Sunday, June 26 2022

VietNamNews

We went our separate ways

Update: June, 19/2022 - 09:38

 

Illustration by Đỗ Dũng

By Hồ Anh Thái

Very rarely does a writer retell a story he or she has written. It is because the best part or quintessence of the story, its language and style, can’t be fully recaptured. To retell a story is to ruin it.

Nevertheless, to help readers understand the real story that I will later recount here, I still need to recount the plot of a short story titled Cuộc săn đuổi (The Chase) that I once wrote.

That story was set in the early 1970s. One summer, a 15-year-old boy from Hà Nội took a trip to the capital city of a small province. There, he befriended a precocious boy around his age, named Biên.

Biên was the son of a tailor. At 16, Biên already knew how to take good care of his looks. Setting his heart on his new friend’s long-tail shirt, which was all the rage at the time, Biên stayed up all night to make himself an exact copy of it. The following day, Biên donned his new long-tail shirt and a pair of tight pants and asked his friend to loiter around the house of a girl from class with him. What a beautiful girl. The young chaps would walk back and forth wishing the fair one would just once throw a glance at them. Buoyed by such adolescent passion, they continued to wander the serene provincial streets.

Unfortunately, that day the serenity didn’t last long. Local authorities launched a surprise hunt for all the lads deemed unruly because they dared to wear ridiculous outfits that imitated the depraved Western capitalists. Long-tail shirts, tight pants, a duck’s ass hairstyle: whoever flaunted them would be arrested, each and every one.

What was duck’s ass hairstyle? It was a hairdo made popular among the Vietnamese boys by the fashionable European-American musical bands of the time. The hair was kept long and at the nape, greased and combed upwards, creating a ducktail shape that gave rise to the disparaging nickname.

While they were still daydreaming about their beautiful classmate, our two boys suddenly found themselves fleeing from a chase. They were swept along by a bunch of lads pushing, plunging headlong on the streets. The lads scattered in small groups, darting here and there, helter-skelter. Our two boys jumped into a war martyr’s monument to hide, were discovered and fled by climbing into the municipal water tower nearby.

From there, where the revolutionary soldiers once hoisted the Việt Minh flag during the war against the French, Biên played the role of a tour guide, introducing his new friend to his home city. From where they stood, the whole town, from north to south and east to west, seemed to fall within their purview.

They were traced and fled again, this time to the ruins of a house yet to be rebuilt after being destroyed in an American bombing. The boys hid there but eventually got caught, because of a minor mistake. They were taken to a local administrative headquarters. There, dozens of other young men had been arrested and gathered and were being disciplined by paramilitary and police cadres. All duck’s ass heads were shorn to the nape, which of course ruined the style, leaving their owners no choice but to visit a hairdresser’s later to shave off the rest. As for the tight pants, they were slit from hem to knee, also with just a few strokes of scissors. Some violators were even cut on the leg, accidentally.

Haggard and in rags and tatters, our two boys didn’t dare to go home, especially because the road home passed the fair one’s house. The city lights had turned on and even seemed brighter than usual that night. The young chaps took a detour through the back streets, past the pitch dark blocks of houses that had been bombed to pieces. They missed a step and fell into a bomb crater. They decided to lie there, to contemplate the flamboyant flowers which were dying as the end of the summer drew near.

Up until here, my story remained faithful to reality. The ending, however, was imbued with imagination:

“After my short holiday at the end of that summer, I returned to Hà Nội and started a new school year. Years later, I went abroad to study, graduated from college, continued to pursue my doctoral degree, got married and gave birth to a boy.

Biên didn’t achieve any of this. He graduated from high school but couldn’t go further, partly because of his father’s family background, partly because his character wasn’t seen in a favourable light by the neighbourhood watch. Not until recently when I visited my uncle did I meet him again. Biên told me he had tried to cross the sea twice, but failed. In the first attempt, his boat was caught in a storm and hurled back to the coast still within Việt Nam’s territories.

Wearing a worker’s uniform, he slipped away among a group of miners who were going to their early shift. In the second attempt, his boat sunk again. Biên managed to clutch onto a piece of broken board, bobbing up and down at sea for a whole day before a marine ship came to the rescue. In this and several other schemes, he was arrested and sent to re-education camps. Out of prison, he eked out a living by doing odd, temporary jobs. Whatever assets he possessed had been wasted on these futile sea crossings.

I listened to the story of Biên’s life in silence. Not until some girl giggled and called out to her friend did I startle and look up. No, I didn’t know any woman there, not so young anyway. I was startled because the giggling sent me back to another time and place. 'Me? I ain’t waiting for nobody,' the beautiful one who studied in the same class with Biên once told us while giggling during that summer vacation over a decade before. 

But Biên was unmoved. He didn’t startle, turn around, look out, or show even just a feeble spark in his eyes. His face remained perfectly immobile, betraying no trace of sudden remembrance. Only at that moment did I really believe that Biên had lost a great deal in the long, breathless flight of his life.”

 

*

*     *

It should be clear by now that Biên is a real person. In my story, I only changed his name slightly. In real life, we were out of touch for exactly 40 years. I thought we would never see each other again. When my story was published, I thought Biên would never be able to read it. How could he? There was no way for him to know that I had become a writer and written about us. I had imagined the ending when he and I reunited, but even that was not completely untrue. By chance, I had indeed learned about Biên’s failed sea crossings and imprisonment.

The year was about 1983. As I took the Reunification express train from Hà Nội to Sài Gòn, I sat beside a man who used to work as a textile worker. After his factory closed, he decided to go south to explore business opportunities. As we chatted, I found out he had lived in the same street as Biên. Biên is a wanderer, the ex-worker said. He tried to leave the country twice, failed, got arrested, and has set to travelling widely to make money ever since.

Ten years after Việt Nam was reunified, many people chose to migrate overseas. As I was listening to the ex-worker, I felt confident that Biên would try to leave again. If he stayed, he would have a hard time making a living here with his family background. Our paths would never cross, I thought.

In 1988, I sat down to write a short story about Biên and title it The Chase. And it was not until 1995 that was it first published in a newspaper. Again, I had imagined our reunion. When the story was printed, I breathed a sigh of relief as if a burden had been lifted off my chest. Biên’s memories had weighed on me. Though we would never see each other again, my heart felt lighter, and for once, was able to lay down the past.

In 2015, before a long work trip abroad, I returned to that provincial city again. At night, I took a stroll past the war martyr monument and the hunted square of old. Past two bookstores situated right on a major street which we used to love. It didn’t occur to me to knock at Biên’s door. I took it for granted that my old buddy, after two abortive sea crossings, must have fought his way elsewhere. Yet that night, I sought out another friend, which took me a while because he had moved to another street. We met and talked. My friend said: "Biên is still here."

A phone call. Half an hour later, he arrived. We almost didn’t recognise each other. Four decades had passed. I had first met Biên when I was 15 and now I was 55. Biên remembered me as a youth with fair skin and curly hair, neither of which he could find. I remembered Biên as precocious, well-groomed, and elegant but he too had changed. His skin had also darkened, exuding the typical air of a busy, middle-sized entrepreneur. Yet his broad dazzling smile remained the same.

Straight from the horse’s mouth, Biên recounted to me how he had tried to flee, failed, and plunged into business. He traded truckloads of merchandise from north to south. When he first opened a company, he was cheated by his partner and lost everything. He had to take to the road again, driving his own truck from south to north. One more time, he started from scratch. Now, he owned one factory in Thái Bình Province, one in Hà Nam Province, and even one as further south as Nha Trang City. His products had been exported to the US and some other markets. His mind still recalled those hard-working years when he hugged the road, day in and day out, night after night. Once in 1988, Biên stopped his truck before a bookstore in Nghệ An Province and bought my novel Người và xe chạy dưới ánh trăng (Men and Vehicle Running under the Moonlight*. Only then did he learn that his old friend had become a writer. As night fell, Biên half reclined on the driver’s seat and opened my book to read. A few years after, he bought another book by me, a short story collection that included The Chase. He took it home and gave it to his child, saying, “Read it. My friend is writing about me.”

Forty years later, we simply couldn’t talk our hearts out in just one conversation. Biên made a plan for us to meet again in Hải Phòng. I travelled from Hà Nội. Biên drove from another factory he owned in Nam Định City. We met in Hải Phòng, and then Biên drove me to Hạ Long to visit some relatives. He’s an old friend and we hadn't met for 40 years straight, yet Biên would introduce me around.

At dusk, we returned to Hải Phòng and went for a walk on the streets. We walked past the square in front of the municipal Opera House. We walked past several floral shops with curved, tiled roofs which were characteristic of the port city, and reminded me that back in Hà Nội, there used to be similar floral shops around Sword Lake but for some reason, they had been torn down. We took a stroll around Tam Bạc Lake and stopped there for a while. Across the street from the lake stood a tall building with yellow walls. The building had a narrow arched gate and a hexagonal guard booth up front: a distinctive French colonial architecture style.

We kept standing by the lake to talk. Then I looked across the street at the yellow building and asked, what is that for? Biên said, it’s Trần Phú Prison. I guessed to the people in Hải Phòng, mentioning the name of Trần Phú Prison conjured up the same historical menace as the one associated with Hỏa Lò Prison in Hà Nội. Biên described to me some particular trees and cells inside the building. I listened but didn’t understand their significance right away. Then, all of a sudden, I wondered: What? How in the world does he know the trees and cells inside that prison so well?

How careless I am, I realised instantly. Biên intended to show me that prison. He had been caught and taken there. He had shared the same cell with some renowned singers who had also failed to cross the sea. After I told him that I had learned about his sea crossings from his old neighbour, Biên wanted to take me there to tell me the story of his life. Directly.

Biên made another plan for us to meet again in Nam Định and Nha Trang. In Nam Định, we drank beer by Vỵ Xuyên Lake. It was the end of fall and cold winds blew over from the lake. The beer we were drinking also felt cold. I had carelessly forgotten to bring my coat and only had a shirt on, while Biên and painters Kim Duẩn and Đặng Hồng Quân were all wearing their coats. The other guys teased me for trying to play young. Biên stood up, ran to his car, and returned with a jacket and felt hat. He put the jacket over my shoulders and the hat over my head. It’s alright now, he said.

Later, Biên told me to take his Bordeaux-coloured hat home to Hà Nội as a souvenir. It was the last time we met. During the most severe phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biên passed away. He died of nasopharynx cancer.

Again, we parted. Biên and I were like two cyclists who had ridden through every corner of the earth, passed each other once every 40 years, and quickly went our separate paths.

 

* Người và xe chạy dưới ánh trăng was Hồ Anh Thái’s third novel about a generation who grew up during the American War. The book was first published in 1987.  

Translated by Đỗ Linh 

 

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