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Bảo Ninh (author), Quan Manh Ha and Cab Tran (translators and editors), Hà Nội at Midnight: Stories, with a foreword by Nguyễn Văn Thuấn, Texas Tech University Press, 2023. 184 pgs.
Bảo Ninh’s short-story collection, Hà Nội at Midnight, provides glimpses into the complicated and pervasive reverberations of the American War in Vietnam, and how they distort one’s sense of self and transform human relationships. Ninh’s stories are grounded in history and depict genuine accounts of loss and trauma. This honesty presents a paradigm shift within the narrative and sentiments surrounding the war after a long history of literary censorship and propaganda. The stories in the collection had all been published individually in Vietnamese. Translators Quan Manh Ha and Cab Tran gathered and translated them into English, making Ninh’s short fiction accessible to a wider audience for the first time. The collection of twelve stories range from narratives on the frontlines of the war to stories of intimate family life to peaceful scenes in pre-war Hà Nội.
Although the collection’s stories are fictional, their devastating emotional details are informed by Ninh’s personal history. Ninh served in the Glorious 27 Youth Brigade and is one of just ten of his 500 comrades to survive. His intimate connection to the war, which began only a few years after he was born in 1955, is palpable as he narrates not only highly technical but also excruciating details of how the war affected the psyches of soldiers, families, and civilians over the nearly two decades that the war endured. Through these stories, we gain access to the emotions of conflicted veterans and soldiers, a devastated mother, a haunted widower, a traumatised singer; those who left and those who were left behind, and the relationships, reunions, and sorrows that unfold around the war. Ninh maintains an impressively meticulous record of dates, exact locations of battlefields, troop movements, weaponry, and military terminology in his stories. Although these details, lists, and facts sometimes derail the flow of the stories, they nevertheless demonstrate Ninh’s deep knowledge of and relationship to the war.
The nearly-twenty-year-long war divided Vietnam between North and South, pitting families and friends against one another. Ninh’s stories emphasise the similarities and overlapping experiences of the soldiers in the opposing North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and civilians alike. For example, Tết (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is remembered from various perspectives in multiple stories as a symbol of harmony and a moment of respite from suffering. In “Letters from the Year of the Water Buffalo”, opponents that have bombed each other in the days prior lower their weapons and put their political differences aside to sing, eat, drink, honour their shared heritage and celebrate the holiday as one. Harmonious moments like these are starkly contrasted by the violence that follows and speak to the inner conflict people faced when fighting against their own people within their own country.
The North and the South each fighting a war on their homeland meant the trauma of environmental destruction was felt communally. In the 1960s, the U.S. military used chemical warfare to destroy forests and crops with herbicides. In “Farewell to a Soldier’s Life”, a veteran remembers the poisoning of his land through American troops’ use of Agent Orange with even more horror than the violent death of his comrades, families and friends. Cities became wastelands, and the land became “hellish and apocalyptic, the hillsides spotted with corpses and the accompanying shadows of laborers digging holes” (39). By exposing the communal history and shared experiences of the NVA, the ARVN, and civilians, the author speaks to the monumentality of the war, as a marker in history that left no one unaffected. The way Ninh highlights the magnitude of loss in Vietnam distinguishes his writing from literature published in the United States, where Vietnamese people are often invisible, and the war is remembered as an American tragedy. The addition of Hà Nội at Midnight to the Vietnam War corpus of literature in the States helps fascilitate the uncovering of a history that has been substantially one-sided, Americentrised, and propagandised.
In the decades following the war, American literature built a legacy of misrepresentation, retelling racist tropes and elevating the American invasion to heroism. In Vietnam, censorship prevented writers from publishing narratives of the war that did not fit a patriotic and romanticised motif. Ninh’s first novel, The Sorrow of War, was banned in Vietnam until 2006, fifteen years after it was published, for its forthright and harrowing depictions of the war. After decades of racist propaganda in the States and literary censorship in Vietnam, Hà Nội at Midnight is a part of a new force of Vietnamese writers bringing candid portraits of the war and its aftermath into the spotlight. The strength in Ninh’s writing is in his subtle transparency. Depictions of scenes that are not heroic in their nature, but rather filled with mundanity, loneliness, longing, stillness, and confusion allude to the unseen and overpowered subplots within the traumatic losses of the war. This candour is what makes Hà Nội at Midnight worth reading. By holding a microscope up to these forgotten characters, Ninh helps readers understand the scope of the war and the depth of its impact.
In “Beloved Son”, we learn of the emotions of a mother whose son disappeared into the war by reading the letters she wrote to him, which were never delivered. Outside of these letters, “her sorrow was never voiced, and known deeply to her alone”, Ninh writes. Her older son who survived the war found and read her letters after she died, and he says in the story, “At least the grief of the old professes the dignity of not calling attention to itself, because to have been aware of such pain would tear your heart in two and render you incapable of living a comfortable life” (22). Without hesitation, Ninh sees the value in calling attention to this mother’s profound grief. He makes her story known, he breaks our hearts in two; with intention, he leaves no stone unturned.
Ninh explores the enduring psychological impact of the war in several other stories. “Life and time have a way of drowning me”, says a veteran in the opening story, “Farewell to a Soldier’s Life” (2). These recurring sentiments of grief and despair are embodied in many of Ninh’s characters, as trauma disrupts the natural flow of time and often leaves people stagnant and unable to adapt to the peaceful life that the war was supposed to bring about. The character Mộc, a farmer in “The Camp of the Seven Dwarfs”, waits for decades in his old, overgrown, and abandoned defending post for the return of a loved one. The signalman in “An Unnamed Star” waits for a train that stopped running long ago. Similarly, the father in “The Secret of the River” revisits the river where his wife and baby drowned, haunted and searching for their reflection in the water. Ninh writes about how loss leaves people frozen in history, searching for some kind of unattainable resolution while time continues to pass all around them.
The stories also depict what a miracle it can be to find moments of comfort or closure after the war uprooted life in Vietnam. We see auspicious path crossings, like in the story “301” when, by chance, a veteran who spent the last twenty-five years looking for the tank and comrades he was separated from during the war stumbles into a coffee shop owned by a woman who hosted his battalion for tea when she was a young girl. Together, they stare at the old, framed photograph that she took of his 301 tank and weep over their memories of the war and the blurry faces of his smiling long lost friends in the photograph.
The translators succeeded at maintaining the character of Vietnamese prose while transforming the collection into English. They include Vietnamese proverbs, sayings, and traditions, and often explain them in the footnotes. Though the lack of direct translations between languages can make for a slightly jagged reading experience, there is value in preserving Ninh’s original stories and feeling charmed by the author’s voice. For example, “There’s no shame in avoiding a stampede of elephants” may seem like a nonsensical statement, until the footnote explains the Vietnamese proverb, which means, “It’s not cowardly to be cautious” (19). The translators also beautifully rendered Ninh’s descriptions of the landscape, bringing it to life as though it were its own distinguished character. In “Untamed Winds”, they write, “The dry season would burn across the wildlands and turn it the color of honey. Other tempests would come and go, blowing violently the columns of red earth upward; the storms, like angry talons, savagely clawing the ground” (157).
While some translated elements bring the stories to life, at times the writing is repetitive or lingers for too long over details about exact locations, military jargon, and background information that lack relevance in the development of the plot. For example, in “301”, Ninh writes, “I drove through several cities and towns: Ninh Hòa, Nha Trang, and Cam Ranh. I drove up the Ngoạn Mục Pass, passed by Di Linh and Đức Trọng, and then headed south to Bảo Lộc and Lộc Ninh, finally reaching Sài Gòn” (35), instead of describing the journey or providing context for why these cities might be important to name. Between moments when the writing is beautiful and illuminating, the reader might feel distracted by excessive or irrelevant commentary that impedes the natural flow and pathos of each story.
Ninh’s writing faced many barriers—personal, political, and linguistic—before being able to reach its audience. The anguish in his stories will leave one feeling unsettled, but his writing is filled with courage, and the reader will find moments of refuge and solace within the turmoil. His characters find someone who shares their pain, someone with whom to remember and commemorate their losses. Through these connections, he incorporates a sense of hope alongside accounts of loss and fear. Ninh’s stories resonate and provide representation to those whose stories have been marginalised. Hà Nội at Midnight offers the reader the opportunity to marvel at the extent of our interconnectedness and find relief from the weight of erasure. The moving collection of stories are sprinkled with a few overworked scenes and sentences but are also rich with the author’s and translators’ literary expertise, attention to detail, imagination, and personal history. Ninh inspires a profound sense of empathy in his readers and continues to reform the dominant narrative of history around the American War in Vietnam.
How to cite: Tompkins, Mia. “A Paradigm Shift: Bảo Ninh’s Hà Nội at Midnight.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 30 Mar. 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/03/30/midnight/.
Mia Tompkins graduated from the University of Montana in 2019 with a BA in English, concentrating in literature. Her work focuses on traumatic memory, diasporic identity, and Vietnam War discourse and has appeared in the Rocky Mountain Review.