THE WRITERS POST

(ISSN: 1527-5467)
the magazine of Literature & Literature-in-translation.

PREMIER ISSUE

VOLUME 1 NUMBER 1

JUL 1999

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

VO KY DIEN
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THE OLD MAN WHO BELIEVED ONLY WHAT HE SAW

 Translated by HUYNH SANH THONG

 

Old Man Seven, the blacksmith, lived near my maternal grandfather in a slum on the outskirts of the provincial seat. The path that led to the smithy, strewn with granite chips, a jagged and filthy mess, in particular when it rained. But, even during the dry season, it remained a track of slush because there was a well alongside the blacksmith's shop. From dawn to dusk, you never ceased to hear the clanking of tin buckets against the rim of the well. No fountain had yet been installed in this area, so the whole neighborhood depended on the well. Old Man Seven's smithy, already astir with customers, became a more bustling place still. Folks, waiting for their turn to draw water, would drop by to watch him forge knives and scissors or just to chat about the weather. I loved to hear Old Man Seven talk of any subject under the sun. I had never seen him wear anything but black trunks. A brawny chest, a dark skins that shone in the glow of the furnace fire, despite his fifty- odd years of age, he was quite strong physically. There was a fluid grace to his bulging muscles. He handled the huge sledgehammer as though it didn't weigh much. Each time the hammer hit the bar of red-hot iron, it sent off a shower of sparks like a fireworks display. On a chilly day of rain, nothing could give more pleasure than to snuggle up by the blazing coals of the furnace and watch Old Man Seven beat iron into a knife as he held forth on how to interpret some riddle that the Chinese organizers of the Forty Beasts gambling game had set.

Grandfather and Old Man Seven, friends of long standings and kindred souls, relished each other's company. Whenever I went to Grandfather's house and he wasn't there, I could count on finding him at the blacksmith's shop and nowhere else. Among the people of this small community, the two made a name for themselves as the foremost interpreters of conundrums in the guessing game of the Forty Beasts.

Once, Grandfather showed an issue of The Morning Bell to his friend, pointing to the "Whispers in the Ear" column where this enigmatic clue was published for the next round of the game: A clear-sighted man must both gaze ahead and look back.

Grandfather pondered for a long while, then exultingly declared: "That must mean the Dog! Yes, indeed! Bet on number eleven and win."

Old Man Seven asked why. Grandfather lost no time grabbing a chance to strut his bookish learning: "An old adage reads like this: If the wolf steps forward, it's will get caught by the dewlap; if it steps back, it will get caught by the tail. In other words, the poor creature finds itself in a quandary, unable either to advance or to retreat." He clucked admiratively and went on: "He's a clever devil, the fellow who's propounded the conundrum. Gaze forward -that's the wolf's dewlap. And look back-that's it's tail. Does it seem right to you, Brother Seven?"

Old Man Seven grinned, baring the gaps of lost teeth on his jaws: "Well, it does make some kind of sense. But I myself think that the riddle has to do which the Pig."

I had been sitting there in speechless rapture. Puzzled by Old Man Seven's interpretation, I blurted out: "Does a pig like to gaze forward and look back, Grandfather Seven?"

The old man smiled an indulgent smile: "You don't know much, do you, child? When you interpret a riddle for the game of the Forty Beasts, you don't just settle for the obvious- you must look for the hidden meaning. If it were so easy to read riddles like you do, everybody could figure out the answer and get rich in no time, Let me explain it to you-the key to it all is in the phrase look back. To 'look back' is to turn around and look. To 'turn around' is quay lai, and quay also means to turn a beast and roast it. You know how our guests from China love roast pork. I'm telling you-it's the Pig!"

I saw the light and danced with excitement. The two oldsters' money in hand, I ran nonstop to the shop of the Chinese man named Canh where I placed bets on the Dog and the Pig. That afternoon, the answer to the conundrum was announced: the Duck. Old Man Seven tore his hair, sore at the loss of his hard-earned money and angry with himself for having overlooked roast duck.

At that time I was about twelve. Every day I was entrusted with a most important mission, which was to run to the newspaper stall at the crack of dawn and buy The Morning Bell for Grandfather and Echoes for Old Man Seven. While the two respectively pored over "Whispers in the Ear" and "A Word to the Wise", I devoured the centerfold where appeared some detective novel by Phu c. Since early childhood, I had harbored a passion for fiction and for the strange and marvelous. One day, in a geography class, the teacher taught us that the earth was round and that it turned about the sun. When to Old Man Seven I boasted of that freshly acquired bit of fantastic lore, his eyes rolled heavenward with incredulity: "What a weird thing you just said, child! Repeat it to me, please."

I spoke at one go: "The teacher says that the earth is round, like a ball. It turns all day without ever stopping. And it turns quite fast..." Old Man Seven shook his head: "I don't believe one word of it. If the earth were round, why could we stand on our feet without falling? If it moved and rolled like a ball, then we would have been thrown off its surface. The earth is flat, and the best proof of it is that you see it's flat and lies still, so we can build houses on it. If it shook, all the houses would be shaking too."

"We believed the earth to be flat," I retorted, "only because it's so big. Actually, it's round. Go out to Vung Tau and watch the sea: you'll find that the horizon is a curve."

"I've never been to Vung Tau and never seen the sea. What I don't behold with my own eyes I don't believe."

I was rather irked by Old Man Seven's insistences that the earth was flat and squared when drawings in my book clearly showed it to be round. I proceeded to demonstrate the fact just like the teacher had done in the classroom: Grandfather Seven, imagine yourself standing on the seashore and gazing at a ship far away, on the horizon. At first you see only the smokestacks. As the ship draws nearer you'll see part of the hull. You'll make out the whole vessel only when it gets close to shore. That goes to prove that the earth is round-the smokestacks alone are seen first because the surface of the earth is curved."

"I don't believe it! I've never seen a single smokestack on a ship, and I can't imagine myself ever going to the seashore. Anyhow, it's absurd to claim that the earth spins and rolls like a hall. If it behaved that way, we all should be hurled into the blue!"

I patiently pursued my demonstration: "The earth does spin quite fast, but we are not hurled into space thanks to something called gravity: it's a force at the core of the earth that pulls every down and stops it from flying off into space."

Old Man Seven shook his head with exasperation: "Young chap, this is apparently your day to talk rubbish. How come a bird that flies up there isn't pulled down to the ground? Ha, if you're so leaned and smart, explain that to me! Those French colonialists have crammed your head full of rot. Goddamned aggressors! Confounded bandits! You know what happened to little Teo yesterday? He came down with a touch of cold and was taken to the hospital: there they stuck him with a needle and he dropped dead! That's what they call Western medicine. If only his folks had gone to the Chinese grocery and purchased one of those powders for a cold! You'd better look out and save your own skin: one of these days, when they get to your school and promise you a cure-all with a sting of their needle, run for your life. Don't be a fool and believe their bunk. Gosh, you're still so green and callow that you've fallen for all that. But they never can trick this old codger. I believe only what I see. Don't you set any store by rumor and hearsay."

I was consumed with doubt and uncertainty. How could it be that the teacher taught nothing but lies? What Old Man Seven said sounded far from implausible, though. By his age, he had learned much from the school of experience. Some of his children were as old as my father and mother. Grandfather himself yielded to none in his high regard for Old Man Seven. While Grandfather hardly ever won at the game of the Forty Beasts, his friend did score several triumphs. When I brought up the topic of the French attempt to conquer our country and asked Grandfather about it, he would talk just like Old Man Seven. Indeed, the two saw eye to eye on that very subject. When they read paper accounts of French defeats along the rivers a and Lo, they were beside themselves with joy. They reached the pinnacle of ecstasy on that day in 1954 when, after ien Bien Phu, the colonialists signed the Geneva agreements. After a long wait, I had to jostle with the crowd before I could make off with a tattered copy of the morning paper. I ran like one possessed and gave it to Old Man Seven. Tears welling in his eyes, he said in a choked voice: "So our country knows peace at last! This time, when my baby boy comes home, I'll get him a good wife and have him live here with me to comfort me in my remaining days."

Grandfather couldn't control his emotions any better: "It's the same here. My sixth son left home some ten years ago. Now that the war is over, he can come back and tend my garden and my field. My house is his. It all belongs to him because he is to use income from it for 'fire and incense', for the ancestral cult in the family. My few acres in Xom Mng will yield enough for him to live on. He'll be able to relax and enjoy himself after all those harsh years in the jungle."

That day, the two old men stayed up into the small hours and caroused all through the night. Neighbors dropped by to join them in their libations, trading one toast after another. I had to make a few trips to the Chinese Canh's shop for more liquor. We all had a rollicking time.

As I was told, my uncle-Grandfather's sixth son- and Old Man Seven's baby boy had joined the Viet Minh as far back as 1945, during those epic days when the anti-French

started with bamboo spears. I had been just a tiny tot then. I still hazily remember those grownups who held aloft red flags with the yellow star and sang as they marched. They also huddled together and talked in whispers. Now we all reminisced about those events of ten years ago. Though still too young to know much about anything, I burned with a fierce desire to be old enough to fight the French and save the country. Alas, my uncle and the blacksmith's baby boy had performed all those feats of arms, and not much glory was left for a teenager like me to garner in my turn.

During that summer vacation, I went to the area on the Right Bank of the Bassac river and stayed with paternal relatives. Together, my maternal grandfather and Old Man Seven trekked toward Xuyen Moc to see their son off: those two Resistance fighters chose to go North after the signature of the Geneva agreements and the partition of Vietnam. They didn't know they could come home again. Since the country remained in a state of unrest, they still had debts to discharge as patriots. Nevertheless, their fathers fervently hoped that the day was near when their families would be reunited. For the moment, the country was divided along the seventeenth parallel. Russian and Polish ships were transporting groups of guerrillas from the South to the North. Meanwhile, French and American ships were carrying a million of our compatriots from the North to the South.

Old Man Seven, watching them arrives, shook his head and heaved deep sighs: "They had such a bright future up North! The Revolution had triumphed, the country was winning independence and peace, freedom and happiness. And they left all that to come down here for what! If I were younger, I would no doubt apply to go North and build a smithy there."

A few months later, in front of the blacksmith's shop pulled up the pushcart of a peddler of ph noodle soup. The vendor was more or less the same age as Old Man Seven. Nobody knew the name of that newcomer from the North. But, as a true Northerner, he would often make a point of ending a sentence with the exclamatory particle 'c '. Before long, the particle came to be adopted as his nickname by people in the neighborhood.

Uncle C's noodle soup tasted delicious and cost little: the community around the blacksmith' s shop began to enjoy and appreciate that specimen of Hanoi cuisine. But if his noodle soup was swallowed with relish, what Uncle Co had to say didn't go down so well. He claimed that in the North the people were living a wretched life. The secret police snooped on everyone and could nab anyone. Folks toiled and toiled and didn't get enough to fill their stomachs. The state confiscated land and houses, boats and vehicles. Human life up North made the fate of a buffalo or a pig seems enviable.

After he had heard uncle C talk Old Man Seven told me, his face glowering with fury: "That noodle soup peddler also peddles false propaganda. He's an undercover agent who works for Saigon. He slanders and smears the Viet Minh. Revolutionists struggle to bring about a change for the better. If the people suffer, lack food and clothes, and get arrested on whim, when why have a revolution in the first place? ! Don't you eat either his noodles or his words. I loathe that breed of propaganda-mongers"

What Old Man Seven said made logical sense. Uncle C's noodle soup, though, proved far more persuasive. I couldn't deny myself its forbidden delight-so, every day, along with his soup, I had to gulp down a heavy dose of propaganda from Uncle C.

"You know nothing about it, of course," said he, " but up North schoolchildren have a hell of a time. When they're through with their lessons in the classroom, they have to go and do labor planting potatoes or cassavas in the uplands. On Sundays and holidays they must dig canals or build dikes for Uncle Ho and the Party. That's backbreaking work, yet they're given nothing to eat! You boys and girls live the good life down here in the South."

What I heard grated on my ears. Children digging canals on Sundays?! It struck me as wildly farfetched, so I told Uncle C: "If they find it so hard, why don't they just quit? Who'll force them to do it?"

Uncle C rolled his eyes at me, replying: "How could they quit?! If they did, they'd be sent to a so- call reeducation school and their death. If you act up and get a bad record, that's tantamount to a sentence passed on your whole life. You'll find it beyond belief, but up in the North people need official permission before they may eat a chicken!"

I was nonplused and unconvinced. That was propagandistic overkill, all right. Go to school and meet your death? Ask permission to eat a chicken? Where in the world could such excesses take place? I repeated it all to Old Man Seven. He guffawed to his heart's content.

"You see, what did I tell you?!" he said. "He's an undercover agent for sure. What children are strong enough to dig canals? Just the matter of asking permission to eat a chicken shows he's an arrant liar. Whose permission?! The chickens I raise I eat, and I shall let no one on earth stop me. The truth may be stretched and still pass muster. But when he lies through his teeth like that, who will heed what he says? Let anyone barge into my house without proper cause or due authorization and I shall kick him out! I may even drag him before a court of law: that's illegal invasion of privacy, if you ask me. Up in the North, that fellow C must have been one of those running dogs of the colonialists and the feudalistic. No wonder he opposes and maligns the Revolution. But what is communism, after all? Communism means justice! In the communism society, there are no millionaires and no paupers, no oppressors on top and no little downtrodden people at the bottom. It's one big happy family of equals. Don't you find that a much fairer scheme of thing? Instead, down here in the South, the rich wallow in luxury while the poor lack the bare necessities of life. Come to think of it, a revolutionist is just like me, a blacksmith. When I forge a chunk of iron, I hammer it nice and flat to smooth out bumps and hollows, ridges and grooves. Both revolutionists and blacksmiths are levelers! That's what the Revolution is all about, my boy. If it were a sad mistake, would I and your own grandfather have let our sons leave us and go North?"

With Old Man Seven's impassioned speech a new day dawned in my social consciousness. Yes, the Revolution was the genuine article. No love or pity should be wasted on the selfish rich. They met their comeuppance when they got stripped of all their villas and cars and their wealth was shared among the have-nots. Give back to the people what belongs to the people.

Still, something bothered me. I asked Old Man Seven: "But Uncle C is himself a poor man. Up in the North he couldn't have made a pile of money peddling noodle soup with his pushcart. Why doesn't he like the Revolution, Grandfather Seven?"

"You stupid boy! Down here he makes a poor mouth, but up North he may well have been a big landowner, a bourgeois capitalist or the like. People always speak well of themselves. And they speak well of what they love. What they loathe they find fault with. That fellow C hates the Revolution, so he tears it to pieces. If the new regime is worse than the old it has replaced, how can it be called the Revolution? In Russia and in China they've had the Revolution for decades now. Has it hurt anyone except the privileged few"

"But Grandfather Seven ! I've heard that up North they've denounced their fathers and their mothers, their husbands and their wives. Such tales scare the daylights out of me!"

"Come, now, boy! What the noodle soup peddler says boils down to this; somehow the revolutionists have all taken leave of their senses! Is is likely? I think not. Remember what I've told you again and again: Believe only what you see. Never trust rumor and hearsay. I trust the evidence of my eyes and nothing else. The colonialists and imperialists are past masters at spreading false reports."

I gazed at Old Man Seven, and his sincerity touched me. On the face that was mesh of wrinkles, the eyes shone with intense resolve. But in them I also caught a faraway gleam of longing for his baby boy to come home. The young man, like my own uncle, was now an active participant in the Revolution up North. The noodle soup peddler's face and eyes flashed through my mind: the features differed, but it was the same sincerity and resolve. Uncle C's words echoed faintly in my ears: "Just mull over the reason why I left my father and mother, my wife and children, my beloved birthplace, and risked death to come down here. I'm only human and feel human feelings. Why did I leave, then?"

Because of the Revolution Old Man Seven made his sacrifice and let his youngest son go up North. And because of the Revolution Uncle C left his wife and children and his all behind to come down South. There was just one fact: why two opposite ways to deal with it? It haunted me, that question to which I found no adequate answer yet.

The savage conflict went on, with more blood seed. Every day, houses shook under the impact of shells and bombs. The havoc and horror of war was no longer the figment of my novelists imagination but the stuff of life. Humans, somehow, learned to numb themselves and acquired the needed callousness to live. My maternal grandfather, grown quite old; died after a short bout of illness. Old Man Seven, bereft of his closest friend, didn't fare badly thanks to his two oldest sons: well off, they had his rundown house remodeled into a decent dwelling. The smithy had been long gone. On its site there was now a garage for the repair of cars. Every so often I stopped by to visit with Old Man Seven. Though well into his seventies, he remained hale and hearty. He often talked of his youngest son and sorrowfully wondered if he could ever see that favorite child of his again before he was to go and meet his ancestors.

As for Uncle C, his noodle soup business was thriving. He had removed his pushcart from the neighborhood of the old smithy and opened a big restaurant in the provincial capital. He went about his business with industry and diligence. In the way he dressed and comported himself he looked no different from the refugee who had fled from the North. He made enough money to justify the old adage: Great wealth comes from Heaven, and small wealth from hard work. These days, Old Man Seven would from time to time go downtown and treat himself to a bowl of noodle soup at Uncle C 's restaurant. On such an occasion, politics was set aside. As you get old, you can't afford to pick and choose a friend in your age bracket. When Old Man Seven and Uncle C met, they just sat there together for hours. Only once in a long while would they break the silence and exchange a few words. In those troubled times it was wiser to listen than to talk. By then, moreover, the Revolution had become a dead issue that no argument could resolve or decide. Good or bad, the Revolution no longer concerned two septuagenarians. It only pertained to younger people like me.

* * *

After 1975, when the Revolution had caught up with the South, I met Old Man Seven again. Below the broad forehead, the eyes seemed overcast with sadness. A lime could fit into the hollow of each sunken cheek. The prominent cheekbones made him look drawn and gaunt. With his walking stick he had been aimlessly roaming the neighborhood, like a lost soul. As he passed my house, he stopped by to rest his feet. I offered him a cup of tea and asked about his family. He sighed and began a recital of all their woes:

"My oldest son was sent to a reeducation camp, so his wife went back to her folks in Mo Cay. My second son's bus was taken away from him- they politely called it a 'requisition'. The Land Transportation Service borrowed his house to use it as an office. He had to petition the government and grease many palms before his family was allowed to stay in a shed behind the garage. It breaks my heart to watch my grandchildren go and do labor for the state. Last month, Dan, only fifteen years old, was picked by lot to work with an irrigation project in Chanh Lu. The boy couldn't stand constant exposure to the elements, had fever and delirium, and was carried home for treatment- he hasn't recovered yet. His younger brothers and sisters walk around rummaging through garbage dumps for scrap paper and tattered nylon bags to bring back to their teachers at school as part of their homework. As for me, I'm supposed to raise one pig and ten chickens to help the village implement its plan for self-sufficiency in food supply. Every day I must find things for the pig and chickens to eat. And you know how hard it is nowadays to scrounge up food for humans, let alone feed for beasts! Every few months the team leader comes around to count and make sure the pig and all the chickens are still there, so he can report to the upper echelon and get good marks for the village. It's only now that I realize what he meant, that fellow C, the noodle soup peddler..."

I tried to comfort Old Man Seven: "It hasn't been long since the Revolution came to the South. Many difficulties remain to be coped with. It's just like when you started to forge a piece of iron: you had to wait until it was... red-hot!"

Old Man Seven snorted sarcastically: "Ugh, the way these Communists forge the new society! They simply shut their eyes and hammer away. Even this gaffer got a rap a while ago. On Uncle Ho's birthday, all households were ordered to fly the flag at their front doors. My dwelling is now set way back from the street- it 's a mere shed, not a house, strictly speaking. Yet their policeman in the area swaggered into my place and uttered all sorts of threats, and I had to go buy a flag..."

I thought of Uncle C and of how Old Man Seven had lectured me about the Revolution. I felt so sorry for the blacksmith. I asked him: 'I've heard that your youngest son holds a high post in the revolutionary administration. Hasn't he intervened in your behalf?"

Old Man Seven, who was about to touch the cup with his lips, put it down on hearing my question. He seemed to hesitate, carefully choosing his words. After a rather long pause, he whispered in a broken, faltering voice: "He's back -so I'm happy. But that's all. I don't want him to lift a finger for my sake. He's now far apart from the rest of us in his way of thinking. 'When they ask you for something, it's all right, but if you ask them for something, that means trouble. I even keep him in the dark about family matters- it's better so. Luckily, I was a lowly blacksmith who managed to scrimp and save some money. Heaven knows what would have happened to me if I had been a wealthy man. Anyhow, down here in the South, we all are 'unlawful puppets'. The boy worries about guilt by kinship- he has to keep his distance or he'll be censured and reprimanded. Now he has Uncle Ho and the Party- he doesn't need his father. Please speak of him no more."

At this point Old Man Seven gasped for breath. His pent-up rage had gotten the better of him. How could he help feeling angry and hurt? Throughout his life he had invested all that he had held dearest in the Revolution, and that had included his youngest son, his pride and joy. The investment turned out to be a fiasco. The Revolution came, but the good life and happiness were nowhere in sight. All around him he witnessed nothing but hunger and misery, suspicion and hatred. As to his son, the boy now shared with him a striking physical resemblance and nothing else, for he thought and felt like Uncle Ho and the Party. Could the bonds between father and son prove so thin and fragile? It had taken Old Man Seven more than twenty years to discover that truth. He had planted and nursed the tree of the Revolution with loving care only to reap now its bitter fruits.

Old Man Seven's life imitated the game of the Forty Beasts as he had played it once and lost. He betted on a roasted pig: the Revolution laid an egg and hatched a canard.

Translated by professor HUYNH SANH THONG
( "To Be Made Over" The Lac-Viet Series No 5 )

 

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The Writers Post Jul. 1999
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