The title of Nguyễn Thị Hoàng’s trademark novel, Vòng tay học trò, at first glance, seems to me a challenge to every translator, for in Vietnamese, “vòng tay học trò” is an ambiguous phrase. It means “the student’s bracelet”, and it also means “the embrace of students”. Yet after reading the text, I now know that the latter is the correct one as it comes from a letter of a student to his teacher:
“I’m a student whose arms cannot hold you”
(…với vòng tay học trò không bao giờ ôm giữ nổi đời cô)
But how could we translate that title? “In a student’s embrace”?
The first pages of the novel absorbed me immediately as I see myself in it: a young person leaving behind the hustle and bustle of city life to seclude themself in a rural area, leading a quiet life with the teaching job at a high school, whose mind, however, flashes back to the old days at times for a fleeting wave of nostalgia. That’s so me. C’est moi, c’est ma vie. And quite frankly, I think the controversial relationship between a teacher and her student, portrayed in this literary work, resonates with my deepest erotic fantasies.
The story sparked off a storm of controversy in its time mostly because it was popular among young people, and the parents were concerned about its negative effects on their kids’ emotional development. Nevertheless, those kids who read Vòng tay học trò in the 60s now have already become grandparents, and did they grow up into sex offenders? No. Despite the never-ending concern over the moral aspect of coming-of-age culture, I don’t think those novels or movies play the key role in shaping a child’s behavior. Rather, they serve the sexual fantasies that we all have experienced during our teenage years, and as children pass the adolescence, they will reach another balance state between desires and conscience.
Teacher-student romantic relationships have always been a taboo now and then, especially within the oriental educational setting. But compared with other taboos brought up in world’s literature, especially in today’s boundary-pushing cinema, it seems to be the last problem the conservative should worry about. Nabokov’s Lolita, André Gide’s The Immoralist, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary or Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse touches even more sensitive subjects.
Slavoj Žižek once told us about the movie called Murmur of the Heart (1971)in which there are sex scenes between a boy and his mom. And now that we have watched all the wild sexual deviances in TV shows: House of Cards (with polyamory), Game of Thrones (with messy incestuous relationships), Shameless (with all the kinds of crazy fantasies you can think of), Billions (with Chuck Rhoades’ masochism), and recently The Boys (with Homelander’s Oedipal complex and milk obsession), it seems that nothing can shock us anymore.
In Vietnam, many works by Vũ Trọng Phụng were condemned as pornographic publications by the author’s contemporaries. And we all know that after Nguyễn Thị Hoàng, Phạm Thị Hoài, Võ Thị Hảo, Đỗ Hoàng Diệu, or Y Ban even pushed the boundary further.
Having reached all the forbidden territories in literature, we now see Nguyễn Thị Hoàng’s Vòng tay học trò in a different light, with a more neutral attitude. Setting aside the social controversy and trying assessing the novel within a purely artistic constraint, we now can turn to the question “is it a great literary work”?