A Time Far Past (1986) by Lê Lựu

a-time-far-past-1986-le-luu

A Time Far Past is a novel written by the Vietnamese writer Lê Lựu. It follows the odyssey of Giang Minh Sài, who grows up in the rural area of the Red River delta circa 1954. Due to the family-arranged marriage, the 10-year-old Sài was compelled to marry Tuyết, a girl three years older than him. Not only did this premature relationship have a detrimental impact on the boy’s adolescence but also cast a shadow over the rest of his life. Things got even more traumatizing as Sài turned eighteen and fell for a classmate named Hương. Appalled and disheartened by the “public opinion” (dư luận), Sài decided to enlist in the army lest he see his wife again. Unfortunately, Sài’s supervisors insisted that the only way for him to become a member of the communist party, and thus make some progress in his life work, is to prove his dignity, part of which is to consummate his marriage. Accordingly, Sài had sex with his wife, but afterwards he still couldn’t get approved to be a party member since his wife’s family had ties to the colonial authorities. Knowing that he could never get along with his wife, even though the two had had a child, Sài left his family to join the battles in South Vietnam; hopefully he could die somewhere on the way. However, he survived the war, returned and kept on living his unresolved tragedy. Only until a commissar suggested he end such a troubled marriage would he see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

After the divorce, Sài was now a bachelor available and desirable to most women. He met and married Châu, an intelligent and manipulative Amy Dunne-like city girl. The marriage once again turned out to be a nightmare to both as Châu was too self-centered and demanding whereas Sài was, after all, still a man with a peasant background, unsophisticated and plain. The conflict reached its peak when Châu severed the shoulder straps of the military backpack that Sài used when he was a soldier and kept as a memento of his youth and comradeship. They ended up in the court after filing for divorce where Sài heard the truth that the eldest son of the two was not his biological child. The novel ends with Sài returning to his village and living in solitude throughout his later years.

A prominent theme in A Time Far Past is the role of individual freedom in a society committed to the so-called “collective concern”, a notion that a person’s life is bound for the collective interests and that the seniors should instruct the inferiors how to lead their life. In the prewar time, this notion was associated with the Confucian dogma that said children must obey their parents’ arrangement and always mind the extended family’s reputation in every single action. After 1945, the “collective concern” was continually strengthened by the party’s policy. In order to formulate an ideal public image of the party officer (đảng viên), the party exerted more control over its members’ personal lives, even in “how they should live with their spouse or how they should love”, as stated by a character in Nguyễn Khải’s short story A Hanoi Person (1990). The party wanted to create a sort of character that can act in loco parentis and set an example to the civilians in all facets of life. In A Time Far Past, told by his superiors that he must consummate his marriage if he wants to become a party member, Sài obediently slept with his wife although he knew too well that the only person he loved at the time was Hương. Hearing this news, Hương also stopped waiting for him, and moved on with another guy. Eventually, Sài lost the love of his life and at the same time was denied admission to the party.  By depicting the tragic marriage of Sài, Lê Lựu argues for limiting the party’s power to restrain personal choices. Trần Mạnh Hảo expressed the same view in his novel Separation (1989), according to John C. Schafer.

Compared with Paradise of the Blind (1988), a Vietnamese post-war novel that is well-known to American cognoscenti, A Time Far Past is more likely to criticize the obsolete practices of the feudal authority and the totalitarian regime that restrained individual’s free will whereas Paradise of the Blind dissects the long-lasting tribulations caused by the land reform 1954-56. Yet both works tell us about how people in North Vietnam lived, not how they fought, during the war era. The protagonist in A Time Far Past is a decorated soldier, but we learn much more about his marital difficulties than about his battles against the Americans. The heroine in Paradise of the Blind grows up during the war time, but very few details of her life are related to the war. Through these personal stories, the two writers ambitiously capture the social transformation of Vietnam throughout 30 years (1954-1986), with complicated interactions between prewar and postwar values, between rural and urban lifestyles, and between the “I” and the “We”, as in the name of a play script written by Lưu Quang Vũ.

Lê Lựu finished the novel by September 1984, entitled Thời xa vắng (“a distant past”), and had it published two years later by the publisher Tác Phẩm Mới, now known as the publisher Hội Nhà Văn. It was then translated into English by Ngô Vĩnh Hải, Nguyễn Bá Chung, Kevin Bowen, and David Hunt, with the title A Time Far Past, and published by University of Massachusetts Press in April 1997. The movie adaptation of the book, directed by Hồ Quang Minh, was released in 2003 and achieved critical acclaim.

A Time Far Past is perhaps the most famous work of Lê Lựu. It made him one of the writers who moved the arc of Vietnamese literature after 1975.

Cover photo: from the 2003 movie.

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