Fiction | Vietnam

A hundred years of violence

The Vietnamese author Nguyen Phan Que Mai tells a family tale from her war-ravaged land

Vietnam and the war have until now mainly been seen through American eyes. In “The Mountains Sing” Nguyen Phan Que Mai narrates from the perspective of Vietnamese women battling – not at the front, but for daily survival. The writer follows three generations of a family marked by foreign rule and repression.

Stories like this have so far been excised from the official historiography, as the grandmother of the narrator Hu’o’ng points out: “It’s forbidden to talk about things to do with the failures of the past or the crimes of the powerful. […] But you’re old enough now to know that history inscribes itself in people’s memories.”

You can tell that Nguyen originally wrote verse by the intense language she uses to name the horrors, but also in the way she balances this with moments of poetry. Juxtaposed with the brutality of the rulers stands the remarkable character of the grandmother, who is looking after the girl, and whose fateful story is told in flashbacks. The grandmother grows up in a rural area in northern Vietnam – a life organised around everyday rituals.

Then the Japanese invade the country, which leads to famine. People eat roots, insects, leaves. When the grandmother chronicles her desperate hunt for anything edible, the book has more suspense than a crime story. By the age of 28 she already has five children and the family are suffering the effects of the 1955 land reforms.

Their fields are allocated to a dispossessed farmer. Poor people are pressured into turning against the rich. This leads to show trials and death sentences. Luckily, the grandmother manages to flee with her children.

“The air smelled of life rather than death and explosives”

This strand of the story runs parallel to the experience of the girl, Hu’o’ng, during the Vietnam War, with bombs and chemical weapons raging. The author frequently paints poetic images to make these depictions just slightly more bearable: “The sunlight shimmered, golden as honey. The air smelled of life rather than death and explosives.”

Hu’o’ng’s mother, who was drafted into the war as a medic, returns – scarred – and her father is missing in action. Families ripped apart can be read as a metaphor for the entire country. Similarly, during the grandmother's flight from persecution and hunger she has to leave one child after another behind, to save them as well as herself.

This destruction of families will traumatise an entire nation for generations. Hu’o’ng desires nothing more than for the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam, to be over and for her to be united with her parents.

“I imagine my mother on my grandma’s bicycle, bowling through the streets of Hà Nôi with me.” Many Vietnamese terms are retained, in the original as well as in Claudia Feldmann’s translation.

The war’s end in 1975 marked the start of the communist regime’s repression. Many Vietnamese emigrated – a further tearing apart families. But love, family connections and literature create a positive counterweight to the brutal twists in the overall tale. Reading this story, the extent of the suffering of Vietnamese women in recent decades becomes clear, as well as the harsh legacy that later generations shoulder to this day.

Translated by Scott Martingell