Hearts on fire: novel revives events of 1968

October 30, 2022 - 08:53
The Tết Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and a social revolution in May, 1968 was an eventful year for Việt Nam, America and France.
COVERING AN ERA: The cover of 'Những Trái Tim Lửa Cháy, Paris 1968' (Hearts on Fire, Paris 1968), published by Hồ Chí Minh City General Publishing House. Photo courtesy of HCM City General Publishing House

By Lương Thu Hương

The Tết 1968 Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and a social revolution in May, 1968 was an eventful year for Việt Nam, America and France.

Writer Bill Pearl has dissected this confusing time with so much instability and uncertainty in his first novel, Hearts on Fire, Paris 1968, an imaginary tale with an interesting cast of characters.

The novel takes readers on the adventures of Robbie Samberg, a young American studying abroad who comes of age, finds love, and uncovers an alarming state secret amid the turmoil of that tumultuous year.

As the story unfolds, the reader enjoys a bird's-eye view of the movements that rocked the period – anti-war, civil rights, women's liberation, and the anti-Semitism and racism that stained and still stain France and America.

Hearts on Fire is told chronologically, blending Pearl's imagination and life experiences.

BOOKWORMS: Bill Pearl (centre) is pictured with students of FPT University in HCM City. Photo courtesy of FPT University

Travelling to many places and meeting many people from the US, France, Việt Nam and around the world, he learned that 1968 was a tumultuous time during which many fabled international events occurred.

In France, there was a student revolt at Nanterre, and, he says, the consequences of May 1968 in France left more social than political impact, although there were also political upheavals.

It was a year unlike any other in America's history. It was the year when Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Riots broke out in the heart of American cities while bombings of apartment buildings and radicalisation of anti-war and civil rights movements increased. The author witnessed the mass participation of people demanding an end to the war in South Việt Nam and African Americans fighting for civil rights. The then US President did not hold all the real power, and the African Americans demanded the right to vote.

In Việt Nam that year, the US military began to get bogged down and intensified its war of escalation, bombing important cities and factories in North Việt Nam. The situation was tense, but most importantly, it was the year the US had no choice and was forced to accept to negotiate with North Việt Nam, and it was also when Paris peace talks began for the first time. At that time, no one could predict that the negotiations would last for five years and eventually, the US had to withdraw its troops from South Việt Nam.

At the time, Pearl was studying abroad in Paris. When he heard General De Gaulle's speech on the radio, he was attending demonstrations on the Champs-Élysées. He remembers walking through the crowd, holding a recorder and Kodak Brownie camera.

"The moment of inspiration was in May 1968, during a massive demonstration on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. This was the first time since the Second World War that a nation in Western Europe had been shut down completely by a strike of workers and students. Witnessing the events, I thought to myself that I would write about this one day," Pearl told Việt Nam News.

Finally, his idea was realised with the publication of Hearts on Fire, Paris 1968, in both the US and France.

SIGNATURE MOVE: Author Bill Pearl signs books for students of FPT University. Photo courtesy of FPT University

In Việt Nam, the novel has been translated and published by the Hồ Chí Minh City General Publishing House.

When it was published in the US and France, critics said Pearl's debut novel was a strong blend of history and politics, love and humour, told through the author's fluent writing style. The novel's main character Robbie Samberg lived and experienced all the significant events of 1968, and some read as a thinly veiled version of the author himself.

Hearts on Fire, Paris 1968 is a story of all genres. It is a love story, a historical novel, and a political detective drama, from which the author expects readers to draw their own feelings and inspiration.

"I wrote this novel because I love Việt Nam, a country I have had the opportunity to visit, and I would love to go back there again. A country of friendly, warm, peace-loving people. The beauty of this land always evokes the most pleasant inspiration," Pearl writes in his book.

Pearl has also travelled to HCM City and Hà Nội to talk with readers about his book.

"The people and culture of Việt Nam are beautiful and inspirational. The history of Việt Nam is a precious tale of the struggle to maintain cultural integrity and achieve political independence and unification. It is a tale for the ages and one that I hope the younger generation in Việt Nam never forgets," the author said.

Pearl has just completed the screenplay for Hearts on Fire, Paris 1968, and will soon begin work on the third book in his trilogy -- the second is called Mission in Paris, 1990 -- which will have the character of My Hạnh, a modern, almost mythical, contemporary Vietnamese woman.

"I will visit Việt Nam again to research locations for the book and, later, to present the book when it is released," Pearl said. VNS

About the authorBill Pearl is an American author who lives in Palm Beach County, Florida. During the 1970s, Pearl wrote the column Energy Sense for 800 weekly newspapers in the United States for former Federal Energy Administrators John C. Sawhill and Frank Zarb.His poetry and prose have been published in Time magazine, George Washington University's The Hatchet magazine, and Paris Voices in France.He is the author of two award-winning poetry collections, Heart Songs and China Heart.His experience of student life in Paris inspired him to write his first novel, Hearts on Fire, Paris 1968.