peteg's blog - noise - books

Dương Thu Hương: No Man's Land

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Written in 1998 by Dương Thu Hương, and translated in 2005 by Nina McPherson and Phan Quy Duong. This one is a triangular pseudo romance with far too much artifice and verbiage. Huong is back to her old food-porn habits and something as simple as getting some third-person plot progression on the page becomes an exercise in describing just how many tiles are broken in the courtyard of the non-character that the anonymous crowd is parked at. It is a screen play from an exacting auteur.

Bon-the-bat is occasionally credible, but only historically; Mien is a vacuous pawn straight from the beauty salon. Hoan sometimes fires up but is mostly the stereotypical slick business dude, Ken to her Barbie. Huong's observations about village life are almost entirely banal; what, there's a lot of malicious salacious gossip? People are two faced? Say it ain't so. This is some composite of Romeo and Juliet, or maybe King Lear, with the Party playing the erstwhile King... or would be if it weren't Vietnamese; that makes it a reiteration of The Tale of Kiều.

I found the majority of the 400 pages tedious beyond belief, though most had just a sniff of something flamable. I don't know if I can face up to the last book on the list: Memories of a Pure Spring.

Chan Koonchung: The Fat Years

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Ah yes, another GFC novel. This one is set in 2013 (I think), but really it is 1984, Brave New World and an entire third devoted to economic didacticism. In brief: China uses the GFC to turn inwards, to found a new era of satisfaction, complacency, whatever. Oh, let me spoil it for you: there's something in the water. Now you need not read it.

I pulled this out of the ANU Menzies Library on the strength of Linda Jaivin's review at Inside Story. Her review is far superior to the source material, which is a mostly skillful synthesis of overly familiar dystopian tropes, with some nice Chinese touches such as the Red cinematic canon and the nomadism of Fang Caodi. The final third (where all is revealed!) is flabby and tedious. I found the whole thing overly predictable; there is nothing as arresting as Orwell's image of a boot stamping on a human face here. I ploughed through it hoping to find something so durable, and came away knowing that it's just another fad.

Dana Sachs: The House on Dream Street

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I extracted this one from the ANU Menzies Library a few months ago, on the strength of Dana's translation efforts. Here she recounts her experience of living in Hà Nội in the 1990s, both before and after the U.S. normalised relations with Việt Nam in 1995. This memoir was published in 2000.

The strength of this book is that it is not at all abstract; it is essentially a romance, both with a place and a man, with the author eventually moving on from the man but retaining a fixation on the place. Some awkwardness ensues, and the American ending — the erstwhile couple both paired off with children — is not entirely satisfying as Phai's bride is so unclearly drawn, and his future so uncertain.

There were some strange echoes of my time as an AYAD: some days you really do need to say whatever, more's the pity. Dana didn't want to turn 30 away from home, whereas I was happy to, as it turned out. She had a student visa to study Vietnamese; she makes me wish I'd spent more time on that. Tết was a pretty dire time for me, partly because I was heading back to Australia for Peodair's wedding and also because my friends had all gone back home for the holiday; I guess the difference was that her family-of-sorts lived in Hà Nội, whereas no one seems to admit to actually being from Sài Gòn.

I found and still find troubling her familiar dismissal of time in non-Western countries, that "this is not real life", the suggestion your real life is going on elsewhere while you idle, something sometimes reassuring and othertimes vexing. Unpacking just this attitude could be spun out to book length.

I learnt some great slang here: "phở không có người lái" — pho without the pilot (without meat).

As observed by others, this book inexplicably does not include her interactions with Nguyễn Huy Thiệp. You can read something about that here, but there's got to be more.

This book deserves to be bracketed with the roughly contemporaneous Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. Apart from the obvious difference in viewpoint due to the authors' genders and ethnicity, there is also a feeling that Dana is looking for an exotic home whereas Andrew still has itchy feet.

Gordon Mathews: Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

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You've seen the film, now read the book. I don't know if there is a soundtrack.

Mathews is an American sociologist tenured as a professor at the Christian University of Hong Kong. He tells of first visiting the Mansions in the 1980s, and one gets the feeling that the funding for his anthropological studies arrived just a little too late; with China coming to understand what it takes to thoroughly own global trade, his low-end globalised traders are heading directly to Guangzhou, no longer in need of the Hong Kong middle man with his enforceable contracts and British business sensibility. This is certainly not Wong Kar Wai's 1960s Hong Kong.

The best part of this book is its promise, and when it recounts the stories of residents, either through anecdote or reportage. I found it fascinating as there doesn't seem to be anything like this building in Saigon, even as China is pricing itself out of the market. Then again, Vietnam is not yet known for high-tech manufacturing, or cranking out good-enough copies of mobile phones.

Unfortunately the novelty starts to wane somewhere around the middle, with the realisation that all players mentioned in the book are monothematic: they are there for money, money, money. This is what makes the building work, a friendship amongst the Indian, the Pakistani and the African possible, and indeed Hong Kong itself is the same effect written larger. That the mainstream of the host culture (Hong Kong Chinese, and more recently mainland Chinese) is uncomfortable with the third world in their midst, and identify it along racial lines, is surely true in most countries.

Another realisation was that this book never gets to grips with the role of women in the building, with the two roles on offer being a sex worker or a (Chinese) co-owner of the building. Perhaps the few women traders are mostly into clothing and are operating in another district. It is difficult to discern whether the incessant staring at the passing women in the building is a cultural thing (a women-as-property trope from the home country) or the behaviour of a large number of sex-starved expats, both, neither, etc.

Mathews treats the plight of asylum seekers at length, and wisely restricts himself to prognostication and not prescription. From a Western perspective it is interesting to see what the Eastern approach is and will become.

To be more curmudgeonly, this book makes me think that anthropology is at the more boring end of travel writing. Less repetition would have been lovely, and a bit less promising and a bit more carry-through. I don't put a lot of stock in non-empirical paradigms, and it seems that coining them is the essence of this sort of work. Here we get the "cultural supermarket", which is perhaps trying to summarise the idea of accessible multiculturalism, i.e. exotic food with the menus in English. Unfortunately it also connotes blandness, transactionalism, exploitation of primary producers, and so forth. I'm getting that ill-fitting cheap suit sort of a feeling.

I guess I was hoping for more of a biography of the building, ala Birmingham's Leviathan, in addition to the stories of individuals. Early on, Mathews tells of a shirt of his falling fifteen stories down a light well from a clothesline in the 1980s, and the possibility of it still being there; in doing so he lifts Chungking Mansions out of the generic facelessness of the ghetto. As Sickboy said about heroin, what keeps the relationship going is personality.

I picked this up from the UNSW Library on the strength of a review on Inside Story. I was a bit surprised the library had such a recent book (August 2011).

John Lanchester: I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay

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I picked up this book on the GFC from the UNSW Library on the strength of this review in the New York Times. Lanchester's columns at the London Review of Books are great; for example, his notional review of two books on Murdoch. At book length, however, his prose gets much looser, and the repetition (even within single paragraphs!) killed it for me. I take that to mean that his editors at LRB did not work their magic here.

As is typical with pop accounts of highly technical things, Lanchester gets a few things wrong. As I'm not an economist, that I can pick holes in some of his points (he makes some errors of logic) does not induce confidence in his rendering of the stuff I didn't know about. Sure, he is upfront about the limitations of his metaphors and so forth, but I think he overestimates their utility as the whole space is counter intuitive. His prescriptions for repairing the economy are essentially a return to the banking policies enacted during the Depression and would be familiar to readers of John Quiggin's blog.

His ultimate call for people to say [we have] "enough" suffers from the same myopia that he accuses Keynes of. Still, he must be enjoying the Occupy protests.

Dương Thu Hương: Beyond Illusions

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I extracted this from the ANU Menzies Library a few months ago. I hadn't realised that so many of her novels had been translated — Nina McPherson sure is industrious! Her efforts here with co-translator Phan Huy Duong are top-notch.

This is very much a falling-out-of-love socialist realism effort, a first novel that recreates the author's experiences of the early to mid 1980s in Hà Nội, on her road to becoming an expat dissident. As always her prose is fine, but this one could have been cut in half; there is a lot of repetition that is probably supposed to deepen things. I got impatient because this verbiage displaces so many details, such as just which of Nguyen's flexible principles Linh ultimately objected to. Her self-inflicted loneliness is sometimes difficult to indulge; and privation is generally the cost of principle, but we knew that already.

Her biggest failure is to not make us see Tran Phuong as Linh does; to the reader he is always a compromised greaseball, albeit perhaps a gifted compromised auteur greaseball, and so it is hard to understand why she doesn't see that. This is a bit weird as she does a great job with the blokes in her later novels; indeed, Nguyen does OK here, and she handles his discovery of spine quite well. The mysterious artist-hobo is perhaps a sugar-daddy wannabe; that one is left dangling. As always, Hà Nội is the center of the universe (as Paris presumably is for her now).

I see from elsewhere on the net that this is perhaps a Vietnamese Madame Bovary.

Two more to go from her, I think: Memories of a Pure Spring and No man's land, apparently both held by ANU.

Hồ Aanh Thái: Behind the Red Mist

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Another Curbstone Press effort, from 1998, translator-in-chief Nguyễn Quí Đức in this instance, assisted by Regina Abrami, Bac Hoai Tran, Phan Thanh Hao and Dana Sachs. Wayne Karlin edited it, whatever that entails. From the ANU Menzies Library.

This is a collection of his short stories, generally set in the late 1980s in Vietnam, with a few in India. The Goat Meat Special gets another run, meh. I did like:

  • A Fragment of a Man (something romantic happens in the hills while a bloke is serving a somewhat spurious punishment during his army service)
  • The Indian (a man carries his mother's bones with him around the world)
  • The Chase (villagers enforcing their dress code in 1980s Việt Nam)
  • The Barter (an Indian ex-Virgin Goddess develops a taste for Western things)
  • The Man who Believed in Fairy Tales (Việt Kiều literalism — a Vietnamese national is transformed into a blue-eyed white-skinned American)
  • Leaving the Valley (trafficking in young women in India)

The novella Behind the Red Mist is like Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, without the grammatical whimsy: a 17 year old in the year 1987 is electrocuted, and spends a magical few months (wall-clock time) in 1967 learning about his parents as young people. OK, well, it is Vietnamese, so the pronouns need to shift: his father insists on becoming his older brother, his grandmother an aunt. He seems to fall in love with a young woman whose family has passed. As a vehicle for comparing the war-time and post-war generations this is a decent gimmick which he could have spun out to novel-length.

It's the best thing I've read from him yet.

Hồ Aanh Thái: The Women on the Island

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I wasn't so impressed by Hồ Aanh Thái's anthology of Vietnamese short stories, so I was relieved to find that he's a better writer than editor. The story is set on Cat Bac (or is that Cát Bà?) Island. Wikipedia tells us the latter suits his purpose better, but as always there's something lost in translation.

This novel is essentially a few short stories about the individual characters, glued together by some đổi mới social change. It's fine as far as it goes. On to his short story collection put out by Curbstone Press that I also borrowed from the ANU Menzies Library...

This one's alright: Garbage and passion.

Nguyễn Huy Thiệp: Crossing the River

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Another excellent collection of short stories from Curbstone Press that I was fortunate enough to extract from the ANU Menzies Library. The translations by Dana Sachs are fantastic. I skipped the ones I'd read before, which may indeed have been the best:

  • Crossing the river
  • The general retires
  • Without a king
  • Salt of the jungle
  • Fired gold
  • Life's so fun
  • Remembrance of the countryside
I did read:
  • Lessons from the countryside
  • My Uncle Hoat
  • The winds of Hua Tat: Ten stories in a small mountain village
  • A drop of blood
  • A sharp sword
  • Chastity
  • Rain
  • Love story told on a rainy night

    Thiệp spent some of his life in the mountains north-west of Hà Nội, and this story covers some of the same ground as Balaban did perhaps twenty years earlier: the Golden triangle, opium smuggling, customs officers and so forth.

    "What do you know about love?" asked Bac Ky Sinh.

    Trieu Phu Dai sighed. "It's an unscrupulous emotion."

  • The water nymph

    This is the best account of post-1975 peasant life I've read, I think, with the poverty grinding on towards the year 2000.

  • The woodcutters

Greg Lockhart translated some of these stories more than a decade (1991) before this collection (2003). There seems to have been an argument about how to (de)classify Thiệp's work along Western lit crit lines. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

Lê Minh Khuê: The Stars, The Earth, The River

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A collection of short stories, some of which I'd read before in other anthologies. The translations by Bắc Hoài Trân and Dana Sachs are excellent. All of the stories sparkle, and she doesn't indulge too much in the war / enemy / corruption / communism stodginess endemic in this genre.

It seems that the good work of the Curbstone Press has come to an end, by the looks of their parked domain. What an ignominious way to go. It's good that the ANU Menzies Library has such a great stash of this sort of thing.

John Balaban: Coming Down Again

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1974, northern Thailand, the golden triangle: a friend of Lacey's and the man's girlfriend and her Lao girlfriend are incarcerated by Thai border guards after carrying a minor amount of something-or-other across a border. Lacey, professor, poet, American, organises some bandits to liberate them. Balaban writes as well as I hoped but not really about what I expected; he implies there is some truth underpinning this fiction, but it is difficult to know what, and if this is more than just a ripping yarn written ten years after the event. The ultimate deus ex machina, featuring an NVA detachment and the words of Hồ Chí Minh, is a bit tough to swallow.

Linh Dinh: Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam

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Argue with a smart man,
Can't win.
Argue with a stupid man,
Can't stop.

— Vietnamese proverb

This is a high-quality collection of contemporary (1990s) Vietnamese short stories that I scraped from the ANU Menzies Library months ago. Linh Dinh is responsible not only for anthologising these but also for many of the translations. His overly-brief introduction provides an account of the authors and the situation in Vietnam, đổi mới and so forth. I wish it had been longer.


  • A Marker on the Side of the Boat is another war story from Bảo Ninh (translated by Linh Dinh).
  • Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's Without a King (translated by Linh Dinh), a tale of a lone woman in a household of five sons and a widower.
  • Scenes from an Alley by Lê Minh Khuê (translated by Bắc Hoài Trân and Dana Sachs) juxtaposes rising affluence and crassness of Westerner expat consumption.
  • A Stagnant Water Place by Thế Giang (translated by Cường Nguyễn) is a fly-on-the-brothel-wall.
  • Nine Down Makes Ten by Phạm Thị Hoài (translated by Peter Zinoman, up to his usual standard), tells of a woman's men.
  • In the Recovery Room by Mai Kim Ngọc (translated by Nguyễn Quí Đức) is an old man recounting his sex life to his son-in-law.
  • Đỗ Kh.'s The Pre-War Atmosphere is the most exotic of these stories, mixing the Vietnamese and the Lebanese in Orange County.

Near as I can tell the passion for translating Vietnamese literature has passed, apart from the odd angry shot.

Martin Davis: Engines of Logic (softcover, previously The Universal Computer)

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Professor Martin Davis got sick of engineers getting all the credit for the omnipresent computational machines and wrote this book, released in 2000, to reclaim some ground for the grand tradition of logic. It is lively, well-written, but too short, selective and incomplete, as it is driven by the author's interest in particular topics, which he doesn't always contextualise sufficiently for the non-expert to nod along with.

The Professor is most famous in computer science circles for his propositional calculus, which is still the basis of modern SAT technology as far as I know. This doesn't really come out here, or why SAT is so important. Similarly Wittgenstein gets mentioned in passing, but nothing is said of his contributions to the story of logic, or his overlap with Russell and Turing. This book seemed a prime opportunity to canvas his opinions of Gödel's work and also Turing's. The micro-biographies of the logicians are quite well done, I think, albeit with a slightly jarring special focus on their political stances and (anti)semitism. (Many Jewish intellectuals oppressed by the Nazi regime moved to U.S. academia, with Princeton a major beneficiary.) Even so I came away with no better conception of David Hilbert than that with which I started. I guess mathematicians don't stick.

Personally speaking, I'm not interested in reading pop sci accounts of Turing or his machines; his biographer Hodges has more details, and it is difficult to get excited about the 1001st popularisation of the universal machine. I skipped those bits, and for that reason this wasn't the book for me. Conversely I was interested to know how set-theoretic esoterica like the Continuum Hypothesis (that Davis goes on about) fit with notions of computability. What do the constructivists think? What does Davis think about the rise of neo-Brouwerism, the contemporary flowering of type theory as a (the?) logical foundation of programming? We want to know! Instead we get some engagement with the philosophy of AI types like Penrose and Searle, which seems so quaint in these days of Google-level natural-language processing, and what IBM recently did with Watson. Intelligence is so 20th century.

The obvious comparison to draw is with Logicomix. I'm not going to attempt that.

Some money quotes: On Kurt Gödel:

When Gödel: sought to become a U.S. citizen, he prepared, in typical Gödel: fashion, for the perfunctory examination on U.S. institutions before a judge — he submitted the Constitution to the kind of meticulous analysis only he would have performed. Moreover, he became quite agitated when he concluded that the Constitution was actually inconsistent. While driving to Trenton, the [New Jersey] state capital, for the procedure, Einstein and Morgernstern his supporting witnesses, tried to distract Gödel from his discovery, fearing it might cause trouble if broached. Einstein told one joke after another. But when the judge asked Gödel whether he thought a dictatorship like that in Germany was possible in the United States, the candidate began to explain his discovery. Fortunately the judge quickly understood with whom he was dealing and interrupted, so that all ended happily.

Davis also recycles Turing's good point that Gödel's incompleteness theorem only applies to sound systems, i.e. in a limiting sense intelligence requires us to be prepared to speculate. Turing made similar observations.

On Hegel:

[...] Despite Kant's emphasis on the importance of science, post-Kant philosophy in nineteenth-century Germany evolved in a different direciton, moving to an absolute idealism that conceived of ideas and concepts as primary and sought to understand the world almost as though these were what it was made of. One of the leaders of this movement was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose lectures were attended by hundreds of eager disciples. Hegel had many followers (among whom, famously, were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels), and scholars still find much worthwhile in his writings. However he was capable of contorted reasoning that simply invites ridicule, especially in his massive two-volume Science of Logic in which readers were asked to ponder the deep thoughts:

Nothing is simple equality with itself.

Being is Nothing.

Nothing is Being.

Both of these categories in the transition from each to the other dissolve into the further category: Becoming.

That probably tells you if this is the book for you. In any case, do read this good interview with Davis.

Evelyn Waugh: Scoop

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I extracted a recent edition of this book from the UNSW Library on the strength of Hitchens's atypically muted column on Murdoch's travails, and The Loved Ones. Sometimes it is laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes historically obscure, always heavy-handed. A quick read.

John Lanchester wrote a good, long long article on Murdoch a years ago, from the London Review of Books.

Vietnam: A Traveller's Literary Companion (ed. John Balaban and Nguyễn Quí Đức)

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I also extracted this one from the ANU library. It is much better than the previous two collections as the two editors have carefully ensured the translations are top-notch and made a decent fist of selection. What is even more awesome is that they include enough bibliographic detail that one could track down not only where the English translation was first published but also the original too (for the most part). I'll be looking for more from these guys.

Some are products of đổi mới, e.g. Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's four contributions, though the general flavour is mid-90s contemporary. I wish they had found something else to excerpt from Dương Thu Hương than Novel without a Name. Standouts:

  • Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's Salt of the Jungle, Crossing the River and Remembrance of the Countryside were all great, but would have benefited from some framing. I found his Fired Gold intriguing and opaque.
  • The Saigon Tailor Shop by Phạm Thị Hoài is at once a lark and mostly disposable. The melodrama is palpable and consciously overblown, I guess to contrast the Hà Nội setting with the fashion.
  • Lê Minh Khuê's contribution is a reverse-Oedipal romance, A Small Tragedy.
  • The piece by the editor Nguyễn Quí Đức, The Color of Sorrow is one of those classic Saigon stories/cliches: spend more than a few days there and you'll marry someone, or at least get your heart broken. Andrew X. Pham recounts a similar experience, and I could go on.

For all that I'm not sure there's as much evocation of place as the authors wished for, or as implied by this format. Where is the coffee, the bia hơi, the lẩu? How about the cyclos, the traffic, the modernity? The map on page v evokes that feeling of things being a bit indefinite.

Hồ Aanh Thái: The Legend of the Phoenix and other stories from Vietnam

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I scraped this strange short-story collection from the ANU library a while ago, along with Banerian's and a couple of others. It was published by the National Book Trust, India in 1995, as the anthologist has ties to that country.

Unfortunately there is nothing particularly good in this collection that I hadn't read before — Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's The General Retires is probably Lockhart's translation but is not identified as such, and jangles in the context of the other much poorer translations, as does the excerpt from Dương Thu Hương's Novel Without a Name. It is very post-war victor-oriented, and as such there's plenty of enemy puppetry here.

Neil Sheehan: Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon

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I picked this up from the UNSW Library after Ellsberg made many references to him. I was hoping he would tell the story of the cities post-1975 but it is instead mostly an account of the return to Vietnam in 1989 of Neil Sheehan, war reporter for United Press International and later the New York Times. These are a dime-a-dozen as so many people with the ear of a publisher blew through Saigon in those days.

For the most part this is just another war memoir, with the requisite interview with the seemingly eternal Võ Nguyên Giáp that McNamara et al did a few years later. Far more valuable would have been an account of how the culture has changed, but Sheehan is not equipped to do so, for he never learnt that much about the Vietnamese in all the years he spent there. I was a bit surprised that this was his first visit to Hà Nội; I sort-of assumed all the hacks made a pilgrimage there as guests of the regime, but Sheehan explains that they were picky, only inviting those they thought would disseminate their propaganda.

Most interesting to me was his take on the street names of Sài Gòn. Here's the meat of pp70-71:

The "Vietnamizing" of the city had also gone forward in the renaming of the streets. Most of the renaming, like that of the thoroughfare from the airport for Nguyen Van Troi, had been done simply to honor Communist martyrs, but in other instances there had been a deliberate attempt to wipe away the shame of the colonial past. A main crosstown street in pre-1975 Saigon was called Phan Thanh Gian, for a nineteenth-century mandarin who poisoned himself to apologize to the nation after being pressed into ceding the first Vietnamese territory to the French — Saigon and the Mekong Delta. In the catechism of the Vietnamese Communist nationalists, suicide did not excuse handing over part of the motherland to a foreign conqueror; Phan Thanh Gian should have refused and died resisting. And so history had been brought full circle by expunging his name and renaming the street for the triumph that drove the French from Vietnam — Dien Bien Phu.

Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and father of bacteriology who remained an icon to older Vietnamese physicians, was still too great a reminder of the colonial period to be given a reprieve for his good works. Pasteur Street was now called Nguyen Thi Minh Khai for the fiery daughter of a mandarin family who became the most famous woman martyr of the Vietnamese Communist cause, executed by a French firing squad at Hoc Mon near Saigon in 1941. The original U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam headquarters had been located on Pasteur Street. [...] The Vietnamese Postal and Telecommunications Service had taken over the main building. [...]

Renaming the city's main street was a problem for the new rulers. Until 1954 it bore the name Catinat. Ngo Dinh Diem, Washington's first strongman, then gave it a perfectly good Vietnamese name, Tu Do, which means "freedom". The name could not be allowed to stand after 1975; it was too evocative of the American era, of Diem [...]. The victors therefore renamed the street Dong Khoi ("uprising"). When Diem changed Catinat's name to Tu Do, the Saigonese continued to call it Catinat. Not until the late 1960s, when Diem was long dead, did the younger people begin to call it Tu Do. Now only out-of-towners call the street Dong Khoi.

Cross-checking a Caravelle map from the early 1960s (e.g. this one) and a current-day one or Google maps bears out the claims of the first paragraph, allowing that the "Vietnamizing" began a lot earlier (1954 at the latest), and that the Vietnamese idiom is fatherland, not motherland, as in the Fatherland Front that was active in the South when Sheehan was there the first time.

The second paragraph rings totally false, however; Pasteur then and now is the same street (see the above maps), and Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai was Hồng Thập Tự (red cross) on the old Caravelle map.

I'm more curious to know about the street with the embassies on it, now Lê Duẩn, previously Thong Nhut (maybe thống nhất, "united"), running from Independence Palace down to the zoo, past the Diamond Plaza and Notre Dame church. As Lê Duẩn died in 1987, I wonder when the name changed, and if it was given a (distinct) new name in 1975.

Here's some old postcards and things with these old street names.

Incidentally the Securency scandal marches on, and for once Julie Bishop is making sense. I wonder how squeaky (clean) their recent deal with Canada is.

James Banerian: Vietnamese Short Stories

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I extracted this venerable collection from the ANU library after reading the author/editor/translator's review of Dumb Luck; he also reviewed the epic The Moon of Hoa Binh.

There's a good overview at Amazon. I felt the collection was on the weak side, with the overt and mostly irrelevant political attitudes the author expresses in the introduction not helping it a great deal. (To give him credit these do draw attention to his other books, on the lives of the Vietnamese boat people of the 1970s and 1980s, a period far more recent than most stories here.) It is ironic that đổi mới cranked up within a year of this book's publication (1985/1986 depending on who you believe), sparking something of a renaissance in Vietnamese literature, including criticism of the regime (e.g. Dương Thu Hương). These days the pervasiveness of the internet has cracked the cultural scene wide open, and everyone can bemoan the lack of intellectualism everywhere.

None of these stories provided much of an insight into traditional Vietnamese culture; mostly they paint Rousseauan man-in-his-natural-state pictures of upstanding poverty, something easy to romance and much harder to envy. In that way it is a bit like Henry Lawson without the authenticity of his first-hand (living it) experience.

The pick for me was Monk Tue by Khái Hưng, which has been posted here.

Daniel Ellsberg: Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

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I read this on the strength of the movie The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and my general interest in Ellsberg as a technocrat during the American/Vietnam war.

Ellsberg's game is probably not so different to McNamara's, viz to defend his position in conflicts that have mostly faded from memory. While he is not exactly a whizz kid, nor the best and brightest, being born a decade or so late, he admired, and to an extent emulated, defence secretary Robert S. McNamara and others whose cold war values were forged in the moral clarity of World War II. Thus this text often makes it seem that that he is a handmaiden to history, where he is aware of the problems (the inability of the U.S. Government as an institution to learn about the Vietnam situation and translate that learning into (in)action) but the mathematical techniques he mastered and furthered at Harvard are of not much help. It is the time when M.A.D. rules and no-one can see past it.

The late 1950s and 1960s were a time of realpolitik, of breaking a lot of eggs and not being too picky about the omlette. In some ways Ellsberg's point of view is not so far from Kissinger's, who gets a remarkably even-handed writeup here; apparently Ellsberg held Kissinger in high regard, and maybe still does, perhaps up to his time as Nixon's National Security Adviser; certainly not after the bombing of Cambodia and Watergate. I found it strange that Ellsberg does not weigh in on Kissinger's October surprise in 1968, where he reputedly encouraged the North Vietnamese delegation to delay negotiations until after the Presidential elections, promising better outcomes from a yet-to-be-elected Nixon administration. It was a potentially pivotal moment that is clearly related to Ellsberg's central concern of shortening the war.

The most vibrant parts of this book are when Ellsberg is in the south of Vietnam, from 1965 to 1967, talking about his friendship with John Paul Vann, who incidentally got written up by the Neil Sheehan, the bloke Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to; I guess in the period between then and now Ellsberg self-identifies as an iconoclast and Vann was a powerful model for that. Ellsberg's stories about being out on patrol, of semi-suicidal driving on roads encroached by jungle, and the links he draws with his later thinking about the futility of this war are a composite of poignancy and triteness, a need to test his manhood while leaving his brain in first gear. His conversion from hawk to leaking dove is done on the road to Damascus, and his account of this critical juncture in his life is irritatingly oblique; just what are his parameters for violence? How should the U.S. use its hegemony, then and now? Were there any worthwhile outcomes from the war at all? (It is clear to me that nothing could justify the war, but some make the case that it did scare the dominoes into falling other ways, or something like that.)

The late-1960s peacenikery gets a solid treatment, as does the trial. Both could have been spun out a bit longer, with more detail; it is intriguing that there was no U.S. equivalent of the Official Secrets Act — meaning that a U.S. citizen cannot betray the republic by revealing information to the U.S. public. I wonder if that still holds.

Ellsberg alludes to a lot of people and things that were going on at the time, sometimes too briefly, with not enough background. I grant that it is tough to communicate all the context in a tale like this one, and I guess you just have to chase up many sources. I'm sure someone somewhere has stitched together a list of books about Vietnam and Watergate and a good order to read them in; here's a start:

... but yeah, the list is endless; I barely know where to start if one wishes to get to grips with the mathematics of the day or more formal/academic histories.

Overall the book reeks of technocracy, and is strangely impersonal. Why did he choose to undergo psychoanalysis at that particular time? He does allude to his sex life, but nowhere close to where this biography apparently goes. (I can't be arsed reading it now.) This is not mere prurience on my part, for I would like to know if he got seduced into the peace movement; that would be a far more convincing reason than any Ellsberg himself stumps up here. For all of this, I got sucked in and read it over a couple of days, after a moderately slow start. The approximately 450 pages was sometimes a slog, with some sections that seem to have escaped editing, and a bit too much flabby repetitiveness.

Ellsberg casts a long shadow through the media, as it was they who actually communicated the Pentagon Papers to the public — a role currently filled by wikileaks — and in doing so, scored a major First Amendment victory over government claims of "national security". Thus the broad interest in the official release of the papers, forty years later:

What is the take away story here? Get yourself into a position of trust and then violate it? Avoid being a morally compromised/vacuous technocrat? Ultimately Ellsberg fares better than McNamara, if only because he does recognise how bankrupt the whole gig was.

Vũ Trọng Phụng: Lục Xì: Prostitution and Venereal Disease in Colonial Hanoi

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Translated by Shaun Kingsley Malarney, University of Hawai‘i Press.

I borrowed this from the ANU library on the strength of earlier Vũ Trọng Phụng reportage in translation. The topic (prostitution in colonial Hà Nội in the 1930s) is a bit far from what I'm interested in; Hà Nội had a special status in those days, as French jurisdiction stopped at the municipal limits, and so the Girls Squad, Dispensary, etc. were hamstrung. In contrast Sài Gòn and greater Cochinchina was under the full-blown control of the colonialists, and it seems that there is almost nothing in translation from the region in that era. I'm also more curious about the status of women from an indigenous (traditional) perspective and how it changed when exposed to Europeanization, for courtesans cast a long shadow over Vietnamese literature and yet it is held that there is no place for that sort of thing in traditional Vietnamese society.

Malarney is certainly across his stuff, which one might expect from a professor in gender studies. His translation is excellent and his introduction certainly worth reading both before and after the main text. The interviews with the various players (two prostitutes, the director of the Dispensary, etc.) are intriguing. It dovetails well with Vũ Trọng Phụng's earlier account of the industrialists. I like it that the best account of what "lục xì" means is a Vietnamese rendition of the English "look see".

I can only add that "chicken" (gà) is slang for prostitute, at least in Sài Gòn.

One of the lovely librarians at the Menzies Library at ANU dredged this out of the new book processing pipeline for me. I can't get over the irony of the Menzies building being full of Asian materials, nor how helpful the library staff are. If this is inefficiency, let's have more of it.

Salman Rushdie: Luka and the Fire of Life

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I read Haroun and the Sea of Stories a long time ago and was charmed by Rushdie's foray into children's stories. He is well-placed to do this sort of thing, being broadly educated and (historically) playful and irreverent.

Here, however, we get a rewarming of the the aged/obsolete pantheistic god routine that Douglas Adams carried off so well, albeit with godship incorporating Sonic and Mario. Adams was funnier and more inventive; this reads like Rushdie trying to make the classics appealing to the video game generation, and exhausting the theological referents he dug up, yielding a Frankenovel (but not Frankenstein). Fair enough maybe, but all "puzzles" are resolved by deus ex machina, a boring and unambitious metaphysics that does not get better with repetition. For these reasons and more it lacks a moral dimension and falls far short of the classics, such as those by the famously immoral Oscar Wilde.

Some of this reads like an essay pleading for continued attention to imagination, reflecting but not really extending his earlier arguments for liberalism that I am susceptible to, but these are far more abstract than Wilde's concepts of commonwealth, and so unlikely to make much of an impact on a child. The Guardian review has the money quote:

"Magic is fading from the universe," one character warns. "We aren't needed any more, or that's what you all think, with your High Definitions and low expectations. One of these days you'll wake up and we'll be gone, and then you'll find out what it's like to live without even the idea of Magic."

The cheapness of thrills is pernicious, yes, but I fear it takes experience to develop notions of value, not fairy stories. Don't believe anyone who says this is Rushdie at his best/worst/most creative/most irritating or any other damm thing; this book merely reinforces my feeling that Rushdie's best days are behind him, and maybe this should have been called Prometheus Wept.

I borrowed this from the ANU library.

Vũ Trọng Phụng: The Industry of Marrying Europeans (Kỹ Nghệ Lấy Tây)

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Translated by Thúy Tranviet, Cornell University, 2006.

I extracted this from the shelves of the Menzies library at ANU, or more precisely, one of the lovely librarians managed to find it after my (plus-and-minus a non-Dewey decimal) search yielded nothing. I wouldn't be surprised if it hasn't been out of the library for many a year.

This is reporter/culture critic Vũ Trọng Phụng exploring the om culture of northern Việt Nam in the 1930s. Specifically he satirises the entanglements of the local ladies with the French Foreign Legion, giving a wide berth to those enmeshed in the politically thin-skinned colonial administration. He skirts the fine line between (mostly) serial marriages (for money) and outright prostitution, albeit with enough nods and winks for us to know that it is playing on his mind (cf the more-recent translation of Prostitution and Venereal Disease in Colonial Hanoi which I also borrowed). He also spends some time pondering the plight of the Eurasian children who are stuck between the two cultures.

The translation is so-so, and certainly not as good as Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm and Peter Zinoman's Dumb Luck.

Again, the introduction would have been better as an afterword. It contains too much lit-crit for my taste; to simply situate the work against the times and culture, and even better, how it played in Việt Nam since it was published would have been far more useful.

Australian short stories

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I borrowed two collections of Australian short stories from the UNSW Library ages ago. Despite the decrepitude of their pages (presumably not acid-free), they were both reasonably recent. I didn't read either in their entirety, partly because I'd read some before, sometimes because I didn't like the sound of story, othertimes because I remain scarred by high school (Peter Goldsworthy in particular).

Firstly, Relations: Australian Short Stories, edited by Carmel Bird, was published in 1991. Memorable:

  • John Morrison, The Hold Up: stuck on a train in suburban Melbourne (the Box Hill line) a long time ago.
  • Judah Waten, Mother: a well-told account of a Russian Jewish family's migration to Australia.
  • Marjorie Bernard, Habit: cute old-time romance between a city man and a country girl who runs a guest house with her sister.
  • David Malouf, The Empty Lunch-tin: a signature gentle exploration of poverty from the perspective of the well-intentioned comfortably-off, presumably a first-hand experience.
  • Patrick White, Willy-Wagtails by Moonlight: a slice of middle-class life of the sort that David Williamson used to capture.
  • Thea Astley, Write me son, write me: middle-class sprog joins a commune and sponges off the olds.
  • Jessica Anderson, The Late Sunlight: an aged Hungarian countess slumming it in Sydney meets a young humanities scholar.

Secondly, The Australian Short Story, edited by Laurie Hergenhen, published in 1986 (my copy republished in 2002).

  • Thea Astley, Home is where the heart is: aboriginal dispossession, cops and soft-hearted / hard headed whites.
  • Archie Weller, Pension Day: an aboriginal elder ends up as a homeless drunk in Perth, a long way from home.
  • David Malouf, Night Training: abusing green soldiers is a time-honoured tradition in all armies. I wonder if he has direct experience of this somehow.
  • Alan Marshall, Trees can speak: a mobility-impaired man makes friends with a hermit miner.
  • T. A. G. Hungerford, Green Grow the Rushes: a country long-distance romance, climaxing (of sorts) in Hong Kong.
  • Patrick White, Down in the Dump: another closely-observed account of middle-class mores, pretensions, affectations and so forth. The structure of White's writing here is fascinating, economical and oblique, but light enough to be humorous.

B. Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson: The Leafcutter Ants: Civilisation by instinct

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I found it strange that they released this small photograph-laden coffee-table book as a follow-up to their encyclopedic Superorganism text of last year. It turns out this is an expanded version of a chapter of that book. What makes it weird is the composite of explanantions for non-experts, the photographs and the occasional burst of specialised biological information, such as species of bacteria and the finer anatomy of fungus and insects.

It's a quick read and the photos are awesome. Here's a video profiling Hölldobler which includes footage of the concrete cast of the massive leaf cutter nest in South America.

Vũ Trọng Phụng: Dumb Luck (Số Đỏ)

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Translated by Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm and Peter Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley, 2002.

I've had this one on the list for ages now as a result of reading Greg Lockhart's translation of one of Vũ Trọng Phụng's short stories. Loan tells me it's now literature, something to torture the school kids with, after being banned for an extensive period due to it being deemed politically incorrect by the Communist regime.

This satire is Set in Hà Nội in the 1930s during a period of cultural and political renaissance fired by a changing attitude towards colonies by a new left-wing French regime, and a literary vacuum due to the young people being trained in quốc ngữ (the modern Vietnamese script) and not the classical Chinese ideograms. Zinoman explains all this at length in his introduction, which is better read as an afterword. This form of social commentary seems passé, at least in extended form; perhaps it is now unkind to attack entire classes of people, whereas the individual muppet is fair game. (I'm thinking of John Clarke's transition from Fred Dagg to the 7:56 Report here, so this might just be an antipodean perspective.)

The aspirations of pretty much everyone get a serve here, except the nascent indigenous political movements that climaxed in the founding of of a post-colonial nation state in 1945 (or 1954 if you prefer). Xuân is riding the meteor upwards, cutting a swathe through the top-end of society, ably exemplifying the Peter principle. The middle-upper mercantile classes are busy directing the tastes of the cashed up, and sexual and religious mores are under pressure to Europeanise. This is not to say that traditions are sacrosanct here, with a dog-eating Buddhist Monk bargaining like a fishmonger's wife, and the hai lúa from the countryside being thoroughly routed. There is no sympathy for the Mandarin system under the emperor either, as it has been thoroughly compromised by its dealings with the colonial authorities.

I have to wonder how much got lost in translation, as so much comes across well. "Horned husbands" was new to me but is apparently quite common. "Số Đỏ" literally translates as "red number" or "red destiny", which accounts for Xuân's hair colour as well as the cultural confusion of numerology and fate. Zinoman and wife keep their translation lively, though it is a little too American in places.

The closest Western referent is probably Candide, although here the central character is far from oblivious and under no delusion that this is the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps it was culturally impossible for there to be a Leibniz in the Confucian tradition.

I'm doubly keen to read his The Industry of Marrying Europeans now, and the recently-translated Luc Xi: Prostitution and Venereal Disease in Colonial Hanoi.

Tim Kreider: Twilight of the Assholes

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I like Kreider, he's smart and crass enough to draw some pretty funny cartoons, previously weekly at The Pain: When will it end?. I'm a bit less enamoured of his "artists statements", which are about 50% of this book; what is bearable weekly is monotonous and too repetitive in book form. A lot of the comics are still great though. It does not contain his classic Science v's Norse Mythology and so on, making it not quite a greatest hits.

As with everyone who thought Obama was more than just another politician, the euphoria at his elevation here is a bit too much to take. Just today (Australian time) Obama backslid on all those Gitmo presidential directives that Kreider (and I) cheered on in those early days. I look forward to The Pain returning, especially if Palin pulls a Pauline Hanson.

Peter Lloyd: Inside Story

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I've been keen to read this book since it was published back in October 2010. Luckily for me Borders was offering 25% off and free shipping from their online store, an offer which doubtlessly triggered their bankruptcy. I find it ironic that these bricks-and-mortar shops bleat about how the internet is destroying commerce while offering steeper discounts via that very same channel than I can get in-store anywhere.

Anyway, I knew of Peter Lloyd from his coverage of events in Asia for the ABC, and was saddened to hear that he'd gotten busted for drugs in Singapore in 2008. I completely understand the need to do drugs while in Singapore, not that I condone being there in the first place. Given that he lived in India and previously Bangkok and presumably had events to cover elsewhere, why in hell subject oneself to the tyranny of Lee? Well, his boyfriend works for Singapore Air.

Lloyd is one of those intelligent restless people who quickly learns enough about whatever to sound authoritive without actually being so, and moves quickly enough not to be caught out. Therefore his small stuff-ups irritate me immensely, such as his "mister ant" — it is highly unlikely that he met a male ant in his Singaporean gaol cell. Also Australia is not the biggest continent (that would be the one he was incarcerated on), merely the biggest island. Moreover the swearing in this book brings the tone down and does little more than signify that he's in a non-professional mode here. He doesn't even pretend to be objective about Lee Kuan Yew, and it is unfortunate that his venting about Lee/Chinese supremacy is so damn unsurprising, or that the wheels of justice are square-shaped in that city.

Perhaps fatally for the longevity of this narrative, doing time in a Singaporean gaol is terminally banal, and possibly even less violent than on the streets of that city. So this is more of a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diary, a story of survival by someone who was never going to go under; an account of a small dip in an otherwise upward trajectory that won't even be noticed by the proceeds of crime mob. He's back "home" now, entangled in Lateline; what with Leigh Sales moving to 7:30 he may even be the anchor.

The gay stuff always leaves one wondering who's wearing the trousers. He seems unaware of the cliche/exploitative overtones of/colonial vibes of Western man finds solace in Asian man/woman, and does nothing to defend himself on that front. How did they meet? Who was looking for what? Pisani was great on this front as she always had a reason to be anywhere, and was sure enough of herself to let all this sexual perversity in the orient wash over her.

He leaves us hanging at the end: did he get his diary out? Did he break up with his bloke? We have a right to know!

Here's a thoughtful review by an ex-journo and Lloyd interviewed by David Marr at Gleebooks last November.

Paul Mitchell: Dodging the Bull

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Yeah, Mitchell-from-Melbourne has great technique. His stories tend to be a bit too cleverly transgressive, and so lose their bite; for example, that one of the stories is about some born-again gays is revealed after a couple of pages, masterfully, but the rest of that piece is rife with cliché, or at least normativity, as it must be given that he doesn't have the space to pull these tricks twice. Thematically he recurringly treats the domestic violence due to returned fathers and its accompanying stereotypical quietism, as well as the fragility of men. His small-town stories suffered similarly from tired underbellies lending ambience but not presence. Often I was left dangling, feeling I'd missed the point; cryptic crossworders might not blink at inferring paedophilia from mentions of a descriptionless young lass and a damaged older gent rubbing his groin in front of some sparrows, I don't know.

McPhee definitely plucked the story most interesting to me, and as it is one of his more recent efforts, we can hope for more good stuff from him in the future.

Xavier Herbert: Capricornia. (1938)

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I haven't read many of these classic Australian literary works, scarred by the neo non-classic Maestro in HSC English. I was fortunate to dig a copy out of the UNSW Library, proving that it's not just a café afterall.

The opening chapter is a blistering tragicomic account of an exploitative frontiersman arriving in an Aboriginal nation and demanding the services of the locals, specifically their women, for him and his Aboriginal company. In that Herbert neatly expresses so much of what can be misunderstood amongst cultures, as does his rapid co-decimation (keep one-in-ten) of the tribe occupying Port Zodiac (Darwin), which is similarly painful and masterful. The bar is set unendurably high too early, but it is easy to forgive Herbert as he never slips far.

Perhaps Henry Lawson could have written like this if he'd settled somewhere for long enough; this comes well after Lawson carked it (1922). It is also on the track to Donald Horne's brand of commentary (The Lucky Country), whinging about the general crappiness of the people running the place. They might not be relieved to know that nothing has changed.

I only have two complaints about this book, neither of which kill it: the first is that the plot is lost somewhere in the middle when too much time is spent adjusting the epistemic states of the characters without anything much happening. The second is that the final third or so is a big set piece about how the law is an ass, both in general and specifically in these sorts of places, e.g. due to the impossibility of a jury trial and the pomposity of the rule-of-law minority-of-two (or so). This is a bit tiring.

Conversely I liked the heavy-handed character names: they were quaint. I also enjoyed the lightness of his treatment of the relationship between the Capricornians and the Asians, e.g. the pre-national Indonesia (Java, Papua, Timor), and the Japanese pearlers. I wish the female characters had more heft, as e.g. Heather and Jasmine have pivotal roles but it is unclear what drives them. Marigold is all status but is written out just as she is developing.

Like Hunter S. Thompson's Las Vegas, Capricornia is Herbert's vantage point for watching the wave breaking and rolling back. I'll have to read Poor Fellow My Country now, I guess.

Wordlines: Contemporary Australian Writing selected by Hilary McPhee

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Patchy, as all collections are. McPhee's introduction starts strong as she reflects on her return to Australia after three years in the Middle East; from the dust of Amman to being repelled by Australian "affluence, food fetishism and the politics of spin." I wish she'd kept on with that, as her summaries of the works of others contained herein are a bit pointless when they are so short and immediately available.

Not much really stood out for me, but I will be keeping an eye out for Drusilla Modjeska's Papuan novel when it's cooked — what's here is not quite enough to satisfy. Paul Mitchell struck a cord with his tale about the extra-suburban dwellers: those not in the cities and not in the bush, living neither a majoritarian or dead-Australia romantic life. The other pieces passed the time agreeably enough.

Melbourne is the vein for the whole thing. With all their education and cash, why aren't the bored housewives of Canberra writing this sort of stuff? I expect big things from this parental leave scheme.

Here's a longer review in The Australian.