“…people think of time as something that comes and passes by and is gone, lost, the way an exhaled breath is lost… But maybe we can regard time, past and present, as co-existing, forever entwined. The past continuous.” – Nguyen Khai
Past Continuous, a curious novel by Vietnamese writer Nguyen Khai, is the kind of book I thought no one was writing anymore. At times, it resembles a nineteenth-century romance novel, in which long-winded characters languish in drawing rooms, discuss morality and the state of the union and sip tea. But the event narrated here, a reunion between friends, takes place in the ’80s, refers back to the Vietnam War, and is set, not in drawing rooms–although the characters occasionally sip tea–but on a government owned rubber plantation in the “Iron Triangle,” north of Saigon, where much of the fighting took place.
In the tradition of a roman á clef, the novel is based on historical fact, contains characters modeled on actual individuals, and refers to historical personages and situations. But I think it is best described as a “documentary novel,” the term employed on the book’s back cover. Interspersed with commentary on history, religion, art, and political intrigue, the writing often seems dated, reminiscent of a newsreel filmed in black-and-white.
Its unnamed narrator, an instructor, writer, and storyteller, describes himself thus: “I am a hybrid half journalist, half novelist. A truly talented person… could invent not only a character, but an entire world.” He, on the other hand, claims his limitations have confined him to concentrating on characters extracted from real life: Quan, a former spy who infiltrated the South Vietnamese Ministry of Information; Vinh, a Catholic priest and latex worker who embraced liberation theology; and Ba Hue, a female Viet Cong battalion commander. All three had been warriors in the struggle against the American and South Vietnamese governments and continue to defend the current regime. They meet once a year on the state owned farm which, throughout the book, figures as an extended metaphor for Vietnam and its tortuous history: “Looking down from a helicopter, the bomb craters look as if they have been planted as symmetrically as the trees.”
These three protagonists, along with several minor characters, tend to speak in maxims: “One lives and dies by the work one does;” “Only free people can love each other;” “…it is the ones who hold hammers and sickles in their hands that have to carry a cross on their shoulders…” In the unlikely event that some patient readers can actually suspend disbelief long enough to accept the existence of such characters, they will, in the end, find it virtually impossible to warm up to them. But perhaps they’re not supposed to.
Characters, as such, are irrelevant here. Rather, it is the concepts they embody, their interpretations of Vietnam’s past and their visions for the future, which interest the author. That, and the opportunity to reveal the “hidden truths” about the war. For those, like myself, who continue to question U.S. involvement in Vietnam–in much the same way many of us today are questioning our involvement in Afghanistan–this book is packed with information. True, some of it is entirely irrelevant: Minutiae about latex gathering, climate, topography, and green tea abound. At times, the catalogue of names and details resembles an intelligence report, where a wealth of specifics is the sign of a job well done.
Yet, despite these problems, much of the information is truly gripping. Khai’s comments on American liberals and their initial support of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, the American role in overthrowing Diem, CIA manipulation of the press, the corruption of the South Vietnamese government and its army, the Americanization of South Vietnam, the behavior of Cambodia’s intellectual elite, and the role of the Buddhists prove fascinating reading.
In addition to exposing the war’s underside, Khai wishes to instruct his fellow citizens on their moral responsibilities, and to teach them to sustain the goodness of spirit, valor, and strength, which has ensured their survival. In so doing, he takes on the role of the writer as educator, prophet, and muse, a position many contemporary readers–I among them–might be reluctant to grant him. However, my objection may reflect a cultural mindset, one a Vietnamese reader would not necessarily share.
The role of the all-knowing poet-philosopher is one with which Nguyen Khai is obviously comfortable: Recipient of the ASEAN literary award in 2000, a writer of short stories and essays, and the former Deputy General Sectary of the Vietnam Writers’ Association, he subscribes to the belief that dissent is a luxury his society can ill afford. But as a result, he can come across as stodgily earnest, old-fashioned, and doctrinaire, and the reader can’t avoid asking: How much of this is propaganda? How much is based on fact?
Wayne Karlin, a writer and former Marine during the Vietnam conflict, tackles this problem in his comprehensive and extremely useful Afterword, which places events and characters in a proper perspective and provides essential background information. (Curbstone Press is to be commended for taking the extra effort to include the Afterword along with the occasional footnote in this, the fourth title in their series, “Voices from Vietnam.”)
Karlin explains that the discrepancies between the official American version of the war and Khai’s account are, to a great extent, cultural. They result from two opposing frames of reference. I imagine this is similar to the situation of two passengers traveling on the same train. Each of them sees the identical landscape in an entirely different way, depending on who faces the engine and who faces the caboose. Thus, the outsider’s perception of events will vary enormously from those of the Vietnamese.
While Karlin assures us that Khai’s account of the cultural misunderstandings and the nature of the relationship between the two countries is, for the most part, accurately portrayed, the western reader– even those of us who opposed U.S. involvement in the war–may remain unconvinced, and ultimately shocked, by portions of this book. However, as Karlin hastens to add, some incidents may have been fictionalized for dramatic effect. Ultimately, the central message is predictable: “Both religious and political power will one day disappear… But there will always remain another power, a power that brings a sea of bitterness, but that is also the source of life itself.” And what power is that? Well, dear reader, in case you haven’t guessed, it is the power of love. (Of course.)
Despite its drawbacks, Past Continuous has some remarkable strengths. In addition to some noteworthy historical material and the research it represents, the use of language is often striking, and at times lyrical. Although I could find no reference to Nguyen Khai as a poet, he writes like one. That this should come through in the English version speaks well for the translators, Wayne Karlin and Phan Thanh Hao.
In the beginning of the book, for example, Quan describes his 30 years in espionage: “Your true self is always demanding, crying out for you to return to it.” A spy, he claims is much like a fish. “I considered myself a big fish, and therefore couldn’t act like a small one. Wherever I swam, I’d leave bubbles and waves. Even a fool would notice my passage, not to mention those who had been fishermen [spy-catchers] all their lives. The trick was not to act like a fish, but rather an ordinary human being, or better yet, to become a fisherman yourself. The fish disguised as a fisherman.”
He uses language to his advantage in establishing a mood and creating atmosphere: “Everywhere she looked she saw numerous termite mounds, large and small; at first sight she thought they were graves, so many graves surrounded by so much emptiness and a silence broken only by the cries of wild birds.”
Few phrases sum up as eloquently the devastation and despair of war. Consequently, whatever its limitations, Past Continuous rises above them to offer some explanations to those, like myself, who continue to be haunted by those bitter years. If you still question what we were fighting for and who the real enemies were–the author never doubts their identity–this book is well worth reading.
Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).