Literature and the Human Condition

Literature and the Human Condition
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   1 Lê Ngc Trà   Literature and the Human Condition* The Literature Prize of 1991 was awarded by Vit Nam Writers Association to two collections of  poems, a collection of literary essays, and three novels²  Thân phn tình yêu 1 by Bo Ninh,  Mnh t lm ngi nhiu ma  by Nguyn Khc Trng, and  Bn Không Chng  by DngHng. Many people are disappointed that Nguyn Huy Thip and Phm Th Hoài were notamong the winners. But the good thing is all the three prize-winning novels of this year demonstrate an important departure from the literature of the revolution which has existed since1945. From socialist realism to the realism of man¶s fate There is a dramatic shift in the perception of realism in recent Vietnamese fiction.Because of the country¶s special historical conditions, writers had to subscribe themselves to theview that literature was part of the propaganda machine, its principal role being to reflectfaithfully and eloquently the new man and his new life. First, this view does not mean that artshould deal with the new man, but only the revolutionary aspect in life and in every man. Todepict such a life naturally means to praise it in glowing terms in accordance with the official policy. Second, in socialist realism the new life, that is, the public and society, must be prioritized over the new man. This view is rooted in the Marxist theory of social developmentand revolution and in the role and power of the masses in overthrowing the old social system and building a completely new one.Because such a target aimed at the fate of the classes and the people, the individual wasnot a central and urgent problem. If man did exist in literature, then he should represent hiscommunity, his class, or the masses. This situation continued until the 1980¶s, and only after thewar had long ended, the common goals²national liberation and class struggle²had beenreached, and the building of a new society began to face difficulties did the question of man andhis problems become a concern in literature. In the fiction of Nguyn Minh Châu, Nguyn Khi, Nguyn Quang Sáng, Ma Vn Kháng, Nguyn Huy Thip, and Phm Th Hoài man emerges inthe forefront while ³social reality´ appears dim in the background. When writing about man,these writers even recreate ³man of earlier periods´ with his old and new idiosyncrasies. It isclear that from the realistic description of life in general to the focus on the individual¶s real life,from the reflection of the new life and the new man to the profound perception of life and   2 humanity recent fiction has gone a long way, and the three novels that won prizes this year haveindeed contributed to the emergence of this new trend. Missed Opportunities and Broken Lives Dng Hng¶s  Bn không chng  recounts the lives of a number of characters in a ruralarea in the North. Unlike many novels of the previous period, the lives of Dng Hng¶scharacters are not related to the failure or success of any movement or any class struggle in thecountry, but they represent only the ups and downs of man¶s life. With history used merely as asetting for plot and character development, land reforms, cooperative experiments, and war areonly slightly sketched and appear only in the background. The book¶s main thrust is the lives of Vn, Ngha, and Hnh and the bankruptcy of the Nguyn clan in ông village.Though the author provides a panorama of a rural area in the North, he does not focus onits production activities and struggles or the shaping of the new life and the new man in therevolution process. Rather, it concerns those whose lives are swept off by the currents of historyand time. We don¶t know why each character¶s life is broken, full of misses and losses andinjuries.A in Biên Ph veteran, Nguyn Vn returns after the war to his home village like ahero. Throughout periods of land reforms, collectivization, and rural reconstruction he is alwayshis village¶s backbone. A person of little schooling, he is nevertheless honest, trustworthy, andkindhearted. He is a bachelor because there might be something amiss in his life, but he is a manof principle. He is brave enough to demolish the Nguyn clan¶s temple and build on its site theoffice of the village executive committee, but he is too weak to free himself from emotional ties.Something is wrong in Vn¶s bachelorhood, stoicism, and socialist ideal. But the author goesfurther in his portrayal of Vn. In a stormy night Vn sleeps with his niece whom he had been passionately in love with but could not marry. When finding out that Hnh gets pregnant because of him, Vn kills himself by jumping into the river. Ngha is the male heir to the Nguyn clan in ông village. Growing up in a differentsociety, he plunged into social activities instead of being the family representative. Ngha¶svoluntary enlisting had caused his father¶s great disappointment and subsequent death.Returning from the front with the rank of a major, Ngha was the apple of the entire village andfamily. While he was expected to advance rapidly in his new life, it took a downturn. The war had granted him honor but also robbed him of his reproduction ability.Hnh is the character who suffers the most. She had married Ngha in spite of her family¶s opposition. While Ngha was serving in the army, Hnh took care of his mother athome. After her husband¶s return she thought they would be happy forever. Everybody in Ngha¶s family blamed Hnh for bearing no child, not knowing that the cause of it was Ngha¶s   3 injury. In a stormy night Hnh ran into Vn¶s arms then ran away afterward. A few years later,she comes back with a little child as an answer to Ngha¶s family. He tells it all to Vn:³Uncle, it¶s our son. Aren¶t you happy to know that you have a child?´ When Vntells Hnh to take the child to her husband, Hnh says:³Never. I¶m going to stay here with you forever. Are you afraid?´(  Bn không chng  24) 2 It is not that Vn is afraid. A man like him usually doesn¶t know what fear means. Buthe can¶t bear the torture of fate. He has suffered too long and too much.Technically,  Bn không chng  is not a flawless novel. Yet it is free of the constraints of realistic representation of the old school, and is a very moving story about human life: life is notcrowned with successes and achievements but is filled with losses, sorrows, and anguish. T he Degeneration of Man  Nguyn Khc Trng¶s  Mãnh t lm ngi nhiu ma is also about a rural area andgenerational conflict, but it follows a different thematic approach. Instead of recounting thedecline of a single family with time, the author examines rural politics as demonstrated in theinexorable feud between two different families²the V and the Trnh²over a relatively short period of time.Familial relations have a long history in Viet Nam. Though they have undergonechanges through time and through different political and social systems, their common traits arenot lost: the conflict between clannish loyalty and personal ambition, the corruption anddegeneration of man by politics. The rivalry between the V and the Trnh doesn¶t represent theconflict between socialism and capitalism. Rather, it is a fight to win the Party¶s confidence ingoverning Ging Chùa Hamlet. Nguyn Khc Trng¶s novel examines principal portraits inthis dual relationship.Phúc represents the V clan. When he was young, he joined the land reform campaignand publicly denounced his father in the village square. His advance since then progressedrapidly. He was admitted to the Party, was appointed hamlet president, and finally became theParty representative in the local administration. For thirty years his father had disowned Phúc, but finally forgives him when he reveals the motive of his mistreatment to the old man:³I had to act so because it was then the worst of times. To survive and to advance youmust make wise decisions. Nothing could protect you better than the Party! This entire   4 family would have eaten dirt without me being a Communist! Who do you think helpedthe boys in this house get their Party membership? Just as I was forced out, I started torun into trouble after trouble. As you know, Trnh Bá Th and his clique didwhatever they could to kick me out so they have all this hamlet for themselves!´(  Mãnh t lm ngi nhiu ma 27)Trnh Bá Th is no better than his enemy. After succeeding in removing Phúc fromoffice, Th becomes the new hamlet chief and replaces Phúc¶s men with his family members.Unlike Phúc, Th¶s evil nature is compounded by his savagery, which is characteristic of thosewho have power but are illiterate. On the appearance he is nice and thoughtful, but in fact he ismalicious and cruel, capable of doing anything to reach his goals. He is the man who plots thedemolishing of a V relative¶s new grave, and also is behind the suicide of Phúc¶s sister-in-law.Mr. Hàm, Th¶s older brother, is also an epitome of wickedness. He lives by instinctand, if needed, will commit cruelty to help further his clan¶s objectives.In  Mãnh t lm ngi nhiu ma there are good people, such as ào, Minh, Tùng, Lt.Col. Chnh, and Mrs. Son. But they are in the minority. In the duel between the two familiesTh and Phúc are most prominent. They are Party members who hold important positions in thevillage administration. But they represent the degeneration and vulgarity of man. Communismis not their ideal. They seek admission to the Party to gain profits for himself and for his family.Even their clan doesn¶t matter much to them. Phúc had publicly denounced his father in the pastand Th is willing to compromise with the V to keep his job. There is in these men a bit of everything on the bad side: showy communism, corrupt feudalism, arrogant proletariat, idiocy,vileness.There are on the stretch of land called Ging Chùa not only many men and many evilspirits; there is too much evil in men. Nguyn Khc Trng¶s novel is not simply about thedecline of a rural community; it is an account of relentless inter-familial rivalry and theirremediable degeneration of man. T he sorrow of human condition Thân phn tình yêu is a novel about the sorrow of war, love, and a past long gone. Bo Ninh doesn¶t give us an account of lives, but he offers his reflections on sorrow and man¶s fate. Thân phn tình yêu is marks the success of Vietnamese prose fiction in its portraying of characters¶ tragic moral conditions. Whereas  Bn không chng  depicts the stages of life the people of ông Village go through and  Mãnh t lm ngi nhiu ma focuses on human beingsat their worst in Ging Chùa Hamlet, Thân phn tình yêu provides us insights into man thinking and suffering. By focusing chiefly on things relating to a human being²his anguish, his   5 reflections on what was gained and lost in his life: his past, his love, the war he had fought, hisundertaking writing as a mode of salvation²Bo Ninh¶s novel is truly the hallmark of modernliterature.In Thân phn ca tình yêu war exists in the hero¶s memory and perception, not describedas actual military operations and battles. There are two kinds of war literature: the literaturecovering on-going fighting and the literature depicting war as past events. War can be seen fromthe point of view of a combat soldier in action or in the recollection of a disabled veteran. The perception of war in Thân phn tình yêu may not be the norm in contemporary literature. But itdoesn¶t lessen our admiration for the author, who was a veteran himself. Bo Ninh¶s courageousdetermination to go back in time to face the war in his own way is as admirable as his plunginginto war and risking his life in years past.The violent months and years Kiên and his lover Phng had experienced resulted intheir broken lives and their pessimistic perception of themselves and the world. Kiên no longer sees life and the war as he did while waiting to be sent to the Front. He grows callous butmorally weak. From a capable platoon commander he degenerates into ³a second-class writer,´³a fool,´ as called by people in his neighborhood. There is something broken, beyond repair inhis soul. He carries in him a war of his own. He lives with his memories of his buddies deadand alive, haunted by the killing fields. The ghosts of his fallen comrades in the Soul-InvokingClearing at the Trng Sn Mountains won¶t let go of him. He still carries in him his first lovethat is puerile and beautiful and passionate, but short-lived and tragic: he lost his sweetheartPhng right at the start of his military service.Compared to Kiên, Phng went through an even more horrible transformation. She isnot an innocent high school girl any more, but a woman completely giving up herself to stunningdebauchery, finding nothing important in life. Her life is broken not only physically, but morallyand spiritually.With the publication of  Thân phn ca tình yêu the picture of man in contemporaryVietnamese literature becomes more appealing than ever. Bo Ninh¶s success lies in hisfascinating depiction of the relation of time and human consciousness. The hero¶s obsessionwith lost time, his anguished quest of a past endearing but unrecoverable, his reflections on thetyranny of history and fate all illustrate an important perennial theme of literature: theinseparableness of time and consciousness. As Nguyn Du has pointed out in Truyn Kiu (TheTale of Kiu),   ³A hundred years²in this vale of tears«,´ contemplating the past is a mark of mature literature. All of this coupled with a style of writing that is intelligent and exalted butromantic and passionate makes Bo Ninh¶s novel surpass the rest in this year¶s winningcategory²perhaps the best one that has ever written.It is interesting to note that all the three prize-winning novels concern man and hisrealistic condition. His picture is a composite of paradoxes: he is successful and tragic, happy


Mar 11, 2018


Mar 11, 2018
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