Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
by Ma Văn Kháng
The ten-carriage Trans-Việt Train was so crowded that all the lengthwise wooden benches were full of passengers. The narrow aisles were almost fully occupied by items of all sorts, like sacks of packets of rice and noodles, pouches of candies and toys, and so forth and so on. Worse still, small vendors sold pancakes and bread, apples and oranges; and what’s more, a blind couple tried to elbow their way across the masses of odds and ends.
“Ouch, my foot!” shouted one passenger.
“Here are hot cups of tea for you,” said a peddler.
“Hot sticky rice cakes are ready for you now,” shouted another seller.
When the train started moving out of the station, some kids got off, leaving only fruit and cake sellers at both ends of each car.
Strangely enough, in addition to railroad workers, another employee freely going to and fro here could be seen, a book seller. On his back, there was a haversack and on both sides of his chest there hung two cotton bags. All of them contained books, big and small. What’s more, he was carrying a neck-high pile of books.
“Here are several interesting books available: How to Win Friends and Influence People, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, And Quietly Flows the Don, Dr Zhivago, Five Plays by W. Shakespeare, Selected Works of Ivan Bunin. They are all much sought-after classics of great value,” said the book seller.
Then stopping in front of a group of young men, he changed their titles. “The next group of Vietnamese authors’ works are The Land of Many Human Beings and Lots of Ghosts, The Sorrow of War, The Wharf of Husbandless, The Human Realm of Ringing Bell for Doomsday, Face to Face with War, We’re Against Them, The Single Line, The Bottom of the Well, The Small Fry, A Dean Doctor. Most of them were awarded because they are very famous,” he went on.
He stooped down to re-arrange the books on his knee to let some passengers get a better view. However, nobody wanted to look at them. Therefore he stretched his body high then walked away.
Again, he raised his voice. “Below are some brand new products that readers often look for. I’m introducing them for you to enjoy. The Joong Bird Flew from A to Z, A Hawk and the Basket Maker, January’s Fog, The Tropical Monsoon, A Dull-Headed Girl.”
While stepping forward with difficulty, he tried to keep his pile of books balanced. “You can get a few of them to read here on the spot before giving them to your kith and kin at home as a keepsake,” he urged.
“The recently re-edited Chinese literature masterpiece Journey to the West and the French science-fiction work Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea have just come out for readers of a wide range of ages, old and young alike. Now they are available here,” he said.
Stopping in front of several fruit dealers on the North-South route he spoke to a well-dressed woman eating a big egg dumpling. “Elder sisters and aunties should get them for your dears at home after this trip,” he suggested.
“Sheer nonsense! Can your book make my stomach full like this cake?” she asked scornfully.
“There’s more to life than daily things. There are sacred things like ideals, dreams and romantic affairs. You know what I mean?” he said.
All of the women burst out laughing.
Suddenly, a call from the front car echoed. The book seller quickened his steps.
It turned out the caller was a middle-aged man in a white T-shirt, wearing golden-rimmed spectacles. He was raising his hand.
“A few minutes ago, you mentioned the novel A Land of Ghosts. What is it?” asked the stranger.
“It’s a best-selling novel by Nguyễn Khắc Trường, the 10th edition. I’m told that it’s been translated into French and English,” he replied. “Well, here’s one of its copies, in hard cover for well-off readers like you. Get it. Rather cheap, only fifty-nine thousand dong!”
“Hmm, let me see. How much can you earn a day on the train?”
“That depends upon what type of buyers I find and what kind of publications I sell.”
“Well, what do you mean by best-seller, my good boy?”
“It’s the most popular kind, you see.”
“Hmm, there are no pictures in it! So, how could I read it?”
“Oh dear! It’s not an illustrated work for kids, it’s a hundred-page novel for serious adults to read.”
“What cheek! You’re going to teach me something about reading, are you?”
“Oh no no! I’ve only explained it to you.”
“Go away at once!” said the man angrily.
The poor book seller smiled then left for another carriage.
All of a sudden, the train jerked to a halt. He nearly fell over. A thick book fell down onto the head of a passenger nearby.
“Oh, my goodness! What are you doing?” asked someone with a bushy beard.
“Oh dear! I’m awfully sorry,” said the offender.
“What a weird job!” he complained.
“My job comes from my parents’ choice, sir. It’s thanks to their love for books,” he smiled broadly. “Anyway, I have a few interesting works you may like.”
“By chance, have you got the book called Miss Governess Thảo?
“What kind of book is it?”
“Well, it’s about the love affair between a woman teacher and her young student!”
“Unfortunately it’s not available now. Why do you want to read such a notorious work? It might corrupt your mind.”
“What about some others? Something thrilling, as long as it’s thin and easy to understand, say, just a few dozen pages. Otherwise, I’d rather watch porn!”
Hardly had the seller answered before he heard a deafening siren. Then a tall and strong-built railway-policeman turned up in the next carriage with a whistle hanging on his chest. A few minutes later, he stopped in front of the boy. At the sight of a badge saying Provincial Culture Service on the seller’s uniform, he picked up a book from his pile without a word of thanks, before walking away.
“Hey, my book! What are you doing?”
“What’s the matter with you, mate?”
“You didn’t pay for the book. It costs one hundred and five dong. It’s written by author Phạm Quang Đẩu about the great exploits of a policeman and won first prize in a book fair.”
“It deals with the achievements of my service. Why can’t I take it?”
“It’s not a free copy.”
“Do you know that keeping books unpaid is a civilised behaviour?”
“You don’t seem to understand me. Taking a book from its seller without paying is illegal, especially for a man in power like you.”
* * *
The book seller in our story is Thư. His elder sister is Thi. Coming from well-educated stock and being good at maths, Thư was an excellent pupil at all levels from primary to secondary then tertiary. Selling books as a temporary career, he finds it fairly interesting. He remembers a rhyme written by the famous poet Tú Mỡ in the 1930s as follows: I’m only a newsboy. I always go here and there like a birdie, offering readers literary works such as magazine, review and novel, short story book and so on and so forth. As a trivial minor without anything to be proud of; yet, who can say that selling literary works is a humble job?
* * *
A long siren showed the train was going to pull into Vinh Station. Lunch was ready for passengers. Thư moved to another car. Luckily for him, he was able to sell a lot of products: Selected Anthology of Vietnamese Poems, Completed Works of Vietnamese Short Stories, Nam Cao’s Completed Works, And Quietly Flows the Don (in three volumes), Five Plays of Shakespeare, Bunin’s Selected Works, Dr Zhivago (two copies).
Surprisingly, all the buyers expressed gratitude towards Thư. On the next car, he met a group of students belonging to the Arts Faculty of Vinh University on holiday. They purchased well-known English novels, which were unavailable anywhere in the city bookshops. In their opinions, these works could tell them clearly past events. “We have enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the stylistic gardens with various flowers in bloom,” they told Thư.
In the dining car, Thư met a female neighbour at home named Ngọc, who had been three years junior to him at school.
After graduating from High School, Thư joined the army. His unit was garrisoned in the northernmost province of Lào Cai for three years. When he was demobbed and returned to his native village he found Ngọc a 9th-Grade girl at the age of seventeen.
They soon fell in love. Several farming plots of land were confiscated for public paths and only some ditch sections were left for his family. Thư’s father could not do farming work due to his old age. Thư applied for a job at several provincial services but was refused simply because he only got a GCE diploma. One of his cousins at the local Section of Culture Service suggested he start career as a newsboy with a permit to sell publications on a Trans-Việt Train.
His income was rather poor and only enough for his existence along the railroad together with a few thousand dong for his family in the country. In compensation for that small amount, Thư had a lot of opportunities to improve his cultural knowledge. Thanks to those rare free moments on the move and his teachers’ training in literature, foreign and domestic alike, his mind was enriched day after day. Moreover, this job was merely the first step on his road to success and achievement.
“With a simple record of a CGE diploma in honours and of a good fighter during my military service, now at the age of 21, I might go on to a college or university course in the near future,” Thư whispered to himself.
* * *
“My interesting publications are available here to serve you during your itinerary,” Thư recommended. “’While undergoing old age, our dears leave us gradually, one after another; only books would stay with us for good.’ That’s the message sent to us by the well-known poet Tế Hanh. Furthermore, one sage also says, ‘The universe is an unfathomable book.’ Whereas another wise man remarks, ‘Human beings may live better in two ways: one is to contact honest folks; the other is to have good books’,” added Thư.
Poor Thư, as an honest and trustworthy young man, his suggestion was lost in an awful din caused by passengers.
In the dining car, he saw Ngọc, pale and weary, surrounded by a gang of loud-mouthed ruffians. She only joined the circle of railwaymen for a few years while her father fell ill. She had to give up school to help her mother do housework. Working on a moving train was quite a hard job for her. She worked for an entire week at a time, without a day off. She had to get up at four in the morning to fire the furnace, get fish, meat and vegetables from markets, cook food and serve meals for passengers and for her co-workers before tidying the room.
“Hi, Thư! Just a minute,” she said when she saw him.
“Take your time. I can wait for you, honey.”
Various dishes were served for everybody aboard from a large tray of food.
“Don’t worry. I’ve just bribed the train policeman,” said one female smuggler. “This stern-faced guy in charge of anti-smuggling on trains is quite a familiar face to me,” she added.
“How can you say such bad things?” asked a man in a white T-shirt.
“Shut up! You’re just a hired assistant for an unlawful medicine gang, how dare you deal with things beyond your field?”
All of a sudden, a youth in sunglasses whispered something to a drug trafficking woman.
“No fear! If I were a high-ranking official of the Government I would permit brothels to be built in a special area. In advanced countries, prostitution is a lawful trade,” he insisted.
“Hey, little Ngọc! Why don’t you waitresses serve passengers crab soup? It might sell well, I think,” he went on.
“We’ve thought a lot about your request, sir.”
To everybody’s surprise, a mango dealer suddenly put her empty dish on the table, took a few banknotes out of her pocket while chewing food, and said, “Your food costs 25,000 dong per serving, while in fact, it’s worth only 15,000 because of its poor quality, just worthy for dogs.”
“Impossible, ma’am!” the man in the white T-shirt objected.
“Mind your own business! Don’t you see that I’m talking to the railwayman?” she scolded him for his insolence.
“If you want a delicious meal, have it at home. The price here is fixed by the railway authorities. Am I right, my pretty waitress?”
Without a word, Ngọc tried to dodge his coarse hand lunging at her breast.
“Damn you nasty guy! You’re going to flirt with her, aren’t you? As for the food, I’ve just given her 50,000 dong, including the tip, of course. I’m not a stingy woman, you see,” said the mango dealer.
Ngọc hurriedly took the basket of rice away. Her ears were buzzing.
The train’s whistle resounded loudly.
“My dear Ngọc, Phú Trạch Station is ahead of us,” said her boos.
“Yes, I see.”
“Beef is very cheap by the railroad side, only 90,000 dong per kilo,” she reminded Ngọc.
At her suggestion, Ngọc and another young woman were ready to get off.
At the next station of Thuận Lý, the three of them stepped down to get duck eggs. Then at Đà Nẵng, Ngọc got some mackerel. To the next ones in Tuy Hoà and Nha Trang, she bought a few kilos of sugar, packets of instant coffee and lots of fruit.
“Earning a living is quite a problem for me indeed,” she whispered to herself.
Finding Ngọc coming back, eyes filled with tears, with a heavy sack full of things from Nha Trang Station before putting it on the floor, Thư handed her a handkerchief.
“Ngọc, what’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing major, darling,” she mumbled, shaking her head.
“Tell me the truth, my dear. What is it?”
“Oh no! Nothing at all.”
“An ill-bred gang of swindlers? Well, let me solve the matter at once.”
“What’s the use of it? Anyhow, it’s no serious problem at all, darling!”
Thư looked embarrassed. From the bottom of his heart, he knew she tried to conceal the truth for fear that he might be sad and worried.
In fact, the railway chief attendant let Thư know that the two guys in white were none other than the false medicine smugglers who had previously planned to make indecent assaults against her. Whenever the train stopped for a long time at a major station for technical checks, they intended to entice her into a guesthouse for sex for a large amount of money.
When the train pulled into Nha Trang Station, they resorted to force to put their scheme into practice. However, thanks to her strong resistance and smart mind, she escaped danger safe and sound.
* * *
When the train started moving again, the courting couple stood at the front of the car. Opening her eyes wide, she looked at him passionately.
“Today, how many books have you sold?” she asked.
“A lot, dear. They sold like hotcakes,” he nodded his reply then hugged her tightly. Her eyes shone with happiness.
“Remember that there’s nothing to be afraid of now, darling! Always keep your mind at ease then you’ll get enough strength to cope with any problems. Be brave and you’ll face the music.”
“Yes, I see, I see! Never leave me, my dear Thư.”
Their voices sank amid the noise of the moving train on which people from all walks of life could be found every day around us. VNS
Translated by Văn Minh