but seeks to incorporate a disorder that will ruin it. The changes in the writing are sometimes imperceptible. In the journey to Ba’s house we move without fuss from contentment to contained menace:
There were market gardens on both sides of the road and the fresh morning air carried the smell of young vegetable, the smell of any English garden on a summer day. The village was at first just as reassuring. It was only miles off the main road and looked suburbanly prosperous. Small tiled houses stood between neat clumps of palm trees, well-tended flowers and bushes. But towards the end of the village the palm trees grew thicker and here we turned off down a track till we reached a clearing across which stood a house far larger than those we had just passed. . . . A pig was penned into a space near the veranda and there were some unhealthy-looking chickens around the steps.
Ba got out and shouted something in Vietnamese. There was no answer except from the hens who raised a feeble cry of alarm. Ba hurried in front of me and disappeared inside the house. The veranda floor was covered in chicken droppings and feathers. (61)
Bishop’s landscapes are always liable to change in appearance, to shift from the poetic to the grotesque and, if necessary, to look both ways in precisely the same time. Here is Do’s death: “He was lying on his side with blood coming from beneath his head. There was only a touch of it on his mouth. . . . There were already flies on it when I got back. I drove them off and they settled on a piece of rotting fruit close by in the gutter. Their backs glittered in the sunlight like chips of mother-of-pearl” (170)
Bishop’s perception of Vietnam is that he can neither make sense of it in terms of that retain their shape and texture nor exert substantial control over it. There is some recognition that what he may have looped into is a world of “wily energy” (162) and “intrigue” (147), where feats of deception -- as Thai’s mother so artfully demonstrates to Gruson at the Caravelle -- are etched like mother-of-pearl within the culture. Bishop’s mission, like Thai’s life, may achieve very little, like a small particle of cosmic matter played on by a force field whose energy source is undetectable. Yet our complicity with Bishop is considerable. His limitations set the standards and the level of vision obtainable. We never see more than Bishop; since there are places he cannot go and bases he cannot touch, we are unable to see beyond his attachments.
There is no resolution to the problems of Asia, and this is the point at which The Mother-of-Pearl Men and A Passage to India part company. There is certainly no Godbole, the wise fool, the man of harmonious contradiction whose appearance suggests a reconciliation of East and West, if only in the Hindu acceptance of disaster and invasion. In Frankland the foolish are not always wise and the wise are not always foolish. They simply coexist. Contentment is available in drugs or in the ascetic utopian religion of Phap Long. If Godbole exists, he is a priest without a God, a quack and conjuror, like the founder of the Pagoda of True Enlightenment, the Superior An Minh Phuong, whose incantations have gone unanswered since 1941. If Vietnam is a place of tragedy, it is also a place of foolishness where the spirit world can sometimes combine with the whimsical for the sake of entertainment. An absurdity perhaps, but not one that is beyond perceptive comprehension.
From Philip H. Melling, Vietnam in American Literature - The Puritan Heritage, University of Wales, Swansea, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1990.
Những tác phẩm của Mark Frankland đã đăng trên Tiền Vệ:
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