Declassifying Nguyen Huy Thiep

Zinoman, P. (1994). Declassifying Nguyen Huy Thiep. Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, 2(2), 294–317.

In 1989, historian Greg Lockhart published a brief Vietnamese-language essay in the Hanoi-based journal, Literary Studies (Tap Chi Van Hoc), entitled “Why I am Translating Nguyen Huy Thiep’s Short Stories into English.”1 There, Lockhart approvingly linked Thiep’s radical refashioning of the Vietnamese short story form with the projects of writers Gabriel Garcia Mirquez, Ryzard Kapuschinsky, Marguerite Duras, and historian Jonathan Spence. “What we have here,” Lockhart wrote expansively, “is the literary phenomenon which we call postmodernism.”2

A month earlier, Vietnamese critic Le Xuan Giang, also writing in Literary Studies, tagged Thiep with the postmodem label, pointing out a symptomatic use of allegory (phung du) in the virtuoso short stories “Sharp Sword” [Kiem Sac], “Fired Gold” [Vang Lua], and “Chastity” [Pham Tiet].3 In 1992, as the influence of Thiep’s work expanded among the overseas-Vietnamese community in the United States, historian Hue Tam Ho Tai, in a scholarly essay on Thiep’s historical fiction, suggested that the power of Thiep’s work “derives from an unusual combination of existential sensibilities” and “postmodern literary technique.”4 California-based literary theorist Dao Trung Dao published concurrently a critique of Thiep’s critics in the groundbreaking journal Hop Luu, and raised similar theoretical questions alleging links between Thiep, Lyotard, Eco, Kundera, and Rushdie.5

What is peculiar about this burgeoning consensus that puts Thiep in the “postmodern” camp is a certain basic disagreement about why the label fits.6 In the cases cited above, divergences may stem from the very different sociocultural backgrounds and scholarly traditions inside of which the critics work. Another reason, however, lies in the fundamental unclarity of the concept of postmodernism: postmodernism, like pornography, has proved easier to recognize than to define.

Still, the proliferation of critical treatments that stress the postmodern in Thiep’s work demands that those intervening in current debates on the subject must come to terms with postmodernism, if only to evaluate whether the notion illuminates or obscures the Nguyen Huy Thiep phenomenon. However, it seems somewhat premature to attempt a definitive categorization of Thiep now. Rather, this article enumerates some of the problems encountered when critics place the author’s work into the tradition of postmodern fiction and suggest ways of reading Thiep that might better explain the meaning of his stories and why they have exerted such an extraordinary impact in postrevolutionary Vietnam. My position – that the historical significance of Thiep’s stories are most vivid in the context of “local” Vietnamese economic and cultural development – partially reflects the immaturity of early scholarly criticism of the writer and his work. This essay is thus a bald attempt to direct interpretive emphasis in treatments of Thiep’s work away from features that place him at the tail end of some international literary avant-garde and toward the features that have made him a leading intellectual dissident in contemporary Vietnam.

Thiep and postmodernism

What does it mean to say that the fiction of Nguyen Huy Thiep is postmodern? While definitions of the formal contours and political significance of postmodernism vary wildly, most share two general features, one cultural and one socioeconomic:

  1. Postmodernism must be understood in relation to modernism(s), either as an intensification or as a rejection of it (them);7
  2. Postmodernism as a cultural notion is connected somehow with postmodernity, the contemporary socio-economic period, sometimes referred to as postindustrial society or late capitalism.8

In addition, literary theorists impart more specific meaning to the concept by attending to a number of formal features that reappear in works typically considered postmodern. One striking aspect of Thiep’s fiction is how easily attentive readers can locate identifiably “postmodern” features in his work.

Postmodern fiction’s characteristic penchant to concurrently make transparent and problematize the processes of its own creation stands out clearly in several of Thiep’s short stories.9 For example, in “Fired Gold,” the second story in Thiep’s pseudo-historical trilogy, the narrator-author acknowledges receiving some documents from a reader named Quach Ngoc Minh, which appear to contradict the veracity of the trilogy’s first story and also shed light on the content of the current one. “I went up to visit Quach Ngoc Minh and his family,’’ the narrator explains. “The ancient documents he possessed were truly original. I then returned to Hanoi and wrote this story. As I wrote, I freely amended and reorganized extraneous details and edited the documents so as to make them consistent with the telling of my story.” By acknowledging the story’s debt to “documents” while also admitting that he “amended,” “reorganized,” and “edited” them, Thiep illuminates and muddles the process by which he generated the very text we are reading. In a similar vein, the narrator of “Sharp Sword” unexpectedly concludes by referring to shadowy figures and sources that he claims enabled him to create the story.

In “Cun,” Thiep again inserts into the narrative an arguably postmodern passage that both clarifies and obscures the storytelling process. The narrative begins with a subsection curiously entitled “The Cause of the Story,” which relates how a seemingly insignificant comment by “the literary scholar K” inspired the story that follows: “[K] suddenly let something unexpected slip. ‘My father was Cun,’ he said. ‘Throughout his short life his only desire was to become a human being but he never did.’ On the basis of this utterance, I wrote this story.” In “Cun”’s concluding subsection, the author reads the story (that the reader just read) to K, who upon hearing it immediately produces photographic evidence that completely refutes its accuracy. The narrative ends on a note of postmodern instability.

The sense of uncertainty about the “real story” effected by “Cun”’s conclusion exemplifies another arguably postmodern feature found in many of Thiep’s stories. As Molly Hite has suggested, postmodern fiction “resists the reader’s desire to assign a textual phenomenon to a particular ontological level, such as the level of real world fact, fictional ‘fact,’ or fictional ‘fiction.”10 Many of Thiep’s stories conjure up such ontological instability. The most striking instance occurs at the end of “Sharp Sword,” in which a fantastic description of the decapitation of the story’s protagonist, Dang Phu Lan (sap rather than blood spurts out of his body), is followed by a completely plausible description of Lan’s successful escape from the executioner and his clandestine assimilation into a highland village. The story concludes without attempting to reconcile these two contradictory outcomes or the different worlds that they suggest.

“The Water Nymph” [Con Gai Thug Than] also vacillates between worlds apparently bounded by different sets of ontological rules. The narrative intertwines conventionally “realistic” episodes illustrating a northern peasant boy’s coming of age and his periodic encounters with a female aquatic deity known as Me Ca. The story also includes folk accounts of Me Ca’s strange birth and supernatural endeavors. “These were the kind of stories – half myth, half reality – that multiplied about Me Ca,” the narrator comments. Indeed, the narrator tries to track down the origins of Me Ca (the myth or the being, we are never quite sure) and encounters a nun and a school principal who claim to have known her. Finally, an old man confides to the narrator, “I invented the story of Me Ca. Everyone believed it,” leaving both readers and the narrator with no tidy solution, only a Borgesian labyrinth of inconsistent explanations and unverifiable stories.11

Critics sensitive to the richness of postmodern literary conventions have little trouble identifying other familiar elements in Thiep’s stories. Playful mingling of high and low cultural references is apparent in the profanity and pornography Thiep associates with the officially exalted eighteenth-century King Quang Trung in “Chastity” and in the allusions he makes to Abba and the Beatles in “The General Retires” [Tuong Ve Huu].12 A postmodern literary “self-reflexiveness” (the tendency to write about writing) can be found in Trieu’s aside – “I’ve never thought our literature was worth much. It lacks strong beliefs and beauty” – in “Lessons from the Country” [Nhung Bai Hoc Nong Thom]; in the general’s comment that “today’s literary styles are difficult to appreciate” in “The General Retires”; and in the admission by the narrator of “Cun” that he cannot understand current literary debates.13

Finally, the flat, depthless quality that Jameson associates with much postmodern art and literature can be conjoined with what Hue Tam Ho Tai calls Thiep’s “affectless tone.”14 While some have favorably compared it to Hemingway, the alienated voice-over of such stories as “No King” [Khong Co Vua], “The General Retires,” and “The Winds of Hua Tat” [Nhung Ngon Gio Hua Tat] remains one of the most commonly noted and criticized facets of Thiep’s work.15

The preceding account has reviewed some possibly postmodern tropes in Thiep’s fiction. However, such readings may obscure more than they reveal. The remainder of this article clarifies what I believe to be significant prob- lems in postmodernist readings and suggests some alternate interpretive possibilities.

Thiep and the Burden of Vietnamese Literary History

A reaction against modernism and the canonization of high modernist works after World War II gives a certain unity to the diverse body of works typically labeled postmodern. That is to say, for postmodern writers, the formal conventions of modernism represent the entrenched and, thus, conservative literary establishment and forms their natural target. Thiep and northern Vietnamese writers of the contemporary era, however, contend with a very different literary establishment shaped over decades by colonialism, civil war, and a culturally dogmatic communist state.

Before the French secured control of the territory previously governed by the Vietnamese court in Hue, two distinct narrative traditions dominated Vietnamese literature. The first, known as Truyen Ky (narrations of strange things), were fabulous and mythical folktales in which allegedly “real” historical figures mingled with supernatural beings from the spirit world.16 The second type, Truyen Tho, were Vietnamese versions of melodramatic Chinese verse narratives. Rendered in Chinese characters or a demotic Vietnamese script known as Nom (neither of which most people could read), the narratives were structured in a poetic form that lent itself to easy oral transmission and reproduction. Masterworks of Vietnamese classical literature such as “The Tale of Kieu” and “Luc Van Tien” are examples of this form.17

French colonial domination fundamentally altered Vietnamese literary history in at least two ways. First, the colonial state and the anticolonial movements it provoked stimulated the spread of the romanized Vietnamese writing system known as quoc ngu.18 Easier to learn than Chinese characters, quoc ngu enabled a rapid increase in literacy and contributed significantly to the creation of a mass market for books. Second, the French educational system introduced the Vietnamese elite to European literature, which influenced early Vietnamese attempts at prose fiction. For political reasons, this colonial literary canon was dominated by the sentimental classics of French romanticism, especially the works of Lamartine, Hugo, Musset, and Vigny.19 As one observer has pointed out, French interests were served by “having the Vietnamese youths of the time devoting themselves to pathetic love, moaning, weeping or burying flowers” rather than to political agitation.20

During the interwar years when the high modernisms of Joyce, Mallarmé, and Pound were sweeping cultivated European circles, the two most influential literary movements in Vietnam, the New Poetry (Tho Moi) Movement and the Self-strength Literary Group (Tu Luc Van Doan), were clearly shaped by the dreamy and brooding aesthetic of French romanticism. Written and read by a young and expanding urban middle class, this prose and poetry exhibited an almost obsessive preoccupation with typically bourgeois notions of romantic love, individualism, and personal freedom. As Neil Jamieson has argued, New Poets like Huy Can, Xuan Dieu, and Che Lan Vien virtually ignored political or social questions, choosing to “explore inner space rather than society.”21 While Self-strength novelists such as Nhat Linh, Khai Hung, and Hoang Dao did launch reformist critiques against the traditional family and conservative social institutions like arranged marriages, their accounts have long been chided for being disagreeably elitist and idealistic.22 Even the stories of Thach Lam, overwhelmingly centered on the lives of the Vietnamese underclass, seem rather patronizing today.23

The waning of the New Poetry Movement and the Self-strength Literary Group corresponds directly with the ascendancy of the Vietnamese Communist party and its strict enforcement of the literary conventions of socialist realism. Vietnamese socialist realism initially appropriated from forms pioneered by French, Chinese, and Soviet theorists and developed its own distinctly narrow parameters in response to years of war and the tribulations of North Vietnam’s unique experience with socialist transformation.24 Another reason for the ossification of Vietnamese socialist realism after World War II may be that, in a still inadequately understood phenomenon, leaders of the ultra-bourgeois New Poetry Movement of the 1930s, such as Xuan Dieu and Huy Can, went over to the communist side in the 1940s and, in the three following decades, became the state’s cultural czars. Anxious to repudiate their past “mistakes” and allay the mistrust of their peers, they proved to be unusually zealous upholders of their new orthodoxy.25

The cartoonish dogmatism of the literary manifestations of this orthodoxy is obvious in Truong Chinh’s 1948 prescriptive report, “Marxism and Vietnamese Culture,” that set down guidelines for what became known as the New Democracy Culture.26 In this blueprint, “Revolutionary literature should have the effect of awakening, mobilizing, organizing the masses, imbuing them with a will, a faith, appealing to them to rise up to carry out the revolution to overthrow the oppressing and exploiting class, to destroy the productive forces and to build a new society in accordance with their interests and aspirations.”27

Sadly, Chinh’s pedantic and heavy-handed tone infused most literature produced by northern Vietnamese writers from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. Perhaps most artistically debilitating was the enforcement of a kind of obligatory hopefulness, a canned cheeriness that the party saw as central to the “morale-building” function of revolutionary writers and approvingly contrasted with what it considered the “pessimistic” or “defeatist” tone of much bourgeois literature. The stilted, didactic, and rather humorless quality of Vietnamese socialist realist literature is nicely summed up in Boudarel’s comment that “works were expected to revolve around stock characters or ‘types’ (dien hinh) and to serve the political requirements of the moment in a ‘timely’ fashion (phuc vu kip thoi).The catchword was ‘hate’ (cam thu): hate for the foreign ‘imperialists’ (de quoc) and for the native ‘feudalists’ (phong kien) or landowners.”28

This thumbnail sketch of Vietnamese literary history, specifically the hegemony of socialist realism from the 1940s in the north and the mid-1970s in the rest of the country, provides the proper context for understanding Thiep’s work. A point worth reiterating is that, in the north especially, an indigenous Vietnamese modernism was “stillborn.” Somewhere between a French colonial state (which patronized romanticism) and an indigenous communist state (which patronized socialist realism), the creation and circulation of identifiably “modernist” art was simply short-circuited. In the north particularly, where Thiep was born and has lived his entire life, the spread of imported modernist works was actively discouraged.29

A sense of the limited importance of modernist literature for Thiep can be gleaned from the citations he makes to specific works and writers in four essays he published between 1988 and 1992 dealing with his experience and development as a writer.30 While Thiep mostly uses the great men of Viet- namese literature as his literary reference points (he cites Tran Te Xuong, Le Qui Don, Phan Boi Chau, Vu Trong Phung, Nguyen Binh Kiem, Nguyen Du, Nguyen Khuyen, Nguyen Trai, and Ngo Thi Nham) he also refers to the following European writers: Stendhal, Maupassant, Flaubert, Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy, Hugo, Diderot, Camus, and Sartre. With the exception of the last two French existentialists, Thiep’s background in Western literature seems firmly grounded in the French and Russian nineteenth centuries. State censorship, North Vietnam’s unusual degree of isolation from the West since 1954,and evidence that Thiep reads no European language and has never in fact traveled abroad supports the notion that he has been largely sealed off from contemporary international literary currents.31

Given the context sketched so far, it is nearly impossible to sustain an argument that Thiep’s work is subverting or intensifying an indigenous Vietnamese modernism or some range of imported modernist (or postmodernist) traditions. And this in turn erodes attempts to classify Thiep’s work as postmodern. I find it more fruitful to follow Thiep’s Vietnamese critics and read his work in relation to the styles and conventions of Vietnam’s pre-colonial literary history on the one hand and to the hegemony of socialist realism in North Vietnam on the other. To take one example, a habitual feature of premodern Truyen Tho narratives is that they typically assert their own authority by citing an older work as a source.32 For example, “The Tale of Kieu” opens: “By lamplight turn these scented leaves and read/ a tale of love recorded in old books.” “Luc Van Tien,” in the same vein, advises its readers to consult a mysterious text: “Before the light look at the story of Tay Minh.” By the nineteenth century, in fact, this stylized footnoting had become something of a formal convention. “The Chinese stories to which many Viet- namese verse narratives refer,” one scholar has pointed out, “are about actual historical events… The authors of Vietnamese verse narratives refer to earlier sources not to assume completely the stance of a historian but to make their tales more credible by linking them to actual people and events.”33 The peculiar way Thiep grounds his stories in diaries, old books, and historical documents, which he then slyly acknowledges tampering with, can be seen to be, like Lu Xun’s satirical prefaces to “The True Story of Ah Q” and “Diary of a Madman,” contemporary parodies of age-old conventions.

The juxtaposition of “real” figures, fictitious characters, and supernatural events in Thiep’s stories similarly is not so much a postmodern technique of “frame-breaking” but is more like, as Tai has convincingly argued, an ironic “homage” to the Truyen Ky of the classical narrative tradition.34 The division of Viet Dinh U Linh Tap, the best known of the Truyen Ky, into sections on kings, ministers, and spirits anticipates the main characters and plot structures in Thiep’s historical tales. For example, “Sharp Sword” centers on the relationship between the nineteenth-century Emperor Gia Long and a brilliant but historically fictional adviser, Dang Phu Lan, while “Fired Gold” chronicles the same emperor’s dealings with a putatively fictitious French counselor. “Chastity” concerns the relationships between a beautiful, clairvoyant, and historically “fictional” concubine named Ngo Thi Vinh Hoa and two “real” emperors and their top henchmen.

By integrating popular proverbs and his own original compositions of classical verse into his prose, Thiep further links his stories to premodern Vietnamese narrative techniques. Many of his stories begin with epigraphs culled from ancient songs or from the works of classical literary figures such as Nguyen Du, Ho Xuan Huong, and Tran Te Xuong.35 Moreover, while critics generally agree that there is something innovative about Thiep’s stories, Hoang Ngoc Hien has noted their essentially “classical” nature.36 Dang Anh Dao likewise argues that “Thiep’s style does not involve importing some radically new technique but is, in fact, ‘old-fashioned’” in its clarity and deceptive simplicity.37

Thiep’s familiarity with pre-colonial Vietnamese writing reflects the fact that he trained to be a historian and for a decade taught high school history in Son La province. A historian’s sensibility is evident in the detailed attention Thiep pays to dates, place-names, and well-known historical figures who play leading and bit parts in stories like “Fired Gold,” “Chastity,” “Sharp Sword,’’ and “Nguyen Thi Lo.” While these stories show Thiep revising major themes in Vietnamese political history, others like “A Drop of Blood” [Giot Mau], which chronicles the economic and moral devolution of one family over several generations, show Thiep to be an able social historian. Again, contrast Thiep, the historian, who evaluates contemporary Vietnamese society by reinterpreting its vision of the past, with Lu Xun, a medical doctor diagnosing Chinese social pathologies in explicit medical metaphors.

Though pre-colonial narrative traditions inform many of Thiep’s stories, his work has been even more fundamentally shaped in response to the more recent literary orthodoxy. Understandably, critics have been drawn to the ways Thiep’s stories positively violate the conventions of Vietnamese socialist realism. For example, many appraisals have approvingly noted that Thiep’s work is rarely transparently didactic.38 In an early review of “The General Retires,” Dao argues that, unlike the typical narrators in works acclaimed for their “mass character,” Thiep’s narrators are not “secretly and patronizingly trying to educate the masses. In fact at certain points, the narrator even seems ‘below’ the characters and the readers.”39 The critic Nguyen Hoa offers a similar assessment:

The writer narrates and depicts things without offering commentary or solutions. The reader is left to think, evaluate, and pull out the essential conclusions himself. This suggests Thiep’s faith that Vietnamese readers have grown up. No longer must they suck from ideological teets. They can judge for themselves whether a work is “correct” or if it has the right “class outlook.”40

Thiep’s stories also radically depart from the obligatory hopefulness of Vietnamese socialist realism, and critics such as Van Ngoc and Vuong Tri Nhan have gone so far as to call Thiep’s stories “heartless, unfeeling, cold and severe” and “cruel and bitter.”41 More often, readers experience a vicarious sense of loneliness. Phung Van Tuu feels the staccato sentences, abrupt style, and short distinct chapters of “The General Retires” mirror the anomie of the characters. Tuu notes that the ‘“loneliness” of the story conjures up a sensation he usually associates with Western works.”42 Dao concurs that “it’s unusual to have such depictions of loneliness in a society still structured around family and village, while in the industrialized West, this kind of loneliness seems pervasive.”43

The lonely hopelessness haunting Thiep’s stories is accentuated in passages attributed to one or another character that seem, in fact, to express a more general tenor of existential pessimism. From “Fired Gold”: “We live without meaning, poor and miserable among makeshift theories and specious reasoning, consumed by ethnic and class antagonisms. How fragile and trifling our lives are. When, I ask, when on the face of this earth will progress appear?” From “Run River Run” [Chag di Song oi]: “Human beings are very stupid. They are as mindless as dust. I wanted to cry out in pain. I was overwhelmed by the emptiness of my life.” From “Lessons from the Country”: “The limitless mystery of the universe had made me acutely aware of the meaninglessness of my own life and death.” While these passages conceivably could be aligned with a postmodern “affectlessness” or “flatness,”many of Thiep’s Vietnamese readers express the view that their tone, albeit gloomy, is a welcome departure from the enforced optimism of officially sanctioned works.44

Thiep’s critique of the state that has prescribed and policed socialist real- ism is almost as direct as his forays against the genre itself. Although the regimes he attacks are always identified as dynasties out of the Vietnamese past, the style and details of the indictment pointedly recall the current sys- tem. To cite just one of the many possible examples, the narrator’s disap- proving comments on the mausoleums built by the Nguyen emperors in “Fired Gold” conjure up images of Ho Chi Minh’s resting place. Many sto- ries mock the party’s rhetorical jargon as well. In “The General Retires,” for instance, Mr. Bong becomes overjoyed during his first automobile ride and exclaims: “The homeland forever! The people forever!”45

The final significant means Thiep uses to violate the conventions of Vietnamese socialist realism is his refusal to mechanically align his characters’ personalities with their class designation. Thiep’s peasants, workers, and fishermen tend not to be earnest or hardworking; party members are neither enlightened nor virtuous; and the venality of the monied classes is striking only for its pervasiveness throughout the social body. Likewise, Thiep’s revisionist versions of historical figures like Gia Long, Quang Trung, Nguyen Thai Hoc, Nguyen Du, and Nguyen Trai subvert their official reputations and implicitly attack the party’s previously unassailable account of Vietnamese history.46

Thiep and Postmodernity

While the preceding section suggested that Thiep’s work is more profitably read in relation to indigenous narrative traditions and a Vietnamese version of socialist realism (rather than an indigenous or imported modernism), this section takes as its point of departure the banal observation that late 1980s Vietnam, and especially the north, can in no way be considered even a nascent postindustrial or late capitalist society. Despite liberalizing economic reforms launched in 1986,northern Vietnam remains one of the poorest regions in the world and, until only very recently, one of the least integrated into the world capitalist economy.

That the northern Vietnamese economy exhibits none of the features of “late capitalism’’ does not mean that fundamental economic changes have not been taking place. The near total destruction of the cooperative system, the virtual elimination of price controls and state planning, and the removal of barriers to private trade and foreign investment have all led to a boost in agricultural production, exports, and a flourishing of small-scale enterprises in towns.47 An attendant increase in smuggling, crime, and corruption has been charted by a newly liberalized press.48 Equally apparent but less acknowledged has been the rise of a new entrepreneurial elite, composed typically of cadres and party-men whose economic savvy and bureaucratic connections have enabled them to thrive under the new market conditions. While the rise of this “new social stratum” has yet to become an object of scholarly enquiry, it is to the culture of this group that we must turn if we wish to understand one important preoccupation of many of Thiep’s stories.49

One of the only windows into the milieu of contemporary northern Vietnam’s new entrepreneurial culture is the extensive fieldwork conducted by anthropologist Hy Van Luong in several northern villages between 1987 and 1991. Luong’s work suggests that the party’s economic reforms stimu- lated a fundamental “sociocultural transformation,” which is expressed in the villages by an “intensification of ritual practices,’’50 He details newly reinvented village rites of passage and solidarity, including significant increases in expenditures for weddings, funerals, and death anniversaries. Customs that the state had dismissed as wasteful or “disruptive to communal unity’’ and had earlier periodically suppressed, such as pig slaughtering, ritual feasting, and gift exchanges, have reappeared and intensified.51 Luong refers to this phenomenon as a “selective revitalization of the pre-1945 tradition.” 52 While’s Luong’s conclusions may not allow for a comprehensive rendering of the contemporary Vietnamese socio-economic condition, they do help explain Thiep’s derisive preoccupation with the growth of a distinct consumer culture in Vietnamese society.

In “The General Retires,” arguably Thiep’s most influential published story, the eldest son of a “new middle class’’ family narrates his father’s difficult readjustment to civilian life just before the old man’s unexpected death. At the story’s conclusion, the son explains that “I regard these lines as the incense of incense sticks lit in remembrance of him.” The admission that the story itself represents one component of a traditional rite of ancestor worship reflects and heightens the story’s fixation with the nature of rit- uals in post-communist Vietnam and recalls the work of Luong. The celebration that the narrator feels compelled to stage when his father returns home after years at the front further illustrates Thiep’s concern. “I had a pig slaughtered and invited everyone in the village to share in the excitement,” his narrator opines. “Although my village is near the city, the customs of the countryside are still strong.” It is no small irony that the family honors the return of the general, who is, after all, a national and party hero, with the boisterous feudal ritual of the pig slaughter.

But, the gentle irony of a politically incorrect pig slaughter gives way to Thiep’s scathing parody of the gaudy tastes of an aspiring middle class in the story’s next depiction of a customary rite, the ill-fated wedding between Tuan and a very pregnant Kim Chi.

The wedding on the edge of the city was a ridiculous vulgar affair. Three cars. Filtered cigarettes that were replaced by roll-your-owns at the end of the dinner. There were fifty trays of food but twelve were left untouched. The bridegroom wore a black suit and a red tie.. ..The best men were six youths wearing identical khaki outfits and wild beards. At the beginning of the wedding the band played “Ave Maria.’’ One fellow from the same ox-cart co-operative as Tuan jumped up and sang a fright- ful solo. …After that it was my father’s turn. He was bewildered and miserable. H e had over-prepared his speech. A clarinet punctuated each sentence by blaring stupidly after each stop. Firecrackers went off nois- ily. Young children provided a nonsensical commentary. My father held the paper so tightly his body trembled, and he skipped over a number of paragraphs. He was hurt and frightened by the motley mob that milled around and was rudely indifferent to his speech. His new relative, the Deputy Department Chief, also became frightened and spilt wine all over the bride’s dress. You couldn’t hear a thing. The raw band drowned everything out with happy songs from the Beatles and Abba.53

The tackiness and gross consumerism suggested in Thiep’s depiction of the wedding is outdone in other recuperated rituals, however, specifically the funeral of the narrator’s mother. “You could furnish a whole lounge with this,” Mr. Bong observes of the narrator’s mother’s coffin. “When you move the grave, make sure you give me these boards.’’ Following custom- ary practice, Bong places some coins in the corpse’s mouth but then becomes embroiled in a high-stakes card game with the pallbearers and has to retrieve his coins to pay them off. In the end, the pallbearers “carried the coffin without any sense of the occasion, much as though they were carrying a house post. They chewed betel, smoked and chatted as they went.” They flop down on the ground to rest at will and can be persuaded to deliver the corpse to its final resting place only when reminded by Bong, “We’ve still got to get back for the banquet.’’

Two other family rituals are notable less for their insipid vulgarity and more for Thiep’s almost willful inattention to detail in recounting them. The arrangements made for Tet (typically the most lavish event of the year) he sums up with a single despondent line: “That New Year, my family nei- ther bought any peach blossoms nor wrapped any rice cakes.’’ Likewise, a single spare sentence recounts the family’s dutiful visit to the general’s tomb at the cemetery for war heroes: “My wife brought a camera and took some photos.”

Thiep’s sardonic recapitulations of the weddings, funerals, holidays, and special events organized and enacted by the family in “The General Retires” suggest an attempt to capture and critique the culture of a newly emerging northern Vietnamese middle class. Although the rituals he depicts may be traced to some pre-communist Vietnamese tradition, their contemporary manifestations are revealed to be tawdry, tasteless, hopelessly commodified, and emptied of spiritual or emotional content. Whereas Luong notes the recurrence of “selective”cultural features, Thiep mourns a general retrogression and increasing materialism of contempo- rary culture.

Nascent Vietnamese yuppies are not the only object of Thiep’s ire. In “No King” Thiep derides the equally one-dimensional concerns of a family that has enjoyed a “good” class designation for three generations and whose current patriarch, Old Kien, is a bicycle repairman. The opening passage, which describes old Kien’s new daughter-in-law, Sinh, as simply the sum of the items that make up her dowry, suggests the extent to which the family is consumed by an ethos of materialism. Thiep details the various odd jobs and schemes by which members of the family make their living. Money and its accumulation infect virtually every discussion and seem to dominate all relationships between different family members. When Kham, who is still in school, complains about his upcoming philosophy exam, his brother responds, “Philosophy is a lavish feast for bookworms. Do you see Sinh’ necklace over there? That’s philosophy.” And when the idiot son Ton receives some cash from his brother Khiem, “Ton held the money up to the light and asked, ‘Money huh?’ Khiem answered, ‘Yes.’ Ton asked, ‘What is money?’ Khiem answered, ‘Money is king.’ ”

Critic Hoang Ngoc Hien praised Thiep’s powerful protest against this commodification of everyday life. It is worth quoting at length, for it pro- vides a window into local readings of Thiep’s significance.

The previous era was peaceful and prosperous for the subsidy system, and especially during the war people lived completely by their affec- tions toward each other. There was no need for calculation. But we now have moved on to a new era, an era of cost accounting. Heartfelt feelings are not enough; people these days demand “prompt repayment of debts” and clear calculation. Obviously, cost accounting is produc- tive, civilized, and progressive; however, there is a danger that cost accounting in economic matters will worm its way into the core of every aspect of human spiritual life. Real life will be dreadful if rela- tions between people are based solely on “payment on demand’’ and self-interested calculation.… The stories of Nguyen Huy Thiep stand vigilant against such a condition.54

The essentially bestial and Darwinian nature of humanity, and the intensification of this nature with the recent encroachment of capitalism in northern Vietnam, recur as important themes in Thiep’s work. In the short story “Cun,” Thiep explores these themes. Cun, a name normally reserved for small dogs, is the story’s horribly deformed title character. After Old Ha finds him in a filthy drainpipe, Cun moves in with the cruel beggar who names the boy “because the child had really not developed into a human being.” Cun himself takes to begging, and he garners sympathy from prospective donors by saying, “Hey Sir! Madame! You are human beings, think of someone who is not yet human like me.’’ Cun’s disregard of his own humanity is reinforced because Old Ha treats him like a farm animal, slipping “Cun a few crumbs of corn cake, the way people feed chickens they are taking to market.” During bouts of self-pity, Old Ha likewise acknowledges the bestial nature of the abject existence that he and Cun share: “You and I,” he says, “live together like earthworms, crickets, bees, and ants. Human beings don’t live like us.” And when Cun dies, the narrator notes, “It had really been short, this life of someone who was not yet a human being.”

Thiep affects an even more striking blurring of the boundaries between men and animals in “Salt of the Jungle’’ [Muoi Cua Rung]. In the story, a lone hunter, Dieu, tracks a family of monkeys through the forest, observing their intricate family relations and contrasting their very social bathing and food-sharing rituals with his own solitary stalking. He shoots an adult male monkey perched atop a high ledge and, stripping down to his underwear, Dieu climbs up to retrieve his catch. There, he has a change of heart and uses his underwear to bandage the monkey’s wound. The story’s arresting final image, in which Dieu, completely naked, carries the bandaged mon- key toward the edge of the forest, shows how completely the features dis- tinguishing Dieu from the animals he hunts have been literally stripped away.

Two concerns that surface repeatedly in Thiep’s stories are the attack on socialist realism and party-sanctioned culture, and the critique of indigenous consumerism. The first is central to Thiep’s historical fables, while the latter is a staple in stories that chronicle daily life in and around present-day Hanoi. This two-pronged attack- one fighting vestigial state socialism and the other incipient capitalism – is a symptom of the current predicament facing many Vietnamese intellectuals as the communist era comes to a close. Disenchanted with the old regime but equally gloomy at having to witness their compatriots’ frenzied embrace of the market economy with all its excesses and gross consumerism, intellectuals like Thiep are caught between a devil they know and one about whom they feel intuitively suspicious. In the words of one of Thiep’s most empa- thetic critics, “We see in the world today many grey areas and inexplicable things. We look above, we look around, we look below; and all we see are dark passageways.”55

For scholars of Vietnam, especially for those self-consciously part of the first generation of Vietnam studies relatively unencumbered by the polarizing and stultifying politics of the Second Indochina War, the injection of postmodern modes of analysis into questions of Vietnamese culture and society may suggest an attractive expansion of intellectual possibilities. Postmodern analysis with its sensitivities toward the disagreeable aspects of both rightist and leftist regimes appears to offer opportunities for more instructive cul- tural and political enquiry than the communis/anticommunist polemics that passed for analysis during the war years. Moreover, with the war and its ideological grip over Vietnam scholarship fading into the past, it may seem a good time to bring Vietnam studies up to date with those current fashions of thinking that have been dominating scholarly approaches to European culture and society and that have recently carved out significant niches in the cultural study of other Asian countries and the former Soviet Union.56

However, the application of postmodernist theory to the Vietnamese cultural terrain has numerous perils, as I have suggested, and may in fact obscure what is new and interesting in an unfamiliar literary phenomenon. As Thiep’s work is now for the first time becoming available in French and English translation, there will be more opportunities for a non-Vietnamese audience to read and interpret his stories.57 At this crucial critical juncture, it is important that the specific and local conditions that have shaped and informed Thiep’s writing not be neglected.


For their generous advice and support, I wish to thank Nguyen Nguyet Cam, Keith Taylor, Hue Tam Ho Tai, Hy Van Luong, Trinh Huu Tuan, Truong Vu, Phan Quang Minh, John Sidel, Hans Schodder, and Birgit Hussfeld.

  1. I Nguyen Huy Thiep is arguably the most influential writer in contemporary Vietnam. Although he has only published several dozen short stories, two medium-length plays, and a handful of essays, the quantity of public and critical attention that his work has received has been tremendous. Intense public interest in Thiep’s work began when his short story “The General Retires” (June 1987)provoked a series of emotional appraisals in the following two issues of the party literary journal, Bao Van Nghe. The flood of criticism that greeted publication of each new story peaked late in 1988 in response to the appearance of a series of particularly controversial pseudo-historical tales. According to Greg Lockhart, over ninety critical articles on Thiep had appeared by late 1988in major journals alone. Three collec- tions of Thiep’s stories have been published in Vietnam: Nhung Ngon Gio Hua Tat [The winds of Hua Tat] (Hanoi: NXB Van Hoa, 1989); Con Gai Thuy Than [The water nymph] (Hanoi: NXB Hoi Nha Van, 1992); and Nguyen Huy Thiep: Tac Pham va Du Luan [Nguyen Huy Thiep: Works and criticism] (Hue: NXB Tre, 1989). The last is a unique volume in recent publishing history in that it comprises six stories and ten critical appraisals.
  2. Greg Lockhart, “Tai Sao Toi Dich Truyen Ngan Nguyen Huy Thiep Ra Tieng Anh?” Tap Chi Van Hoc 3 (1989):51.
  3. Le Xuan Giang, “Nha Van Doi Thoai-Phong Cach Phung Du” [Conversation among writers: T h e nature of allegory], Tap Chi Van Hoc 2 (1989):79- 83.
  4. Hue Tam Ho Tai, “A Postmodern Critique of History and Literature in Vietnam: The Fic- tion of Nguyen Huy Thiep” (June 1992), 2.
  5. Dao Trung Dao, “Mot Vai Van De Phe Binh Van Chuong Tu Nhung Tranh Luan Ve Nguyen Huy Thiep” [A few problems of literary criticism raised by debates on Nguyen Huy Thiep], Hop Luu 4 (1992):130-146.
  6. For a similar false start, see Peter Zinoman, “Nguyen Huy Thiep’s ‘Vang Lua’ and the Nature of Intellectual Dissent in Contemporary Vietnam,” Vietnam Generation: A Journal of Recent History and Contemporary Issues 4, nos. 1-2 (1992):60-64.
  7. “There will be as many different forms of postmodernism as there were high modernisms in place, since the former are at least initially specificand local reactions against these models.” Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in Postmodernism and Its Discontents: Theories, Practices, ed. Ann Kaplan (London: Verso, 1988), 14. 
  8. See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991),chap. I.
  9. On this characteristic feature, see Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1989),chap. 2.
  10. Molly Hite, “Postmodern Fiction,” in The Columbia History of the American Novel, ed. Emory Elliot (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991),703.
  11. Greg Lockhart’s contention that the story is made up of straight “social realism” accounts of peasant life punctuated by “surreal dream sequences” assumes an ontological consistency (i.e., what seems real is “real” and what seems “unreal” must then be a dream) that cannot be clearly found in the text (see Greg Lockhart, “Nguyen Huy Thiep and the Faces of Vietnamese Literature,” introduction to Nguyen Huy Thiep, “The General Retires” and Other Stories [Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1972],24).
  12. Jameson, Postmodemism, 3.
  13. See Hite, “Postmodern Fiction,” for a discussion of literary self-reflexiveness. Three other strikingly postmodern “frame-breaking” (Hite’s term) techniques found in Thiep’s stories are the three different and distinctly numbered endings to “Fired Gold,” the use of genre-violating academic footnotes in “Nguyen Thi Lo,”and the mixing of fictional and real char- acters in all of his historical stories and in the play Love Remains.
  14. Jameson dubs this “new kind of superficiality” “the supreme formal feature of all the post- modernisms” (Postmodemism, 9; Tai, “Postmodern Critique,” 28).
  15. For examples see Dang Anh Dao, “Khi Ong ‘Tuong Ve Huu’ Xuat Hien” [When Mr. ‘General Retires’ appeared], Van Nghe, no. 37 (July 1987);rpt. Doan Ket, no. 397 (December I&), 21;and Tran Do, “A Work of Art,” an English translation of a review article originally published in Doan Ket in 1987 in Vietnam Forum no. 14 (1994).
  16. Examples of the Truyen Ky form include the fourteenth-century Viet Dinh U Linh Tap [Spiritual powers of the Viet realm], the fifteenth-century Linh Nam Trich Quai [Selected tales of extraordinary beings in Linh Nam], and the sixteenth-century Truyen Ky Man Luc [Giant anthology of strange tales]. For an excellent discussion see John Schaffer and Cao Thi Nhu Quynh, “From Verse Narrative to Novel: The Development of Prose Fiction in Vietnam,” Journal of Asian Studies (1988):758-759. See also K. W. Taylor, “Notes on the Viet Dien U Linh Tap,” Vietnam Forum 8 (1986):26-59.
  17. This discussion is indebted to John Schaffer and Nhu-Quynh, “From Verse Narrative to Novel,” and Eric Henry, “On the Nature of the Kieu Story,” Vietnam Forum, no. 3 (1984): 61-98.
  18. The best treatment of the complexities of this historical process is John DeFrancis, Colonialism and Language Policy in Vietnam (The Hague: Mouton, 1977). See also Hoang Ngoc Thanh, “Quoc Ngu and the Development of Modern Vietnamese Literature,” in Aspects of Vietnamese History, ed. Walter Vella (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1973), 191-236; and David Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial: 1920-1945 (Berkeley: University of Califor- nia Press, 1981), esp. chap. 4 (136-I~o)e, ntitled “Language and Literacy.”
  19. See Cong Huyen Ton Nu Nha Trang, “The Role of French Romanticism in the New Poetry Movement in Vietnam,” in Borrowings and Adaptations in Vietnamese Culture, ed. Truong Buu Lam, Southeast Asia Paper no. 25 (Honolulu: Southeast Asian Studies, Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1987), 55.
  20. See Hoang Ngoc Thanh, Vietnam’s Social and Political Development as Seen through the Modern Novel (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 91; Durard and Huan, An Introduction to Vietnamese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985),177-191.
  21. Jamieson, “Shattered Identities and Contested Images: Reflections of Poetry and History in Twentieth-Century Vietnam,” Crossroad: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 7 (1992):84.
  22. For an example see Huynh Sanh Thong, “Main Trends of Vietnamese Literature between the Two World Wars,” Vietnam Forum, no. 3 (winter-spring 1984): 120.
  23. See Lam, Gio Dau Mua (Hanoi: Ngay, 1937). For a partial translation see Ngo Vinh Long, Vietnamese Women in Society and Revolution: The French Colonial Period (Cambridge, Mass.: Vietnam Resource Center, 1974-).
  24. “The official policy followed the guidelines laid down by Mao Tse Tung in Yenan in 1942 and carried out in China under the stranglehold of the critic Zhou Yang who imposed ideology’s precedence over art” (Georges Boudarel, “Intellectual Dissidence in the 1950s: The Nhan Van Giai Pham Affair,” Vietnam Forum, no. 13 [19901:155). For a discussion of how French, Chinese, and Soviet theories influenced early Vietnamese politico-literary debates, see Hue Tam Ho Tai, “Literature for the People: From Soviet Policies to Viet- namese Polemics,” in Lam, Borrowings and Adaptations, 63- 83. For a cogent account of the impact exerted by domestic and foreign factors on the literary policy of the Vietnamese Workers’ Policy after the Geneva Accords, see Hirohide Kurihara, “Changes in the Literary Policies of the Vietnam Workers’ Party, 1956-58,” in Indochina in the 1940s and 1950s, ed. Takashi Shiraishi and Motoo Furuta (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1992), 165- 196.
  25. Jamieson, “Shattered Identities,” 2 5 .
  26. In his introductory remarks, Chinh asserts that the object of the report is “to define the principles for cultural activity, unite all those engaged in cultural work into a front, mobilize our country’s cultural forces in the national struggle to drive the enemy out, save the country and build a new Vietnamese culture” (Selected Writings [Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1977], 215). 
  27. Ibid., 223.
  28. Boudarel, “Intellectual Dissidence in the 1950s,” 155.
  29. See Chinh’s attacks on the modernist “gaudy mushrooms” of impressionism, surrealism, and dadaism in general and on the cubism of Picasso in particular (Selected Writings, 225, 232).
  30. See “Khoang Trong Ai Lap Duoc Trong Tu Tuong Nha Van” [Who can fill the hole in the thinking of writers], Song Huong (April 1990): 57-61; “Mot Goc So Xuat Trong The Gioi Noi Tam Nha Van” [A neglected corner in the internal world of a writer], Song Huong (March 1990): 125-132; “Nha Van Va Bon Trum ‘Mafia’” [Writers and the four Mafia bosses], Song Huong 3 (April 1991): 41-45; “Con Duong Van Hoc” [The road of literature], Cua Viet, no. 13 (April 1992): 68-71.
  31. Nguyen Huy Thiep, interview by author, Hanoi, 3 January 1992.
  32. The following point is indebted to Schaffer and Nhu-Quynh, “From Verse Narrative to Novel,” 759-760.
  33. Ibid., 767.
  34. See Tai, “Postmodern Critique,” 29. See also K. W. Taylor, “Locating the Boundaries between Fiction, History and Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Nguyen Huy Thiep and His Critics,” paper read at the AAS Vietnam Studies Group meeting, New Orleans, April 1991.
  35. For example, “Con Gai Thuy Than,” “Nhung Nguoi Tho Xe,” and “Vang Lua” open with citations to traditional popular songs (“Hat Co” and “Dan Ca”). For opening references to Nguyen Du, see “Pham Tiet,” “Kiem Sac,” and “Mua”; for Tran Te Xuong, see “Giot Mau”; for Ho Xuan Huong, see “Chut Thoang Xuan Huong.”
  36. Hoang Ngoc Hien, “Toi Khong Chuc Ban Thuan Buom Xuoi Gio” [I don’t wish my friend a good trip], in Nguyen Huy Thiep: Tac Pham va Du Luan, 1 0 2 (see n. I ) .
  37. Dao, “Khi Ong ‘Tuong Ve Huu’ Xuat Hien,” 21-22 (see n. 16).
  38. This point is also raised by Tai; see “Postmodern Critique,” 7- 8.
  39. Dao, “Khi Ong ‘Tuong Ve Huu’ Xuat Hien,” 21.
  40. Excerpts from Hoa’s original review, which appeared in Van Nghe, no. 36 (July 1987),can be found in Ha Duy, “Tieng Vang Cua Mot Truyen Ngan” [Echoes of a short story], Doan Ket, no. 397 (December 1987): 22.
  41. Van Ngoc, “Cai Moi Trong Truyen ‘Tuong Ve Huu”’ [What’s New in “The General
    Retires”], Doan Ket 398 (January 1988): 14-15; Vuong Tri Nhan, “Tuong Tuong Ve Nguyen Huy Thiep” [Impressions of Nguyen Huy Thiep], Van Nghe, nos. 35-36 (20 August 1988):6.
  42. Excerpts from Tuu’s review, originally printed in Van Nghe,no. 37 (July 1987), can also be found in Ha Duy, “Tieng Vang,” 22.
  43. Dao, “Khi Ong ‘Tuong Ve Huu’ Xuat Hien,” 21.
  44. According to the Hanoi novelist Xuan Trieu, “In the past, if some writers were too candid, their works could not be published or they were asked to edit them. Before we thought if people wrote about the negative side of society, it would only make social problems worse’’ (see Murray Hiebert, “New Chapter Opens as Writers Reflect Reality,” Far Eastern Economic Review [8 September 1988]:107; hereafter cited as FEER).
  45. Another example surfaces in “Cun,” when the narrator mockingly compares the writing of the “literary scholar K” to “whips which lash the horse of creation unerringly.” This metaphor is ironically culled from a speech by Truong Chinh on the nature of politically acceptable criticism (see Selected Writings, 287). “Without criticism and controversy, our cul- tural movement is too placid too uneventful! It is just like a horse trotting along with his head drooping, who needs the whip of criticism to set him galloping.” It is rumored in Hanoi that “the literary scholar K” stands for the conservative literary critic Do Van Khang, one of Thiep’s harshest reviewers.
  46. For more detailed accounts see Tai, “Postmodern Critique”; Taylor, “Locating the Boundaries”; and Zinoman, “Nguyen Huy Thiep’s ‘Vang Lua.’” See also K. C. Nguyen, “Left to Write,” FEER (17August 1989).
  47. For a good treatment of recent economic developments see Michael Williams, Vietnam at the Crossroads (New York: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1992).
  48. See MurrayHiebert, “Renovation of Newspapers,” FEER (10 September 1987):51.
  49. For a recent journalistic account of how artists are addressing this issue see Nick Cummingi interview with novelist Nguyen Khac Truong. “During the war, Mr. Truong says, people never thought about their material conditions of life. The whole population was united in a national struggle. After it, ‘the promise was that peace, happiness and prosperity would appear immediately.’ Instead, he recalls, a ‘new social stratum, a new landlord, a new oppressor appeared, bringing corruption, bureaucracy and repression, and the big contra- diction began”’ (Cumming, “Hanoi Frowns on Novel’s Account of Nation’s Trauma,” Guardian [15 December 1992].
  50. Luong, “Economic Reform and the Intensification of Rituals in Two Northern Vietnamese Villages, 1980-1990,”in The Challenge of Reform in Indo-China, ed. Borje Ljunggren and Peter Timmer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Institute for International Development, 1993), 259-291.
  51. Ibid., 270-284.
  52. Ibid., 270.
  53. Contrast this wedding scene with the official regulations for wedding ceremonies followed, according to Luong, in some northern villages as late as 1986:“The village prohibited the serving of cigarettes at weddings and funeral receptions, restricted the servings at funerals to tea and areca palm nuts, limited the number of wedding banquet trays to ten (sixty guests), and placed a ban on villagers’ butchering their own hogs for weddings. In order to reduce the costs of these life cycle events and to simplify the complex sequence of rituals, the village administration specified that wedding rituals were to be held in the village office. . . . The village performing arts group provided free entertainment at the brief wedding ceremony at the village office. The rationale for the reforms, according to the local party secretary, was to avoid the extraordinarily high costs of traditional ceremonies, which included status-ori- ented banquets and the distribution of elaborate engagement gifts” (Luong, Revolution in the Village: Tradition and Transformation in North Vietnam, 1925-88 [Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 19921,181-182).
  54. Hien, “Toi Khong Chuc Ban Thuan Buom Xuoi Gio,” 104.
  55. Mai Ngu, “Cai Tam va Cai Tai cua Nguoi Viet” [The heart and talent of a writer], in Nguyen Huy Thiep: Tac Pham va Du Luan, 156. Scholars have speculated that the dizzying variety of short story forms employed by Thiep suggests an attempt to explore a range of solutions to a problem for which both older and more fashionable strategies seem no longer appropriate. It is perhaps for this reason that Thiep has made the short story his medium of choice, as the brevity of the form allows for the prospect of multiple beginnings and diverse narrative approaches. Thai Hoa remarks, “Every one of Nguyen Huy Thiep’s short stories has its own organizational method, and no story is like any other” (“Co Nghe Thuat Ba-Roc Trong Cac Truyen Ngan Cua Nguyen Huy Thiep Hay Khong?” [Do Nguyen Huy Thiep’s stories have a baroque character?], Tap Chi Van Hoc 2 [1989]:86).
  56. For Japan, see Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian, eds., Postmodernism and Japan (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989); for Southeast Asia, see Hendrik Maier, In the Center of Authority: The Malay Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Southeast Asia Progam, 1988); for the former Soviet Union, see Nancy Condee and Vladimir Padunov, “Perestroika Suicide: Not by Bred [sic] Alone,” New Left Review 189 (September 1991): 67-89. For instructive accounts of the misapplication of poststructural theory in and about China see Zhang Longxi, “Western Theory and Chinese Reality,” Critical Inquiry 19 (autumn 1992): 105-130; and Xiaobing Tang, “The Function of New Theory: What Does It Mean to Talk about Postmodernism in China?” Public Culture 4, no. I (fall 1991): 89-108.
  57. For a French translation see Un general a la retraite , trans. Kim Levebre (Paris: Editionsde I’aube, 1990); for English versions see the Greg Lockhart translations in The General Retires; also “Fired Gold” [Vang Lua], “Sharp Sword” [Kiern Sac], and “Chastity” [Pham Tiet], trans. Peter Zinoman, Vietnam Forum, no. 14 (1994).

Photo: Nguyen Huy Thiep (standing). Courtesy of Peter Zinoman

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