Illustrations by Kiều Trinh
By Hồ Anh Thái
I was five and a half years old then when, sitting in my room, I heard the warplanes overhead. The noise they made seemed different this time, not as deafening and horrible as the other times I'd heard them. Then came the explosions: a distant crackling, not very loud, just like the crackle you hear from a boiling pot of rice. The ground trembled a little. An hour later I heard some of my neighbours shouting to each other, the excitement in their voices running down the street like an electrical current. The bombs had fallen on the quarter near the river and left many dead.
It was April of 1966. The river quarter the Americans bombed had been completely unprepared for an attack and was devastated. Dozens had been killed and more than a hundred injured. People living in the streets nearby were in a panic; many families hurriedly packed and fled the city.
The bombardment occurred in the morning. That afternoon I went to the small garden behind my house where stood an old Sapindale tree. Sometime before bees had swarmed in from nowhere and built their hive in its branches. They buzzed around over our heads, scaring us kids whenever we went into the garden, and stinging several adults. Finally one night a man who lived in our building decided to smoke out the hive and drive the bees away. Wearing a raincoat and draping a shirt over his head so that only his eyes could be seen, he wrapped an oil-soaked rag around one end of a bamboo pole and set the cloth on fire, then thrust the burning rag up close to the beehive. I pressed my face against the narrow slit between our door and the doorway and peered excitedly through the darkness as that masked man waved the bamboo pole and let the scorching flames and heated smoke chase away the bees.
So now the bees had abandoned the hive and the light green leaves of the Sapindale tree fluttered quietly. One corner of the garden held a roofless, abandoned pig shed, surrounded by a low wall, its cracked plaster surface exposing dark red bricks underneath. I was approaching it when suddenly I saw a yellow bird, trembling in fright and hopping up and down on the wall, like a lame man, unable to fly. Its uneven legs looked like a dot and a comma.
I quickly grabbed the bird, though I didn't have to be that fast to catch it. It was too weak to fly away. Before then, I only had seen birds in flight or perched on the trees in the street. But I had never seen a bird as beautiful as this. It was covered with a layer of lemon-yellow feathers, white under its wings, and a light green near its tail feathers.
I carried the scared, exhausted bird into my house. As everyone gathered around it, they all agreed it was an ornamental bird, a canary. The thought sprang immediately to my mind that it belonged to someone who lived near the river and whose house had been hit by a bomb; the canary must have struggled out of its cage and managed to fly here. That flight and the panic it must have felt had so exhausted it that it could not fly any longer, only hop about on its lame foot.
I had no cage, so I just twisted some string together into a thin cord and tied it around its leg, holding the other end in my hand. I gave the canary a little water and fed it a few grains of rice, and then took it for a little walk around the mattress on my bed. It gradually became more alert.
That night, I caged it in an up-side-down bamboo sieve weighed down with a brick on top.
In the morning, I took the canary out of the sieve and took it for another walk around my mattress. It was chirping away cheerfully when suddenly a cat leapt onto the bed and tried to snatch the bird away. I yanked the cord back quickly, yelling for my mother as I ran frantically around the bed. The cat leapt again, clawing at the bird in a lightening swift sweep, like the professional assassin he was. I cried out and jerked the string back again, but the cat was unbelievably quick and in an instant, the bird had disappeared into its mouth. I pulled back the cord. Nothing. Just sudden, terrible weightlessness in my hand.
There were no grown-ups at home to chase the cat away, and after it had finished with the canary, it jumped down to the floor and just sat there on its hind legs, staring up at me. My heart was still beating loudly and I was filled with fright and grief. As for the cat, it had shaken off its predatory intentness and was staring at me sadly, like a sinner suddenly ashamed of his now satiated gluttony. It had always worn that sad expression. But now I had come to know that hiding under its sorrow was a terribly cruel power that would surface again if I had another bird.
Truth be told, I had always been afraid of cats. Two of them, belonging to our landlord, lived in the alley next to our building; this cat was one of them. They didn't look like the other cats on our same street. The one that had devoured the canary was black and white, the other yellow and white. Both of them were as big as dogs and terrified small children as they ran here and there.
I cried for the canary for several days and for a long time after was haunted by the memory of that vicious swipe that had snatched the bird away from me, a blow that had seemed aimed at my own legs. And remembered how after the slaughter, all that had remained on the bed were two feathers, one golden and one white. And only a string in my hand.
I had already hated cats. And from that time on I hated them more. In their quiet and gentle sadness, I saw a mad power which might erupt at any time. It never crossed my mind to keep a cat or a dog in my home, though I have a nephew who loves his pets so much that even as an adult he still sleeps with them.
Sometime later, along with all the other children of Hà Nội, I was evacuated from the city. By the time I returned, a few years went by, and those two cats had vanished. Their reign of terror over us children was over. During that time, as the American warplanes shrieked over the city, and the streets were emptied of children, the two cats went feral and — since in those days no one ate cat meat and no one stole cats — simply disappeared.
The Lady Book Sellers
The first book I read when I was of primary school age was Vanity Fair by W. M. Thackeray.
I was eight years old and had been evacuated with my siblings to a small village. The American warplanes were targeting the cities with their bombs in those days, and many city dwellers had to be relocated to areas far away from the urban centres. At such times, people only took with them whatever they were able to snatch up at the last moment. In my father’s case, he grabbed some books. But he could not read them and so sent them along with my mother and us children. My father was a journalist; he’d had to be evacuated with his entire editorial board and then had to travel long distances in order to do his assignments. The books he took with him became my first books.
I read all of them, without exception. They were nice, thick books and they spoiled me for picture books and thin volumes. Those thin books that took so little time to get through were all just nonsense! Only nice thick books could satisfy the young bookworm. As soon as I opened my eyes in the morning, I began to read. When I came home from school, I immediately tossed my briefcase on the table and commenced to read. Before the meals, I read. After the meals, I read. Immediately. I would arrange myself into a dark corner. And read. My father complained that I was not going about it in any scientific way, that I would harm my eyes and my body. I didn’t listen to him. One night, when I had just gone to bed, he woke me up and ordered me to bring all my books to the front yard. He threatened to burn them all. All that saved them were my mother and my sister, asking him to forgive me.
After finishing primary school, I began to build up my own book collection. Just as I had finished all the books my father sent to the refuge village, the American planes temporarily ceased the bombardment in the North. After I returned to the city, I devoured all of my father’s books. They consisted of European and American literature, plus Russian and Soviet books. Then I discovered bookstores. But I was only able to browse. It was wartime and there was a lack of both paper and printing shops; only one copy of each of the good books could be displayed on the bookshelves and only four or five copies were available for sale. Only a few intellectuals were permitted to buy books for their research. It was the time of centralised subsidies and one had to have coupons to buy monthly food supplies. It was the same with books; a special coupon was needed. My only option was to hang out in the bookstore and admire the books in the distance. Gradually, Madam Book Seller got to know my face. Although I had saved up for days, I could only buy children’s books, each just over 100 pages. Worse, the price of one book was two hào, two xu. Woe! I had only two hào in my pocket. Even to save that amount I’d had to skip four breakfasts. In those days, one would always hear the chant: Buy Ice cream! Buy ice cream! One hào for two ice creams! Five xu for one! (10 xu equalled one hào, and 10 hào equalled one Vietnamese đồng). Children from better-off families would spend one hào or more for breakfast. As for me, my parents would only give me five xu for breakfast. It was just enough to buy a small handful of sticky rice or a roasted cake. But even so, I had fasted every morning, my mindset on bringing home a book I could possess forever.
The bookkeeper, Mrs Ngan had seen me standing hesitatingly.
“How much do you have?”
I showed her the note: “Well, I have only two hào.”
“Give it to me, and the book is yours.”
I would long remember her soft voice and her gentle appearance. “Give it to me, and the book is yours.”
From that time on, I was Mrs Ngan’s favourite. I was able to buy a book even if I was short two or three xu. She was not aware that I had deprived myself of food every morning until I was so desiccated-looking that my parents had begun to elicit my teacher’s help in getting me to eat right. Simply, she was a kind woman. “Give it to me, and the book is yours.”
In 1972, the American warplanes returned to once more begin bombing the Northern cities. My family had to be evacuated again. We had to cross a small river to reach a village where we lived with a peasant family in which all the women were weavers. I couldn’t take my books with me and worried that if my house was bombed, not only it would be destroyed, but along with it, all my books.
One day, my sister, who had to work in a factory in the city, came out for a visit. I had sent her a request to try to find Sans Famille (Without Family or Nobody’s Boy) (Sans Famille) part two, by the French writer Hector Malot. The novel was divided into three parts and I had had only volume one.
“Without Family, part two has not yet been distributed in the city,” my sister said as she saw me.
My face immediately fell.
My sister added: “Just past the river, on the pier, I saw a small bookstore. There were only a few thin books there, but I didn’t buy any because I didn’t know if you’d like them”.
Hearing about the bookstore, I brightened up. I dashed out of the house and walked about five kilometres in the sun. The road ran between fields, so there was no cover. Such a place was very dangerous. The American planes could scream in at any time and we wouldn’t have enough time to find a shelter or a safe place. Even so, I dared it. I boarded a wooden skiff and crossed the river. It was also a dangerous move. On the river, the boat, which was thin as a leaf, could also be easily spotted by the warplanes.
After crossing the river, I quickly found the bookstore, which was located on the peak of the slope that went down to the pier. I perused the shelves for a long time before temporally satisfying myself with a thin book.
I hastily returned to the boat. On the way, I passed by a group of workers, taking a break from working road repair. Seeing the book in my hand, one young man waved and said: “Let me take a look at your book”.
I turned around and stretched out my arm to give the book to him. The girls, his co-workers, gathered about, opening the book and glancing at it. One girl burst into laughter, caught by one line: “The little boy peaked into tears.” Ooh la la, the writer used the word “peaked". Not burst into tears but peaked into tears. In that story, The Nightingale, the mountain boy’s cry had been linked to a verb that made it seem strange and mountainous.
The next day, the owner of the house we were staying in came home after visiting the village. She told us about a young couple and their child who came from the city and were staying at the edge of the village. Early that morning, the husband and the owner’s family had awakened to discover that the wife had hung herself. The villagers swarmed in like red and black ants. The husband held up to the villagers a packet of letters and said these were his wife’s letters to a man. He read a line from one letter: “Those short moments I was able to spend with you are equal to a whole life living with my husband...”
As a child, I immediately put those kinds of stories out of my mind.
Time passed, and one day my aunt visited us. As she was telling us stories about wartime conditions, she suddenly said to my mother: “I’m so sorry that Ngân died."
“Ngân the bookseller. Didn’t you know that she died in this village?”
It turned out that the woman who had hung herself was Mrs Ngân, my bookseller.
It has been nearly 40 years from that day, but I still sometimes think about Mrs Ngân. She is standing always behind the counter, with her gentle mien and her wonderfully soft voice.
Making the acquaintance of bookseller was an important part of my childhood. And actually, I was liked by many booksellers.
One was Mrs Va. She asked me who my father was, and then exclaimed excitedly when I said his name. My father, the journalist, was well-known in literary circles and she had met him several times. Va asked what kind of books I liked to read. Since reading was my most passionate activity, the arsenal of books in my head made her surprised. So small and you are reading those adult books? Doesn’t your father forbid you to read them? No, I said, my parents have never forbidden me to read a novel. Va seemed to like this very much, and she invited me to visit her bookstore.
It didn’t take me long to find it. It was truly as if a mouse had found itself in a jar of rice. Newly published books were brought to the bookstores once a week by rickshaw. Only Mrs Book Seller and Mr Rickshaw Driver hauled the books from the rickshaw into the bookstore. I eagerly joined them, just as I had eagerly helped carry loads of books for the other booksellers in other bookstores. Then I was, of course, permitted to cut the binding string and open the bundles of books. I was privileged as the first man to see the book cover, smell the new paper and printing ink and open the books one by one. Moreover, Va did a favour by selling me valuable books. By a lucky chance, I could buy books just like a special ration cardholder.
Eventually, Va invited me to her home. She was of Chinese origin; her parents had come to Viet Nam a long time ago and had given birth to her in Viet Nam. Her husband was also of Chinese origin. In speaking, they sometimes turned to each other and expressed something in Chinese. They spoke Vietnamese fluently but their pronunciation crackled, the way Chinese tended to do. Their daughter made black bean pudding and she asked me to eat with the family. Everyone at the table engaged in a lively conversation about the books they had just read. It was like being in a seminar, and the exchange of views sometimes became tense. Once their daughter made a weak argument and was scolded for it. She sulked and retreated to her room. Not all book discussions end happily.
Years later, rumours about the persecution of ethnic Chinese in Viet Nam were being instigated by the Chinese government. It led to tensions along the Sino – Vietnamese border, and fear spread that if people of Chinese origin didn’t return to “the land of the mother,” they would be punished by the fatherland. Many people packed up and left Viet Nam, people who had settled here over half a century, and some who were even born here. In 1978, my sister met Va by chance, the day before she left. She hugged my sister and, in tears, said: “I don’t want to leave; I don’t want to. I was born in this country. It is my home. Where else can I live?”
Nevertheless, her entire family chose to leave.
For quite a while, I received no information about her. Then one day one of my friends said:
“Mrs Va moved to 'the land of the mother', she was on the radio, on Voice of Peking, talking about her misery and persecution in Viet Nam.”
I didn’t believe him.
“I heard her myself on Peking Radio,” my friend said.
In February 1979, a border war broke out. Chinese troops crossed the border and penetrated deeply into Vietnamese territory, for more than a month, before they were driven back. The disturbances and harassments on the border dragged on for some years before the relationship between the two countries normalised.
Mrs. Va, my aunt, where have you been? After being interviewed on the radio, was your family able to live in peace?
And as for my book sellers, I never met them again, not a single one.
Translated from Vietnamese by Hồ Anh Thái and Wayne Karlin