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Saigoneer Bookshelf: A Touch of Magical Realism in 'The Cemetery of Chua Village'

Vietnam transitioned to a market economy like an old train lurching to life: momentous shakes and shudders, steam bursting out busted gaskets, disheveled cargo tumbling from luggage racks, sparks shooting off wheels screeching across warped rails and a whistle ripping into the placid sky.

As the government enacted new policies, tossing aside the institutions to which people had adapted deeper cultural values and traditions, communities succumbed to the machinations of the worst amongst themselves. This theme lies at the center of several of the ten fictional stories in The Cemetery of Chua Village by Doan Le and lurks in the background of others alongside ruminations on the inadequacies of love as portrayed with a surreal, dark humor.

In one story, "Real Estate of Chua Village," rampant land speculation motivated by rumored road construction compels neighbors to scheme, cheat and steal to grab at the cash capitalism that was dangling above the impoverished village. The hysteria even draws in local producer of joss money, sending him off to print higher denominations of ceremonial currency on the prediction that in the afterlife, “hungry ghosts — heck, thirsty ones too — can fight over the street-front properties so they can set up joint ventures or joint whatevers to their heart’s content. And everything will be pressed into service for profit. The King of the afterlife will turn his cauldron of boiling oil into a sauna business, and rent out hell itself as a source of combustible fuel.”

Similarly, the surreal titular story focuses on a cemetery whose deceased inhabitants become sentient at night, carrying on as they had when alive. When a common laborer is accidentally buried in the uniform of a general, the dead first rush to grovel at their assumed superior’s feet and then, discovering the error, turn on him and one another seeking to blame and punish, and in doing so, reveal that even death cannot shake humans of their pettiness and penchant for hierarchy. The story closes with the narrator bemoaning that new zoning laws will throw the flawed but harmonious community into chaos when the cemetery land is reclaimed for development as if to say that the afterlife may not be perfect but capitalism is not going to make it any better.

The book, however, does not attribute people’s moral bankruptcy to any political decision or economic system. Rather, it reveals that humans by nature act small and selfishly. In the Kafka-esque tale, “Achieving Flyhood,” which takes place directly before the market reforms, the protagonist's transformation into an insect exposes institutional corruption associated with urban housing markets. Unable to secure one of the state-allocated homes because so many were siphoned off for the families of government employees or those able to offer bribes, he is turned into a literal housefly by the ministry.

Unfortunately, the same abuses the narrator hopes he had escaped exist amongst his fellow humans-turned-bugs. Instead of banding together to fight the powers that be or at least escape into a new reality, individuals jostle for arbitrary titles and positions of power from which to exploit their peers. By portraying the depravity both pre- and post-Doi Moi, Doan suggests that it’s no single system, but rather, societal tumult that brings out humanity’s worst tendencies.

Reading the book in the context of the massive developments breaking ground in Saigon and almost everywhere else in Vietnam while technology further connects the country with global lifestyles forces one to consider that however drastic the changes to society were in the late 80s and early 90s, we may now be witnessing even more extreme and rapid ones. In such a reality, and as Vietnam moves further from centuries-old conventions, what moral principles will drive the creation and implementation of new laws and norms? As people become more transitory and neighborhoods break down, what are the principles that will govern how we interact with one another?

Doan Le at age 75.

Doan Le led an incredible life which makes it all the more surprising that she isn’t more well known. Born in Hai Phong in 1943 to a traditional Confucian family, she ran away from her restrictive home at age 19 to study film in Hanoi. She starred in one of the nation’s first motion pictures, Book to Page. A true artistic talent, she later turned to directing, screenwriting, songwriting, painting and finally novels, short stories and poetry. Her death last year was covered in the Vietnamese press, but the fact that many of the articles, as well as memorials, served as introductions to her underscores not only her overlooked status but the ease with which the public abandons past figures thanks to pervasive forward-looking attitudes.

Doan Le in the film Book to Page.

Reading too closely into the biography of an artist can invite dangerous assumptions and simplifications about their work, but Doan’s life may add context to several of the themes prevalent in The Cemetery of Chua Village. Much like fellow writer Da Ngan, Doan divorced and remarried during a time when such an act was not only legally precarious but culturally taboo. The remarriage, which also fell apart, had serious impacts on her career, possibly limiting her acting opportunities. One shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised to discover that many of the stories portray love and especially marriage in a negative light. In “The Clone,” for example, incredible modern-day technology ushers in a failed writer’s exact copy to finish his life’s work: an epic poem. The clone’s original lays down only two rules for the copy in his will, one of which is to not get involved with women, as such an act will surely doom his writing, as had happened to him. Without giving anything away, readers can guess what happens.

“The Double Bed of Chua Village” concerns a woman deciding to leave her husband of 28 years when he openly takes a mistress. Echoing and in conversation with Vietnamese traditions of men having numerous wives, it simultaneously presents the empowered status of women in post-war Vietnam while rebuking patriarchal notions of one-sided polygamy and questioning modern society’s ability to embrace monogamy.

The story ends with an anecdote of monkeys being separated on two neighboring islands and split couples leaping into the sea to meet halfway between the two landmasses, willing to die in each other arms if it means reuniting. The detail serves as a stark contrast to the failures of the story’s protagonists and, regardless of scientific grounding, questions if infidelity and/or the pain it causes is uniquely human, and if so, can this be attributed to historical or contemporary habits? The story poses the question of if, as relationship expectations and the role of marriage evolves in Vietnam, are we moving further from or closer to the types of relationships evolution prepared us for?

While presented in a lighter tone and often wrapped in whimsy, it’s impossible to ignore a theme in Doan’s work that is also present in the works of contemporary female writers such as Duong Thu Huong: in Vietnam women experience a disproportionate amount of hardship. Throughout the stories, female characters are the ones who often suffer the effects of men’s poor, sometimes sex-driven decisions. Nothing encapsulates this more than the protagonist in “Achieving Flyhood,” who ultimately concludes “every tragedy, large or small that plagues humanity can be attributed to” men’s penises. His response, vowing celibacy under the guise of homosexuality, is a damning remark on the impact of patriarchy in the modernizing nation.  

Doan Le, Van Van (1993).

The book is undoubtedly important for fostering discussions about various cultural topics and providing glimpses into rapidly disappearing ways of life that are frequently ignored by much of the Vietnamese literature translated into English. It's also a valuable work on a craft level. If a novel is a marathon in which the occasional misstep can be forgiven and allowances afforded for catching one’s stride, a short story is a sprint and, for it to succeed, each footfall must be exact. Short story authors must create fully realized, interesting characters in a single paragraph, build worlds in a few details, and establish pivotal points of tension with one sentence. Doan does this masterfully while lacing many of the tales with elements of magical realism. As should happen with the genre, the fantastic twists such as characters turning into flies or the dead forming elaborate societies serve to highlight and investigate elements of our very real world.

Without being exposed to the original text in Vietnamese, and considering the gulfs between the tongues, reading this work proves impossible to adequately comment on the specific language used in the original; but, Doan gifted translators Rosemary Nguyen, Duong Tuong and Wayne Karlin with metaphors like a “face hatched with an intricate maze of random furrows, like the work of a drunken ploughman” and a piece of valuable land “stretched along the national highway like a girl in the bloom of youth stretched out for an afternoon nap,” that not only carry clear, transferable meanings but delight in their originality.

In a trend that predates Doi Moi reforms, as Vietnam modernizes alongside the rest of the world, an area one can most drastically observe change is in how people spend their free time. Social media platforms, movies and video games have almost completely replaced books to the point that the average citizen read less than 1.2 works of literature a year. Arguments regarding the trade-offs of development are undoubtedly vast and complicated, but few can deny that we should mourn the loss of attention to literature like The Cemetery of Chua Village.

Literature's ability to intimately articulate elements of bygone eras while fostering empathy and inviting contemplation on diverse societal subjects — such as how economic stability interacts with ideas of man’s innate goodness, and whether society supports or impedes healthy romantic relationships — cannot be wholly replicated. And even if statistics, news reports, films and stories of family members can give valuable insight into some of those subjects, it's impossible for them to do so with the same joyously fresh metaphors, evocative language and expert plotting. One can only hope that amidst all the changes, there are enough people to not only pay attention to authors like Doan Le, but share her work and find enough inspiration to carry on her legacy in whatever strange world emerges in the coming years.


Saigoneer Bookshelf is a new series that shares favorite works of literature written by writers of Vietnamese descent. It recommends books while exploring the themes, contexts and craft elements they contain.

[Photos via An Ninh]

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