Tieng Viet

My Vietnamese writer


gTo my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist;

 and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.h

W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965)



Like many Vietnamese born in the late 50s of the last century, I spent my childhood in the Vietnam War, which means living in evacuation, being materially very poor, eating rice mixed with 70% of flour, water-buffalofs skin as meat, sweet-potatofs leaves as vegetables. At that time, there was no electricity even in the cities let alone nowadays TV, PC, computer games, and internet. At that time my favourite activity was reading books. I cannot recall all the titles I had read. However, those which impressed me most in my childhood were gFairy Tales by the Grimmfs Brothersh (translated into Vietnamese by Huu Ngoc), gLes Miserablesh by Victor Hugo (translated by Le Quy Donfs group), and gThree Kingdomsh by Luo Guanzhong (translated by Phan Ke Binh and edited by Bui Ky). Following them were other novels, also from foreign literature, such as  gIliad and Odysseyh by Homer, gWithout familyh by Hector Malot, gThe Magic Skinh by Honore de Balzac, plays by Moliere, Shakespeare, Eschilles, gDon Quichotteh by Cervantes, etc. After these masterpieces of mankind literature, the Vietnamese literature of all periods, except for a few poems, was of no particular interest to mec


c. until 1989.


That year was the fourth one since the policy of gdoi moih in Vietnam started. A lot of books, articles, poetry were published, whose content would put their authors in jail or sentence them without trial to an indefinite term if they came out several years before. I was conducting my research in physics in Dubna (Russia). One evening, my Vietnamese neighbour lent me some newspapers and journals in Vietnamese, which he just got from home. I couldnft remember the last time I had ever read a so exciting Vietnamese writer. The writer was Nguyen Huy Thiep.

Nguyen Huy Thiep

pencil on colored paper by Nguyen Dinh Dang, 1990

From then on, we read all of new short-stories by Nguyen Huy Thiep, with a feeling like that of reading Conan Doyle, which means that, one cannot put down the book before reading all of it from cover to cover. Between the reading were our lively discussions on this subject at the tea table in Dubna, in Moscow. At one point, if some one talked about the Vietnamese contemporary literature, the first and only name, which flashed in my mind, was inevitably Nguyen Huy Thiep. Gradually I became his fan. Being fan means ignoring all those bad words, which critics threw in with the aim to jeopardy onefs literature icon. Instead of telling lengthily why I like Nguyen Huy Thiep writing, I quote here the words by Pablo Picasso: gArt is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbsh.

Ifm also a painter [1], so I like to draw portraits of my love ones, starting with my dad, mom, wife, son, sister, and brother. Next came my friends, acquaintances. Finally, I like to make portraits of talented people, whom I adore. Therefore, after returning back to Hanoi from Russia in January 1990, the first person I would like to meet was Nguyen Huy Thiep c to make his portrait. By that time I had read a great deal of his short-stories like gThe general retiresh [2], gFired goldh [3], gChastityh [4], gThe winds of Hua Tat: Ten stories in a mountain villageh [5], etc.


* * *


I did not know his address so I ran searching for him in the city. Finally I ran into a bike keeper in front of a publishing department of the Ministry of Education, who told me:


-          Oh,  Nguyen Huy Thiep!  He is working in the Education Publishing House at 19 Le Thanh Tong street, not here!


In a small and poorly lit room with window bars like a jail cell a group of four or five peoples, two of whom were men, were writing or drawing. Few minutes later I realized that they were copying the illustrations from school text books to reprint them later in a new edition. I said I wanted to see Nguyen Huy Thiep. A man of dark complexion, who looked like a  peasant, turned toward me. I introduced myself. It turned out that Nguyen Huy Thiep also heard about my paintings. So it was easy for me to tell him immediately that I wished to draw his portrait. The other man, who was sitting without uttering any word so far, suddenly interfered:


-          Drawing? Could you do it here?


Later on I heard that Thiep was under surveillance. At first I didnft believe it. However the story below will indicate that these rumors are not at all groundless. As if he did not pay any attention to this request, Thiep signed me to go out together to a small coffee shop nearby. Vietnamese have a custom to do important gbusinessh in the coffee shops or restaurants, not in their offices. At this first meeting I did not have with me drawing materials. We just talked. I do not remember now all the details of what we were talking about except one sentence by Thiep, which impressed me very much:


-          I am like a butcher, who kills the pig just to take out  its heart, throwing away all the rest.


I saw that his way of expressing and his over self-confidence have made many people feel insulted. The talent of a man usually makes many other people jealous. The great English novelist Henry Fielding (1707 – 1754) said: gSome folks rail against other folks, because other folks have what some folks would be glad of.h Nguyen Du (1765 – 1820), who was born more than a half century later, wisely summarized in gThe Tale of Kieuh that gtalent helps, talent harmsh.

I invited Thiep to my house, where I made the preparation drawings to a large-size portrait of him by oil painting. I made a detail sketch of his portrait by pencil. I also made sketches of his hands, feet, his portrait sitting in an arm-chair. I also went to that coffee shop to sketch the arm chair he used to sit in [6]. The rest of the composition was my fantasy. Behind him I put the characters of his famous short stories, including the king Quang Trung, which I drew up-side-down, king Gia Long, whose face is covered by a female nude. In the upper left corner there are portraits of the great masters of human literarture and culture of 19th and 20th centuries, Victor Hugo, Zigmund Freud, Anatole France, Guy de Maupassant, Alexander Soljenitsin, Fedor Dostoevsky, Boris Pasternak, in whose works I found some relationship with what I read from Thiep. The faces of these great men appear in the cloud. At the right-hand side is the scene of a caravan passing through a desert with some dogs running after. "Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe." (The dogs bark, the caravan passes). The caravan transforms into the birds flying up into the sky. In the painting, Thiep is sitting in an arm chair of the drawing room in my house. The chair is floating above the marble stairs. Are they the stairs to Parnasse? The wave is striking on one side of the stairs. At the other side the ocean bring the long and massive waves toward a wall full of bullet holes, from which blood comes out. Frogs, snakes, centipedes, etc. gather beneath his feet.

Nguyen Dinh Dang, The Dream of Artist (Portrait of the writer Nguyen Huy Thiep)

oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm, 1990

In these years, every time I finished a large painting, I used to hold a small party at my house, where I invited some Hanoi artists to come have some drink and see my work. Nguyen Sang [7] and Tran Dan [8] were among them, but Bui Xuan Phai [9], Mai Van Hien [10], and Le Huy Tiep [11] were the most frequent guests.  After Phai passed away in 1988, Mai Van Hien and Le Huy Tiep kept visiting me from time to time. That time, after finishing the gPortrait of writer Nguyen Huy Thieph I also held a gvernissageh like this. All the guests had come except Nguyen Huy Thiep. In 1990 telephone was a luxury and privilege let alone mobile phone. I could only guess that something happened with him. At@around 5:00 PM, when all the guests already left, Thiep appeared. The reason was that, at the time he was preparing to go to my home, a police car suddenly came to his office. He was ginvitedh to the Hanoi police head quarter as they wanted to gtalkh with him on several gissuesh.

 In the beginning of 1990s, Thiep was a "problematic" writer. His short stories caused many hot debates in the literature circle and in the press in Vietnam as well as in general public. In order to show this painting at my one-man exhibition in 1991 in Hanoi, I had to change the title from "Portrait of the writer Nguyen Huy Thiep" to "The Dream of the Artist" to pass the censor from the authority. Thiep seemed to like the painting. He once told me: "If I had enough money, I would buy this painting."

In 1991 I got offers from Technical University of Munich (Germany) and Istituto Nazionale di Fisica@Nucleare (sezione di Catania) (Italy) to conduct research in physics there. Before my departure I heard that Nguyen Huy Thiepfs studio at Quan Thanh street was raided by the police. His papers were confiscated including my drawing illustrations of his short stories [12]. I left the country without a possibility to say good-bye to him.

* * *

My research in physics made me spend most of my time abroad. After coming to Japan, where I have been working at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Institute (RIKEN), I heard from Vietnam that Thiep was gnot arrestedh (I did not see any crime he could make in order to deserve an arrest!), but galmost stopped writingh, was gconverted in Buddhismh. Later there was a rumor that he ran a restaurant in Hanoi, etc. Until only some years ago I started to see again his new short-stories. Among them were gThe story of Mr. Mongh with the strikingly singular conclusion: gScooping up shit is the best profession in life!h, gThe love story told on a rainy nighth, etc. In each of his short-stories I found something precious. They sparkle like genuine diamonds, which the fake diamonds can never match because the fake ones are alwaysc the fake ones. I read his first novel entitled gThe loving 20 year-old ageh overnight. Then came his essay gChatting with narcissus flowers and confusions of writerh, which drew fierce fire in the newspapers and on the internet. Thiep kept his silence. After notorious critics had piled up a sufficient amount of articles written against him, there appeared a play entitled gOperating the writerh on Thiepfs website [13]. I read this play laughing. Thiep did not give a simple answer. He took this opportunity to create a new masterpiece of literature. Nguyen Huy Thiep is always like this. His way of writing does not leave anyone galoneh. A gseniorh Vietnamese writer once said: gAfter Nguyen Huy Thiep no one can write as before.h

I wanted to see him again after so many yearsc

Last October, during a short visit to Hanoi to attend the 9th Asia-Pacific Physics Conference, I met Nguyen Huy Thiep. We agreed to meet at a restaurant downtown. Hanoi of the time of open-market economy has many gqueer stuffsh. When the waiter introduced sweet-potato leaves as a special dish of their restaurant, Thiep joked:

- I had enough of it for all my life! How do you dare to offer me again?

The waiter was very young. He called Thiep guncleh. He was lucky to be born long after the time when we had to eat sweet-potato leaves as vegetables. Sweet-potato leaves have now become delicatessen in Hanoi. As for me sweet-potato leaves remain always sweet-potato leaves. We were chatting with enthusiasm. I had a feeling that these 13 years of separation suddenly faded away. Thiep gave me a present – a new book of his selected short-stories [14], nicely printed, with hard cover bearing a reproduction of a painting by the late painter Buu Chi and an yellow bookmarker. On the front page Thiep wrote :hTo Nguyen Dinh Dang with warm regards.h , then he signed and affixed his red seal just like they usually do in Japan.


* * *

You probably red gThe crane flies, crying desperatelyh [15]. But probably none of you was reading it on the train of Tokyo subway like me. The feeling was quite unusual. The train stopped at my station when I just finished reading this short story. I went out of the train, heading toward the halo surrounding the exit as in the middle of a dream. Instead of the escalator, I saw  a sky with a vast rice field underneath. The sky was not quiet. It was full of moving clouds. From time to time a piece of cobalt-blue sky showed up between the clouds. Suddenly on this cobalt-blue background there appeared a white bird, flying and crying abruptly. Despite the sound of blowing wind, the murmur of the rice field, the quacks of wild ducks, teals, and all kinds of other noises, the cry of the crane was well heard as it was so bright, so clear, and coming from above at a quite different pitch.


Nguyen Dinh Dang

Tokyo December 2, 2004

Translated into English by Nguyen Dinh Dang on December 4, 2004






[1] Paintings by Nguyen Dinh Dang can be previewed at http://ribf.riken.go.jp/~dang/page1.html


[2] Nguyen Huy Thiep, The general retires (translated by Greg Lockhart). Also see Nguyen Huy Thiep, Crossing the River (Curbstone Press, 2003), 38.


[3] Nguyen Huy Thiep, Fired gold (translated by Peter Zeenoman), in Crossing the River (Curbstone Press), 197


[4] Nguyen Huy Thiep, Chastity (translated by Peter Zinoman), in Crossing the River (Curbstone Press), 206


[5] See [4], p. 99


[6] The preparation drawings to gPortrait of writer Nguyen Huy Thieph can be previewed at http://ribf.riken.go.jp/~dang/dessins/NHThiep/Thiep_sketch.html


[7] Nguyen Sang (1923 – 1988), Vietnamese painter, specializing in oil and lacquer painting, known for his effort to create modern form in  the theme of the patriotic wars


[8] Tran Dan (1926 – 1997), Vietnamese poet, one of the most prominent representative of gNhan Van Giai Phamh movement (1956 – 1957).


[9] Bui Xuan Phai (1929 – 1988), Vietnamese painter, specializing in oil painting, famous for his works of ancient streets of Hanoi.


[10] Mai Van Hien (1923), Vietnamese painter, specializing in oil and silk painting, drew the first accepted sample of the 5,000 dong banknote for the Democratic republic of Vietnam


[11] Le Huy Tiep (1950), Vietnamese painter, specializing in oil painting and graphic


[12] The author keeps only some photocopies, which can be seen at http://ribf.riken.go.jp/~dang/dessins/old_dessins/minhoa/minhoa.html


[13] http://nguyenhuythiep.free.fr/


[14] Nguyen Huy Thiep, Short stories (Edition Trẻ, HoChi Minh city, 2003) (in Vietnamese)


[15] See [5] page 549.