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Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, One of Vietnam's Most Celebrated Writers, Passes Away

Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, one of Vietnam's most talented and influential post-war authors, passed away on March 20 at the age of 71.

Best known for his short stories, Thiệp also penned poems, novels, literary essays, novels and plays. His works often focused on the tensions between urban and rural life as well as the changing cultures and economics the country experienced during the Đổi Mới period. His style is praised for its short and deft sentences, quick pace, nuanced characters, and startling metaphors. 

Born in Hanoi, as a young man, Thiệp made a living in rural areas via various jobs including teacher, salesman, physical laborer, painter and restaurateur. Despite falling in love with literature at a young age, he didn't publish his first stories until the age of 36. One year later, in 1987, his story 'Tướng Về Hưu' (The General Retires) caused a scandal for its criticisms of socialist systems that were undergoing drastic renovations. Yet, his unflinching portrayals of society in flux resonated with readers while inspiring generations of writers who followed in his footsteps.

Throughout his career, Thiệp published 50 short stories, 10 plays, four novels, and numerous critical essays. He won several awards, including the Hanoi Writers Association Award for Literary Essay, a Medal of French Literature and Arts, and Italy's Premio Nomino Prize. Several of his works were made into movies as well.

Thiệp's work, including 'The General Retires,' has been translated into numerous languages including English, Italian, and French. He was one of the first Vietnamese authors whose work focuses on the American War and its aftermath that was translated into English and released in America.

Thiệp's passing ushered in an outpouring of grief and appreciation from writers, artists and fans on social media and in local publications. Of his passing, writer Nguyễn Văn Thọ wrote in Vietnamese: "The body is gone now. Like the mist in his eyes. But his writing, by the author Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, will continue to cast its long shadow, forever challenging contemporary writers."

At Thiệp's funeral on March 24, poet and head of the Vietnamese Writers Association Nguyễn Quang Thiều read a eulogy, which has been translated by writer and educator Võ Thị Như Mai, and featured in full below:

At 4:45pm, March 20, 2021 (February 8, the year of  Buffalo), writer Nguyễn Huy Thiệp drew his last breath at his own home and set off to his eternal rest. All the mainstream newspapers and social media were filled with information about his departure together with honorable reviews of his outstanding position in Vietnamese literature, countless long and short messages of condolences and mourning. They revealed how much influence he had on the country’s literature and society.

Writer Nguyễn Huy Thiệp was born in 1950 in Thai Nguyen. Originally from Hanoi, st a young age, he and his family moved from place to place through many rural areas in Thai Nguyen, Phu Tho, and Vinh Phuc. Nguyen Huy Thiep graduated from the History Department, Hanoi Pedagogical University, and then taught for more than 10 years in a mountainous area in the North. After that, he returned to Hanoi and officially embarked on the path of a writer.

Writer Nguyễn Huy Thiệp started his writing journey quite late. But when 'The Winds of Hua Tat' together with his other short stories appeared, the storm under his name gathered, a phenomenon like a gust of wind blowing through and shaking Vietnamese literature.

From 1975 until now, no writer has had the ability to profoundly change Vietnamese versification and writing styles like him. Thiệp is considered the king of short stories of Vietnamese postmodern literature.

We could say: his writing shows the painful truth and reveals a human being who dares to face and speak the truth.

We could say: his writing expresses anger as a fire, but it is the anger of consciousness of human deception and deprivation.

We could say: his writing reveals terrifying pain, but it is the pain of human love.

His short stories possess the sharpness of a scalpel: brilliance, precision, and grief; the type of scalpel cuttings hidden in innermost thoughts and human souls. It makes people suffer intensely, too much to bear, and then recover and evolve.

Only by going through the utmost suffering that one could endure, was he able to offer chilling symbolic expressions through shivery stories. That shuddering shiver was the utmost warning of conscientiousness. Perhaps at that time, to him, as a writer, tears of lamentation or words of consolation offered in vain were of no significance when thinking of or talking about humans including himself.

Reading his stories and tales, readers on occasion feel terrified. They are terrifying because readers realize the darkness crushed by years in mud is still hidden and expressed in their own bodies and souls. From there, they are awakened and put into action to revive their humanity. That is why writer Nguyễn Huy Thiệp once said, “The most difficult thing is not gaining wealth, not seeking knowledge, but possessing morality. Writers have the responsibility to strive for morality for their readers.”

That was his mission statement as a writer. And he had been on that path from the beginning as a writer until his final departure without hesitation, without alternative direction even though there were countless difficulties and challenges as well as numerous temptations. He was harsh towards us humans because he cared for us. He was against the collapse of a system to protect humans themselves.

Nonetheless, within his short stories, there is a massive flow of poeticism whose superb beauty overshadows the typical characters with humble and tough fates in 'The Winds of Hua Tat,' 'The Salt of the Jungle,' 'Crossing the River,' 'The Water God’s Daughter,' etc. Such tremendous current warms our souls, makes us feel love and sense the beautiful dreams of humanity, in any circumstance. He succeeds in bringing a significant difference to Vietnamese postmodern literature, a distinctive tone of voice, and explicitly sharp language that is sophisticated, peculiar, haunting and full of mystery.

In everyday life, writer Nguyễn Huy Thiệp lived quietly and modestly. He kept himself away from compliments, criticisms, resentments, and provocations. The provocations right in front of him and even the threats. He normally blended into the crowd, minimized himself to avoid being recognized. But from that place, his vision shone through life to make sense of it, to examine it, to judge it, and finally to be in love with it.

For what he had written, he was awarded The Art and Literature Medal by the French Government (2007), the Premio Nonino Literature Award (Italy, 2008). But his most prestigious award was given by his readers. They awarded him their own hearts.

We are talking about him now when he is no longer here in life, not to honor or praise him, because there is no notion of honor or praise in his eternal world. Only the masterpieces in the form of artistic texts that he gave birth to which prove his everlasting existence, taking care of him among the endless chaos.

We are talking about him now to speak to ourselves, of the commitment, conscience, and courage of a writer.

And now we are listening, to the singing breezes

On the mountains, the Hua Tat jungles

And the almighty ripples of the rivers

Flowing through the darkness to the unstoppable ocean

Somewhere in the fields longing for its painful sunset

A bank of cloud with the name Nguyễn Huy Thiệp

Dropping precipitation in the form of freedom and brightness

In the resounding thunder along the horizon

At this moment in the dim, tiny houses, his characters

Are lighting candles and chanting their prayers

He once set foot in those houses on windy nights

With his agony and passion, his bruised and shattered heart

Please rest in peace, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, the brave knight

With your vernacular sword glistening dawn

Those meadows scattering their fragrance like the first spring

On each of your footstep, a character was born

Farewell to writer Nguyễn Huy Thiệp!

(Finished at 6:43 am on March 24, 2121 at 65 Nguyen Du, Hanoi)

[Top image via Cuộc sống An toàn]

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