peteg's blog - noise - books - 2011 07 16 BalabanNguyen VietnamATravellersLiteraryCompanion

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.