In previous years, Crocuses were the first flowers of the year, appearing as early as February, and all but gone by March. This year they were buried under snow until this past week. Today there was no rain and the sun was bright and perfect for the following shots of Crocuses in our front yard.
On this day, a year ago, I drove from East Glacier Park Village to St Mary in Montana on one of the most tortuous roads. It was 6 AM and still pitch dark when we left our hotel. Driving distance was only 30 miles, but it wasn’t until almost 7 AM that we reached a hill near St Mary. The town was invisible, shrouded by clouds, but the sunrise was stunningly colorful.
Cee has a new challenge: store front signs in black and white: https://ceenphotography.com/2016/06/30/cees-black-white-photo-challenge-store-front-signs/
Last month in Moss Landing, CA we had lunch at a locally famous restaurant. I took the following photo as we arrived.
The parking lot was almost full. As they ate, customers were visited by blackbirds looking for food. As soon as people left a table, the birds gleaned bits and pieces from their plates!
This next photo displays the sign in front of John Steinbeck House in Salinas, CA. The restaurant is upstairs, and open only for lunch. Dowsntairs is a museum/shop.
Año Nuevo State Park is 20 miles (32 km) north of Santa Cruz. It is known for Elephant Seals, huge animals that can be as long as 15 ft (4.5 m) and as heavy as 5,500 lbs (2,500 kg). In the 19th century they were hunted to near extinction because their blubber or fat could be turned into oil. Only 200 were alive at the beginning of the 20th century when the Mexican and American governments gave them protected status.
They began arriving in Año Nuevo (New Year) point in 1955 to breed and molt. They now number about 124,000 and people go to Año Nuevo State Park to see them from November to May, or perhaps even all year round. We drove to the park one cloudy day to see what it was all about.
From the parking area, it was a 3-mile (4.8 km) round trip to a viewing area. Here’s a view of a deserted beach we saw while hiking the trail.
On the way, a Spotted Towhee was singing merrily. This was the first time I had ever seen one.
At this time of the year seals come and lay on the beach to molt over 30 days, without eating anything. When we came near the beach where they lounged about, the unpleasant smell of their body waste was unmistakable.
We didn’t stay too long at the viewpoint because of the smell, and also because it started raining and I only had a plastic bag to protect my camera.
Earlier in April 2014, I participated in the A to Z blogging challenge. This challenge involved blogging every day in April (with the exception of Sundays) on themes that started with the alphabets A to Z. One of the recommendations of the challenge was that you also visited blogs of others who were participating in the challenge. This is how I came across a blog describing the book “Village Teacher“. The author Nguyen Hien very graciously offered me a copy of the book to read but circumstances prevented me from reading the book immediately and it was only very recently that I finally managed to read this book.
Village Teacher is set in the late 19th century in Vietnam. That alone made the book a great prospect for me to read for I hardly know anything about the country or its history. The events in…
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Last week, during the 5-day free download of my book, Village Teacher, there were 565 Kindle copies downloaded. Most of that occurred in the US, but there were also small numbers downloaded in the UK, Germany, Spain, Canada, Italy, and Australia.
Hopefully, those 565 people who now have the Kindle version will read it, and will share their impressions and comments, either here or on Amazon, or by sending me a personal email at email@example.com. I sincerely thank you in advance.
For those who may wonder where the image on the book’s cover came from, here’s a photo of part of the roof from Emperor Thiệu Trị’s library in Huế, the old capital city. Look at the roof’s corner to the left side of the photo.
Since this is the last day of this free download, I am republishing this for those who may have missed it until now.
The Kindle version of my book, Village Teacher, will be available for free download from Wednesday 23-Jul-2014 until Sunday 27-Jul-2014.
If you have not yet read it, this is a good opportunity for you to get a completely free Kindle version without any obligation or string attached. If you know of others who may be interested, let them know about this promotion.
The link to Amazon for the Kindle version is:
Please share this with as many of your friends and family as you like. Just remember that this promotion does not start until Wednesday and will end on Sunday.
Here’s an excellent, although rather long, review of Village Teacher by Michael Delaney:
Village Teacher was a surprisingly pleasant break from the books which generally fall into our hands these days. In fact, I could say it’s reminiscent of literature from another time and not only because the action takes place at the end of the 19th century in a politically torn, myth laden Vietnam, but due to the fact it creates an atmosphere often similar to that of an epic poem.
“The footprints never overlapped or touched one another, but there was no doubt that they were walking close together and going forward in the same general direction. They turned around once more and resumed their walk.”
The reader can guess early on how the story is going to end, but that doesn’t detract from the desire to follow the journey of those extraordinary main characters, who never betray their moral values, belief systems and feelings. Teacher Tam and Giang are…
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Following is a review posted by Potsoup at http://potsoupforthesoul.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/the-village-teacher/
The Village Teacher
I have never been asked directly by an author if I would read and then review his or her book. So when Nguyễn Trọng Hiền asked if I would, I was surprised, happy and honored. ‘Neihtn‘ ‘s debut novel is the hero of this post.
Set in 19th Century Vietnam, The Village Teacher is a work of historical fiction.The story is placed in French colonial Vietnam. The protagonist of the story is Teacher Tam, a school teacher from a small village in North Vietnam. Tam aspires to follow in the steps of the scholars of the time and excel at the royal examinations entitling him to a position at the court or as a Mandarin. In the process he shall make new friends, enemies and show to the reader the life in an oriental state under Imperialist powers. A simple village boy makes for the perfect hero with intellect, a training in martial arts and an infallible sense of ethics. The story weaves around politics, drama, love, history and rural life. It tells in some detail of the struggle of a poor man who falls in love with an unlikely heroine and battles the demons of bureaucracy, jealousy and conniving centers of power in the South Asian country.
I will not talk any more of the plot for a fresh story is much more worthy of a read. When I picked up the book the first few chapters were a little difficult to get through. The author’s Vietnamese descent and knowledge of the country’s culture flows through the book. From the names of the characters, to the intertwined lessons of history, geography and gastronomy of the region you feel a very definite presence of ‘Nam’. The words and names are a little difficult to remember at first and thus the initial chapters take time. The freshness of the writer is apparent in the first few pages as one can make out that although excellently well versed in English perhaps its not the writer’s original tongue. I say this as a compliment for it adds to the Vietnamese experience.
As the book progresses one finds more fluidity perhaps by the author having gotten into the flow or the reader having done the same. The names don’t seem so difficult and you pursue the short excerpts from the history books with a new found passion for this relatively less discussed nation and culture. I knew very little about Vietnam, all references I had were from the 70′s conflict period. So would most of the English speaking world I fathom. So the influence of China, the culture of Mandarins and the dominance of France is new and thus interesting. The initial chapters talk of examinations which make or break the careers of scholars as they rise to positions in the royal court. I find myself drawing comparisons to the life in India or most developing nations were high government bureaucrats even today are selected by modern versions of similar exams. Despite the age in which the story is set you form a perfect idea of the daily life of the main characters and find it easy to relate to.
The story may start off as a history lesson soon embraces the beginnings of a romance novel before swaying into suspense, tragedy, drama and with little sprinklings of action. The book has the perfect formula for fiction with the tussle between righteousness and evil, the anguish of lovers torn and the inklings of epic rooted in history. The author must be commended for swaying away from carnal imagery in this era of G.R.R Martin and The Fifty Shades of Grey . He manages to create a palatable romance while letting it remain in the confines of the society in the book’s time and place. One gets to meet interesting if stereotypical characters through out the book which are parts of Asian culture irrespective of nationality. Whether it be a professional match maker, marital astrologer, court eunuch, an all powerful village chief or a village council feigning democracy, all portray life in the era in keeping with history.
I wouldn’t say any part of the plot was deeply unpredictable but the author does manage to create periods of intrigue. The strength of the book to me lies not in the individual stories of Teacher Tam and his beloved Giang but in what they represent in a time of colonialism and mixed cultures. The success of the novel is in the depiction of a period and place often unknown in language easy, authentic and colorful. I say authentic for the work embossed a sense of formality, reservedness and I dare say rigidity, rampant in Asian cultures in the 19th century, onto my mind. While I was reading the book I could feel a sense of awkwardness as if I was adjusting to a new culture. You actually experience something new in terms of the lifestyle of the characters. Another notable point is how the relationship between the French and the Vietnamese has been portrayed with delicate respect for both cultures. It takes a sound business sense and good moral compass to be able to entertain and not alienate audiences form both nationalities. The willingness of an educated few to embrace modern education and teachings while valuing classical knowledge and the defiance of orthodox scions of an ancient culture to anything alien and new, these seem very believable and well portrayed. I would like to have seen the ending a little more drawn out, but we live in abrupt times and perhaps not everyone shares my love for long scenes.
I would recommend you read the book if Oriental cultures, Asian rural life or colonial era stories interest you. For the average romance lover there might be a lot of history. For a first novel and the culmination of a life time dream, this is a great effort and for a fellow IT guy, Brilliant!
“Very well written and engaging story. I especially liked learning about French occupied Vietnam and the Vietnamese culture. My only complaint is the cover is not very descriptive of the contents. This is a period romantic novel set in pre-communist Vietnam. It can be read as a historical novel or a romantic novel and still be enjoyable as either.” Kepler Gelotte “neighborwebmaster.com”, April 5, 2015.
“Excellent.” David, October 19, 2014.
“I read this book without knowing a lot about the history of the French colonization of Vietnam and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The characters are well drawn, the prose is spare and to the point and suits the story very well. I would have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.” Michael Kenny, August 16, 2014.
“I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful and well written book. The author is a gifted story teller. I hope he writes more books.” Thomas C. Heuerman(Minnesota), August 4, 2014.
“I loved the characters and story plot, and I’m glad I decided to give this book a read. It’s one of those whose memory will stay with me, long after I forget all the details. In my opinion, it’s a very good book.” Lisa H. Danford (Alabama), July 28, 2014.
” Village Teacher is a delightful reading. The author blends a beautiful romantic story with the Vietnamese history and culture and the French colonization influences. Throughout the book, the author tactfully incorporates other tales and carefully introduces the family, society structures of Vietnam. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Village Teacher. It’s a well-written book, I highly recommend it. Congratulation to Neihtn!” shopper “amazonshopper” (Texas), April 4, 2014.
“This engrossing historical novel is set in the days of the French colonization of Vietnam. The background historical detail appears meticulous and it is interesting reading this book for that reason alone, however there is much more here than that. This is a tale of the travails and loves of the main character during a period of turmoil.
The characters in this story are very well developed and complex and the events that intertwine them are seamlessly presented so that the story flows well. There are numerous characters who appear in a sequential manner and their side stories add to the whole of the story but do not detract from it.
I enjoyed this book for the fascinating historical and cultural perspectives as well as the dramatic fictional story. There is a definite element of suspense and about halfway through the book It became a real page turner and I could not put it down until the end.” Eric, November 25, 2013.
“Village Teacher is one of the most unique and delightful love stories I have read in a very long time. Because members of my family did spend time in Viet Nam in 1964 and 1968 through 1970, I was particularly interested in a story set during a historic period prior to the Vietnam War. I knew very little about what it was like during the years of the French colonization or anything about the exam system in place at the time.
While the author does give a very complete historical backdrop of the period, it really is at heart a story about people trying to live their lives during turbulent times of change. When introduced to Teacher Tam you really cannot help but love him and the example he provides of an individual interested in what is best not just for his students but for his country, and the steadfast honesty with which he approaches everything.
The reviews I have read here address so perfectly the complexity of this story so it is difficult to add to how wonderful those reviews are. But, this is a book that is difficult to put down as the reader does become invested in the characters and wants passionately for destiny to unfold as it should in the lives of Teacher Tam and Giang. With various political factions and betrayals at play, this is by no means assured. The story is well paced and well crafted and will keep you anxious to see what the next chapter holds. I particularly enjoyed the tenderness with which the story is told and the underlying understanding of human nature, and the respect for the importance of education and the culture of Viet Nam that the story reveals.
I recommend this tender, historical love story set in Viet Nam during the French colonization without reservation!! I loved it!!” Judith Ann Lovell, November 4, 2013.
“While reading this book, I learned much about the history of Vietnam. This book is well written, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought the author did an excellent job of developing the characters and making them seem real. I think it would be an exceptionally good book to be read by a book club.” Faye Smith September 16, 2013.
“This is a refreshing look at a Vietnam that’s rarely featured in English language fiction.
Village Teacher, set in the early years of French colonization, when the Vietnamese first began to grapple with the West, is on its surface a love story about a virtuous village scholar, Tam, and Giang, a spirited half-French daughter of the Hue elite. But, the book has many layers. At heart, it is a quiet tribute to Vietnamese men of letters and the prevailing spirit of the Vietnamese language (whether in Chinese ideograms or French invented alphabets). Although probably unintended, there is also a larger moral lesson about how countries, not just Vietnam, can be won or lost if change is not embraced appropriately.
I thought the book was well plotted, from the scholar’s initial meeting with his beloved all the way through the obstacles the two must encounter, until the bitter-sweet finale.
What charmed me most about the narrative were the details about late 19th century Vietnamese life – the snack of taro cooked by the teacher Tam’s student, the innuendo fraught conversation about the misplaced imperial corpses in the Nguyen tombs, the machinations of the matchmaker Madam Pumpkin.
This book is thoroughly imbued with the ethos and mindset of the period, even to its crafting. The story unfolds almost operatically, with all the elements of a traditional cai-luong, including revelations about past indiscretions and newly discovered illegitimate children. For good measure, some of Vietnam’s best love poetic lines, like the opening stanzas of Nguyen Du’s epic Kieu, and Doan Thi Diem’s Song of a Soldier’s Wife. It is apparent that the author Nguyen Trong Hien is someone who appreciates the legacy of the Vietnamese language.
I opened this book on a Saturday morning and did not go on to anything else till I finished it on Saturday night.
So why not 5 stars then?
I have a confession. I’m a plot driven reader and if a plot is engaging, I need to follow the twists and turns until the final satisfying resolution. The problem with Village Teacher was that when I emerged from the book, I did not feel regret about leaving the characters behind. Most were too patently white or black, including the scholar and his beloved. The motivations of the two villians, the bullying village headman Xa Long and the MInister of Rites Toan, were never “shown” sufficiently. The novel would have been more satisfying with more conflicted grey characters like Ba Trang, the heroine’s mother, and Teacher Xinh, the dismissed scholar. Indeed, the question that has been haunting me since I put the book down is how the pseudo romantic relationship between two minor characters – the brigand chief and his half sister – would have played out realistically.
I was also a little irritated with the English translations of the Kieu opening lines, which did not do any justice to the beauty of the Vietnamese. I’m afraid, I do love Kieu, so that counted as a big minus too.
All in all though, this is a lovely piece of work which I’d recommend to anyone who wants to read a good piece of romantic historical fiction. In addition, those with an interest in late 19th century Vietnamese society will find this book particularly valuable. It may be a work of fiction, but the setting and norms and mores are so realistically described, it can be a work of cultural anthropology.
A great escape into Vietnam, with no mention of that war we’re all still haunted by.” Aud, August 25, 2013.
“Village Teacher is an interesting and informative book about life in Vietnam around the time of the French colonization. The historical facts are true to life and the tale is skilfully intertwined with history and fiction. Not only is the author’s writing method smooth and flowing, but the dialogue between the characters is equally as smooth and believable.
I found this book a delightful read, full of colourful descriptions which capture the magic of the scenery. In my opinion it also accurately represents the changing times when the Vietnamese people became tired of the bindings and oppressions the French had placed on both their people and their land.
The story follows the life of Tam , an intelligent young village teacher, who journeys far to take an examination in the capital city of Hue. After taking his final examinations, it is just a matter of time before Tam will hear if he is to stay on as a mandarin, or return to his quiet village and continue as the teacher there.
Everything seems rather simple and straightforward until one day Tam has the opportunity to save a young lady and her handmaid from a thief. The young lady, Giang, is a beautiful woman with a Vietnamese mother and a French father. Times are turbulent, and Giang’s mother is not supportive of the growing rapport between Tam and Giang. This does not stop their love from blooming, however, and Giang and Tam remain true, supporting one another in close friendship.
I thoroughly enjoyed Village Teacher, from the gentle tone of the storytelling to the tender love story and interesting historical facts.” Nicua Shamira “Shamira”, July 17, 2013.
“This book is excellent. I would like to recommend this book to those who want to know Vietnamese educational exam. systems before 20th century: local exam , regional exam and palace exam. ( Thi Hương , Thi Hội , Thi Đình ), and a little bit of Vietnamese society and history in early period of French colonization.” XChau, July 12, 2013.
“I would recommend this book to anyome who is as avid as I am about history and especially French history. The way the Vietnamese and French cultures cohabited is a mystery; although thanks to the author, by reading this book we can learn more about a part of the past which needed to be studied.” Alain Darmon, September 24, 2012.
“Village Teacher is a Vietnamese love story during the early years of French colonization and the Nguyen Dynasty. It is a story of Tam, the young Village teacher and Giang, a Vietnamese French young lady. Their love was passionate , complicated and exciting due to their different social background, education and culture . However, after so many ups and downs, their love has a happy ending.I would recommend this book to all those who are interested in love stories, Vietnamese culture and history. I highly recommend this book for young Vietnamese Americans to understand and appreciate their country, culture, and history.” Thinh Vu, June 26, 2012
“I just finished reading the Village Teacher and L-O-V-E-D it. I kept turning the pages and the story was so intriguing that I skipped a few chapters in the middle to read the end of the story then came back later to read the chapters in the middle. I do that all the time with the very good books.
The Vietnamese customs and traditions in the early days of French colonization are very well described and set as the background for the love story of the village teacher and a Vietnamese French young lady, daughter of a prominent French officer. The book is thoroughly entertaining!” Hue Phan, June 24, 2012
“In the waning years of the 19th century, Vietnam found itself convulsed with tumult and upheaval, its age-old Buddhist-Confucian order rapidly crumbling. Various factions were vying for power at the enfeebled Imperial court at Huê, while contending forces in the countryside fought both each other and the French, even as the French were inexorably consolidating their own imperialist subjugation of the entire country. Entering upon this turbulent scene, a gifted but unassuming young schoolteacher named Tâm, full of high aspirations for his country, makes his way from his relatively peaceful northern village to the capital city of Huê. There, within the walls of the Forbidden City, he will take the final national examinations that enable those passing to enter into the ranks of the scholarly ruling class: the mandarins.
Out for a stroll on the outskirts of Huê while waiting for the examination results, Tâm springs to the rescue of a lovely young woman beset by a pair of ruffians, only to learn that she is the daughter (named Giang) of a powerful French officer and his Vietnamese wife. Tâm is greatly surprised by this, for Giang’s appearance is completely Vietnamese, except for one feature that he finds utterly mesmerizing: her captivating blue eyes….
So begins a love story that unfolds in the face of many hurdles, perils, and vicissitudes, including a nefarious scheme to deny the young scholar the rightful place he has earned to an official position by dint of his mastery of the classical texts of Chinese literature and the punctilious art of calligraphy. In Vietnam, as in China, this emphasis on literary and writing skills, combined with the examination system itself, was expressly designed to perpetuate the whole traditional order and with it, of course, the mandarinate itself. In consequence, as one character muses, such a system made of Vietnam “a country where the status quo was the official policy and where [beneficial] changes often met with punishment instead of rewards.”
Yet as Tâm is painfully aware, such classical scholarly training was scarcely a useful preparation for the practicalities of governing, let alone for conducting modern, technology-driven warfare. Tâm recognizes that the Vietnamese of his era would have to learn from the Westerners if they were eventually to withstand or, come to that, defeat them. Moreover, the mandarinate itself, like much else in the Vietnam of that time (and since), was riddled with its own corrosive moral and intellectual corruptions, extending even to the very examination system that was supposed to validate the mandarin’s righteous claim to rule.
Thus from the beginning the novel strikes its overarching theme of the wrenching conflict of Western-influenced modernization and entrenched Vietnamese traditionalism. The deft master-stroke the author has hit upon to flesh out this theme is the gradual transition in Vietnam from the Chinese-based ideographic writing system, chữ Nôm (“demotic”), to the modern, romanized script, Quốc ngữ (“national language”), in use today. This ingenious literary device grounds the novel in a profound process of cultural change, with the historic transition in orthography serving as at once a master trope and as a running motif interwoven throughout the story.
For the sake of progress, Teacher Tâm becomes not only a student but a proponent of the new script, seeing in it a means of promoting literacy among his largely illiterate countrymen, along with the schooling made possible by it, eventually implying a less aristocratic, more democratic, opening-up of the entire culture. In one of the novel’s many subtly ironic turns, the village teacher is himself taught the new writing system by none other than Giang, his French-Vietnamese love-to-be. Further, Giang’s bicultural family is Catholic and she herself was taught the new script by Jesuits — the very order of Catholic missionaries that introduced and perfected the Quốc ngữ writing system (all the better to convert as many Vietnamese to Catholicism as possible by making translations of the Christian Bible widely available to a literate populace).
But, of course, the alphabet-based Quốc ngữ (with only 23 characters to learn as opposed to several thousand ideograms) represents a direct threat to the old order and to the tight grip of the Old Guard mandarins who sustain it, they being the elite few with the skill and wherewithal to master the difficult classical system. Thus do the plot elements and the major themes of Village Teacher adroitly dovetail.
As befitting the national character of the language-haunted Vietnamese people, then, their language is at the heart of the novel. (For that reason alone, it is entirely apposite that the author presents Vietnamese words with their full complement of diacritical marks.) Historically, the Vietnamese have invested their language with near-talismanic properties. Words are infused with a certain awe and mystery, especially names, such as those bestowed on newborns and on royal personages. Correspondingly, there are strict language taboos, particularly when it comes to the many names and verbal associations that accrue to an Emperor. Indeed, the hinge of the plots to destroy Tâm turns on just such magico-religious taboos, and the novel will end with a lexical misapprehension, inciting an accusation that threatens to lead to his precipitous beheading.
To appreciate and enjoy the novel best, it is well to keep in mind that the tale and its telling are rooted in Vietnamese literary and dramatic traditions, both classical and popular, including The Tale of Kiêu, the epic verse novel written in the early 19th century by Nguyên Du. As in the opening lines cited from that work, at issue throughout is the unending conflict between great human character (expressed as prodigious talent) and human destiny or, more ominously, Fate. The major protagonist, Tâm (much like Kim Van Kiêu), is plainly meant to be a paragon, representing an idealized portrait of a Vietnamese of the highest talent, character, and grit. (His given name signifies a combination of “heart, mind, center.”) Although an erudite scholar, Tâm remains a noble village teacher at heart, being something of a pure and chaste soul among the cutthroat schemers and malevolent brutes who populate the debased world in which he finds himself thrown. (The villains may be thought of as perversely “perfected” in their own way, depicted as they are in sharp, almost calligraphic strokes as venal, vicious, and vile.)
Village Teacher also features several strong female characters (including the biracial Giang and a daring beauty of a spy) who are also drawn in an idealized fashion, as is only befitting a Romance. As in The Tale of Kieu, much is made of the distinctly “modern” way of choosing a marriage partner on the basis of love and personal choice, as opposed to the time-honored practice of arranged marriages. Not that this comes easily. The most colorful character in the novel is a crafty old bag of a matchmaker by the name of Bà Bí (“Mrs. Pumpkin” in English), who is adamant about dissuading headstrong young people from their sentimental modern illusions of romance when it comes to such all-important affairs as marriage. (It is she who pronounces the hoary adage, “Love does not lead to marriage but follows from marriage.”) In a wryly pointed twist on the theme of fate, Mrs. Pumpkin takes it upon herself to collude with her claque of soothsayers in order to “adjust” what turned out to be a unpropitious alignment of the stars, all the better to satisfy her client’s wishes and, not incidentally, fatten her own fees. Such are the human wiles that can bend even the ostensible “will of Heaven.”
Although the story of Village Teacher is straightforwardly told in transparent prose (vivified at times by striking visual images), the reader should be prepared for some melodramatic, even “operatic,” elements in the convolutions and coincidences of the plot. In places the format even reminds one of hat cai luong, the “reformed (Chinese) opera” that is the most popular genre of musical drama in Vietnam. Death (whether by murder, combat, beheading, or sacrificial suicide) is never distant from the scene. (However, it is to the author’s stylistic credit that death comes to certain characters without elaborate literary “staging”; it simply happens with the stark suddenness of a lightning bolt splitting the blackness of the night.)
There are also mythic and fable-like aspects to the story in the uncanny way that vectors of the plot come together at certain times, what with the crisscrossings and interlockings of the fate of various characters, some of whom are related by blood (unbeknownst to them), notably including the misbegotten issue of forcible rape. (The novel has touches of Dickens-like sentiment in its poignant portrayals of the plight of orphans, abandoned children, and other innocent victims of forces beyond their control. But then, Vietnam has had more than its share of such unfortunates down through the ages).
To this reader, these features are all part of the charm and delight of Vietnamese dramatic literature, with the various pieces of the tale eventually falling satisfyingly into place. As with any good storytelling, particularly with love stories, the reader becomes invested in the characters and is keen to know what happens to them. Beyond that, the novel is intricately “dialectical” (in a literary-symbolic, non-Marxist sense) in its artful interweaving of its plot elements, characters, and themes. While the novel obviously bears on the many complexities of Vietnamese society, culture, and character (as entangled with the encroachments of the French), it consistently keeps to its historical setting and is not designed to prefigure in detail the tormented history of modern Vietnam to come. At most, it exudes a pained wistfulness as to possibilities thwarted, roads not taken, might-have-beens that were not to be. In that sense, although steeped in the history of its time and place, and saturated with politics of major and minor scales, Village Teacher is more of a meditation on the human condition and human destinies, as played out in Vietnam on the cusp of the 20th century, than an ideological tract, let alone a score-settling work of propaganda. It is, rather, a moving and gratifying work of literature.” AnhMaiDel, June 12, 2012
“`Village Teacher’ is a refreshing narrative of French colonization of Vietnam, and Vietnamese transition to the new age. Even though it is labeled as fiction, the author’s ability to intertwine historical facts with his narration is so original that I have read through it as a `true story’.This is author’s first attempt in writing in a book form but the writing is so prolific, style is so natural that it is very easy to get convinced that we are reading a book from a seasoned writer. I was impressed with smooth flowing of words and a mystique expression in sentences that it kept me glued to the book, page after page.While explaining the historical facts, and the turn of events, author approached what has happened with a broader perspective without giving into the narrow interpretation of one culture over the other and tried to convey the best from the both worlds.I have learned a lot about Vietnamese history but what I have learned more is about the ways of Vietnamese life. Author’s narrative was picturesque and as I was reading, I could actually visualize what he is describing in my mind and it made my reading more intriguing.
I recommend this book to international readers who are interested to learn about Vietnam but also to the new Vietnamese generations to understand and appreciate their country, culture, and history.” Manohar Ravela, June 5, 2012
“It’s a very good book to read for those who are interested in Vietnam, its history, its people at the period when the Chinese cultural influence was declining and the French cultural heritage was beginning to take shape.” Qnbui, May 31, 2012
“A well written and well edited story set in the time of French colonialism, the village teacher, Tam, has gone to Hue to take examinations which may guarantee him a successful career. In the course of his time in Hue, he falls in love, runs afoul of senior ministers and winds up on the wrong side of the law. He returns to his home village and again, runs afoul of local authorities. We learn a great deal about Vietnam of the period, we see court intrigue, the oppressiveness of colonialism and throughout get to enjoy a love story.” RustyTreasure, May 30, 2012
The strange melancholy of autumn is setting in but as we bottled some elderberry wine and apple cider there is a sense of satisfaction mingled in to the mix. This is a new experiment for us, we are by no means experts and if the few bottles we made turn out less than perfect, so what? It was in this season changing frame of mind, embraced in a glow of unnecessary self satisfaction that I was happy to get an email from Neihtn author of Village Teacher. I was attracted to reading this book because it’s setting in French colonial Viet Nam. The history of Việt Nam was a mystery to me and this book promised to give me some insight.
About the author: “Neihtn is the pen name of a Vietnamese-American writer, Nguyễn Trọng Hiền, living in Princeton, NJ. He was born in North Việt Nam, but in 1954…
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The following is reblogged from Angie Ibarra’s post at http://momentsinyourlife.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/village-teacher-by-neihtn-a-glimpse-of-the-book/
We are all students of life and we are constantly learning from people that we meet, from things that we see, from news that we hear, and from books that we read. Village Teacher gave me a good lesson.
Set in the [last] years of the 19th century in Vietnam. A brilliant and young village teacher from the far north named Lê Duy Tâm came to the Imperial City of Huế. His purpose – along with many young men from all over Vietnam – was to take the final examinations that will enable him to become a mandarin. The Vietnamese mandarins are people who went through rigorous scholastic training and examinations to be able to join the élite ranks of society. By becoming one, it was considered a lifetime achievement and an honor that came with privileges.
However, this was a time of Vietnam’s troubled history where many forces are fighting to take control of the country. From the clans and royalists, the anti-colonial people, the rebels, and the French that wants to control the country. It was a difficult time when people have different needs and are doing anything they can to hold on to power.
Tâm was able to finish the exams well, so while waiting for the results of the examinations, he met a lovely young woman in a knight-in-shining armor way. Her name is Giang, she turned out to be a half-French daughter of a French Naval officer who is the right-hand of a powerful French general. She looked Vietnamese in appearance except for her captivating blue eyes which mesmerized Tâm.
This started a love story that was wonderful at first. Tâm was respectfully accepted by Giang’s family because he was a brilliant young man on his way to becoming a powerful mandarin. However, with Tâm’s association with a French family, he became a target of unfair accusations. The love story became filled with hardships. From unhappy parents, conniving ministers, marriage proposals, prisons and murder. I started to root for their love story and felt like one of the characters who wants to help them. After all the intensity and fast paced events, their story had to make a brief pause.
Then I started reading about history. It was such an eye opener, a great background for this story. I asked myself if I was in that time, how I would feel if my country is being torn apart by so many forces that want to control it. Some had good intentions; some wanted to retain their own status for greed and power.
Tâm had to return to his village to escape unfair accusations and thinking that this would make Giang safe. However, Giang became ill and refused to become her normal self again. Tâm continued to be the village teacher after his father – the former village teacher- passed away. He started teaching the new script and writing text that uses the alphabet which Giang taught him. He became focused on spreading education and knowledge to his students and to the whole village. Meanwhile, even at his small village, woes did not escape him. Many events unfolded…
What would happen next? Will Giang and Tâm be reunited? Is knowledge and education the path to enlightenment and understanding?
The answers would be revealed in such a wonderfully paced, heart warming and lovely book that was an easy read right from the start.
I have been to Vietnam, but I did not fully understand the history and background of what happened in the country. I had to read carefully and imagine the setting and the story. However, after reading the first chapter, the pages flew by. I was drawn by the compelling love story, the rich historical and scholastic background, and the ideas that were presented by the author. The conflicting needs of each character were used brilliantly to create a story that is filled with happenings but did not make it drag. I love how I learned so much about the history of Vietnam and how knowledge and education is the only way to defeat ignorance and bigotry. It shows the importance of learning and the author’s appreciation of the Vietnamese language. It is a book that is charming in its own way and as I read it, I could imagine the setting clearly by the use of Neihtn’s words. Vietnam was forged by its history and by its people. It’s a country with beautiful places and interesting people. The story gave me a clearer image, and a lesson of how it came to be. Also, I am looking forward to returning to Vietnam!
The following is reblogged from Audrey Chin’s blog at: http://oddznns.com/2013/09/13/writers-i-read-writing-in-english-essentially-vietnamese/
Nguyen Trong Hien is the author of Village Teacher, a novel which offers a refreshing look at a Vietnam rarely featured in English language fiction.
Why I chose to interview Hien
Village Teacher struck me immediately as a different and exquisite piece of Old Vietnam.
Set in the early years of French colonisation, it is on its surface a love story about a virtuous village scholar, Tam, and Giang, a spirited half-French daughter of the Hue elite. But, the book has many layers. Under the skin of the love story , however, is a recounting of the Vietnamese people’s first grappling with the West. And at heart, the whole work is a quiet tribute to Vietnamese men of letters and the prevailing spirit of the Vietnamese language (whether in Chinese ideograms or French invented alphabets). Although probably unintended, there is also a larger moral lesson about how countries, not just Vietnam, can be won or lost if change is not embraced appropriately.
The work was thoroughly imbued with the ethos and mindset of the period. The story, which unfolded operatically with all the elements of a traditional cai-luong, had such an old-school Vietnamese sensibility I was prompted immediately to connect with the author, to find out who this English language writer who could so evoke Old Vietnam was.
Nguyen Trong Hien, is a Vietnamese man who now lives in Princeton NJ. Born in North Vietnam, Hien moved South with his family when the country was divided in 1954. He went to college in America, and subsequently returned to Vietnam in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to work as a professor, a writer of textbooks, a soldier and a technocrat.
Hien is multi-talented. Although trained in Engineering and Industrial Administration, and working primarily now in IT, he maintains a wonderful blog filled with great photographs. And of course, there is this book, Village Teacher, a four year labour of love written at night and on weekends.
During my e-interview with Hien about the beginnings of his book and his writing practice, I discovered that the unconscious may influence our writing as much as the conscious. I also realized how much we older writers have been practicing, even when we thought we were simply getting along with the rest of our lives.
I asked Hien what prompted him to write a Vietnamese novel set in the late 19th century instead of one about the war or the diaspora.
He revealed that a reason was because one of his great-grandfathers had been a huong su or village teacher in a town in the highlands of North Vietnam. But, he confessed, he hadn’t known much about the old gentleman except that he led a frugal yet well respected life. More importantly, Hien said, he was influenced by the pro-independence writer Ngo Tat To’s novel, Leu Chong (Tents and Pallets. Published in 1952, the novel which is about the difficulties of scholars travelling to the imperial capital for their exams and the difficulties they encountered, made a great impression. Encouraged by his father to read in while a teenage, Hien recalls reading it again at least twice since then.
When I prompted Hien about other early experiences that might have been influential, he shared an incident which might actually have been central to his decision to write about an examination candidate who’d been unjustly disqualified.
This is the recollection in Hien’s own words – “Even though I had no formal schooling until the age of 7, my father decided to have me take the entrance exam at one of the elite schools in Ha Noi, a Frenchlycée. He had me prepare for it by buying a French textbook and telling me to take a crack at it, with some help from him when he came home from work.
“When the time came, I went and took the exam, with hundreds of other young boys about my age. I was so nervous I came home sick, but I told my father that I did well. However, when the results were published, my name was nowhere on the list of those accepted to the lycée. I had failed!
“My father came home and queried me again about how I did in the exam. I didn’t know what to say and I was running a fever, but I told him what questions were asked and how I answered them. He went back to the school and asked to speak to the principal, a Frenchman. I don’t know what he said, but the principal had his staff look for my exam papers. It turned out I had actually passed, but was somehow failed for no reason. Not only did I pass, my actual grade was so high the principal ordered that I be allowed to skip one level.
“My father later told our family that they did it to admit someone else, probably some scion of a well-connected and wealthy family.”
I find it telling that Hien forgot to share this incident initially. There are clearly parallels between the injustice he suffered as an 8 year old newly arrived to the metropolis Hanoi and those experienced by the hero in Village Teacher. Was it this experience that allowed him to identify so closely with Ngo Tat To’s Tents and Pallets? I can’t know … Hien and I didn’t discuss this.
What I’ve learnt from this exchange is that sometimes the roots of our story are so deeply hidden we ourselves don’t know how we’re inspired. What I wonder is how much richer our writing lives might be if we set time aside to mine the ore of our own experiences.
Hien has been writing from his earliest years “polishing school benches”. His first attempts at producing published work were in college in the United States, when he was selected to be the political editor of the school paper. For a year, he wrote an editorial or column on political, social and economic issues almost every day. It was a practice, he is still grateful for because it taught him how to write fast and communicate clearly.
After graduation, Hien’s writings in English and Vietnamese, both in the US and Vietnam, were primarily on technical, economic, or social subjects. In the back of his mind though, he always wanted to write a novel, something less dreary and perhaps more challenging. Hien was not to know that by writing all that dreary material, he was honing his craft in preparation for when he would actually sit down and write Village Teacher.
Writers read, and so does Hien. He likes history, fictional or otherwise, and believes strongly that “a good book should always allow you to gain some knowledge about things that you didn’t know beforehand.”
He admires all the writers of the Tu Luc Van Doan group, a 1930’s pro-independent literary group founded in colonial Vietnam. In English, John Steinbeck has always been a favourite.
While Hien does not proactively avoid any type of writing, with time being a constraint, he doesn’t actively seek out non-history related works.
As for his current writing practice – Hien is researching highland people in South Vietnam for his second novel. He starts the day very early, arriving at work at 7 AM and trying to get as much done as possible before everyone else starts to trek in around 9 AM. At 4 PM he goes home and exercises for about an hour. Then after dinner, he starts on his book and keeps at it from about 7 PM till 9 or 10 PM.
Writing takes discipline. But Hien also knows to give himself slack.
When the office is too stressful or when he must spend a few extra hours there to deal with problems, he will skip the book and spend time with woodworking or painting. And when he feels lazy, he watches a classical music concert or a movie on disc.
“Life is not so bad, actually,” he writes me with a
Still a writer working alone
Hien confesses he hasn’t managed to make the acquaintance of younger Vietnamese American writers like Aimee Phan, Andrew Lam, Andrew X. Pham and Monique Truong.
That’s a pity.
Hien wrote Village Teacher in English because he wanted to make it accessible to younger Vietnamese in the diaspora, who may not read Vietnamese. He also wanted to reach out to American friends who encouraged him to write. It is his hope that both of those groups will find the novel interesting and learn things about Vietnam that they cannot find anywhere else.
I hope that indeed the new generation of Vietnamese-American writers will pick up Village Teacher. And of course, I hope that Hien will find some time to read these younger authors works. I can see a great deal of inter-generational cross-fertilization happening between someone like Hien, who is fluent in English and yet deeply rooted in Vietnamese literature and culture, and the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans writing in search of identity.
Perhaps …. After this interview goes live, there might be a reaching out.
Village Teacher can be found on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Village-Teacher-neihtn/dp/1475101635
Following is the message in an email from Harry Jackendoff whom I met at the Princeton Library Author’s Day this past April. He bought a copy of my book and I asked him to tell me what he thought of it once he had read it.
April 22, 2013
I began Village Teacher, I believe, 2 evenings ago, and finished this afternoon…..picking it up this morning at 4:30am when I couldn’t sleep. My wife was actually pleased to see me finishing it in the back yard when she arrived from work….”There is hope for you yet! Reading a novel!!!”
I rarely read novels. I had many reasons for starting it…. which I cannot fully explain here….and did not think it would be easy to finish when I first began reading…. as the style is very “upright” and perhaps academic sounding…. not particularly story-telling or conversational….but the story grabbed me, and the Dickensian twists were planted early enough to make me want to see how you would weave the characters back in. It was a very engaging story….as you see I could not put it down. I only wish it were more accessible to readers. I mused about a CLASSIC COMICBOOK version, or a film for the young Vietnamese market back home…. there is so much that I wish we had known back in the 60′s, when you yourself were struggling with all breeds of Americans at home, like your characters had to deal with all breeds of French.
The writing style is unfortunately not what most novel readers are used to… yet the story carries it, if only the reader will give you the respect of reading a chapter or three before deciding to continue. For after the 3rd chapter or so they will want to pick it up again. What I found missing, however was some way to picture the scenes…to place myself in the landscape. perhaps some ink drawings in a calligraphic style at the chapter breaks…..giving us some sense of the lines of the horizon, rooftops, jagged shorelines, sampans on the river, the bamboo cage….. the references to flowers were often lost on me.. I know bougainvillea…. the smells and air quality, the architecture and tree-scapes, the undergrowth….the dust and dirt….. somehow I had to keep reminding myself I was in Vietnam, where the birds are no doubt different, the insect life as different as the 19th century culture… you get what I am after I am sure. You were very very careful in describing every bit of the interior landscape of each character, as if we are reading requirement specifications. I sat back and let you tell me what you had to tell me in the way you knew how, but it was often at the expense of the drama unfolding. This became an accustomed part of the flow after a while, and it was soon apparent that every fact you told us would be part of the denouement shortly …or soon thereafter.
Anyway, this was a wonderful journey, and you took me to a welcome time and place far from my own….yet very much connected.
Harry Jackendoff (H Alan Tansson)
For the first time, I participated in Local Author Day at the Princeton Public Library last Saturday. Here’s a Pinterest link showing all the books that were presented that day:
I only sold one copy of Village Teacher, but it was interesting and fun to talk to other authors, some struggling as much as I am. All in all, it was a very good few hours.
Today my book, Village Teacher, is featured on The Indie Spotlight!
As some of you may know, I self-published Village Teacher through CreateSpace, an Amazon company, at the end of last May. Since then, it has received no publicity, except among friends, family, and the readers of this blog. My friends have been very supportive with their reviews published on Amazon and here.
So far, however, I have had no success in getting book reviewers to review Village Teacher. Some just will just not look at self-published books. Others who are willing to consider Indie authors have such a backlog of books to review that they have stopped accepting review requests. A few have put me on their waiting list which can be several months long. Sigh…
A few weeks ago, I submitted a request to the The Indie Spotlight to have Village Teacher featured on their site, which is subtitled “Where the Independent Author Shines”. Today they graciously did it, and I am thankful for that. So go ahead, take a look there.
Poinciana trees are also called flamboyant or flame trees. Here’s how I described them in Village Teacher on page 11:
“Poinciana trees in full bloom dotted the riverbanks here and there with glorious waves of bright crimson flowers. Coming at the end of the school year, the flowers had come to symbolize the examinations season, their splendor in bloom representing the bright future of those who passed the exams. When the flowers faded and fell to form a red carpet on the ground, they would then be compared to the humiliating fate of those who had failed as their hopes and dreams came crashing down to earth.”
Photo taken at the North end of the Sunshine Skyway bridge near Tampa, FL.
My niece, MT, graciously allowed me to use one of the photos she took in 2007 during a visit to Huế. Here’s how it looks for the Kindle version of the book, and the cover for the print version is almost the same:
I had no idea where she had taken the shot, until a friend of mine, NVH, sent me the following photo which he said was taken at Emperor Thiệu Trị’s library. Note the mandarin statue on the left side of the photo.
Finally, today he sent me another photo to put everything in perspective. You can barely see it, but look at the left corner of the lower roof.
In Village Teacher, during his trial, our hero mentioned a Vietnamese-French Dictionary. This refers to an actual book titled Grammaire Annamite suivie d’un Vocabulaire Français-Annamite et Annamite-Français published by Louis Gabriel Galdéric Aubaret, the French Consul in Bagkok, Thailand, in 1861. You can view it in scanned form, courtesy of the late Professor Nguyễn Khắc Kham at the following link:
Village Teacher by Neihtn: A Review
by Michael Delaney
In the waning years of the 19th century, a gifted but unassuming young schoolteacher named Lê Duy Tâm makes his way from his relatively peaceful village in the far north of Vietnam to the nation’s restive capital in the central region, the Imperial City of Huế. Tâm belongs to one of several contingents of young men from all over Vietnam who have trekked to Huế’s royal compound (in the fortress known as the Forbidden City) to take the final national examinations that will enable those passing to enter into the elite ranks of the scholarly ruling class: the mandarins.
As all too often in Vietnam’s turbulent history, it is a time of great tumult and upheaval, the age-old Buddhist-Confucian-Dynastic order in disarray and crumbling, the nation as a whole convulsed with competing forces. Various factions vie for power at court. Contending movements in the countryside fight both each other and the French: anti-colonial nativists and nationalists, insurrectionists, competing dynastic clans, and royal restorationists among them, along with such rapacious marauders as the Chinese Black Flag gangs. Meanwhile, the French are in the process of consolidating their effective subjugation of the whole country from north to south, having trisected it into three administrative regions, all the better to divide and conquer. (In place of the last Emperor, who mysteriously died on the throne, the French contrived to install a ten-year-old “King” in his place, leaving the bewildered boy at the mercy of the hothouse machinations of the Imperial court even while constantly put under the thumb of the ever more powerful, imperious French Resident General.)
Such in brief is the historical and cultural setting of Village Teacher, a historical romance (but much more besides) by “Neihtn.”
The story gets off to a rousing start early on, as Tâm awaits the results of the final round of examinations that he has every reason to believe (and truly so) he has passed with high honors. Out for a stroll on the lawless outskirts of Huế, Tâm springs to the rescue of a lovely young woman on horseback beset by a pair of ruffians. In short order he subdues the two louts with a few well-placed, jujitsu-like moves. (When Tâm was a boy, as it happens, his uncle taught him martial arts both as a means of self-protection and as a physical-exercise regimen.)
Only upon rescuing the young lady (whose name is Giang) does Tâm learn that she is the half-French daughter of one Captain Bonneau, a French Naval officer who is the right-hand man of the formidable French Resident General. (A decent and open-minded man, Bonneau is married to a Vietnamese merchant’s daughter, and has gained his powerful position in part by becoming fluent in Vietnamese and intimately knowledgeable about the often-cryptic ways of the Vietnamese.) Tâm is greatly surprised at this revelation, for Giang’s appearance is thoroughly Vietnamese, except for one feature that he finds utterly mesmerizing: her captivating blue eyes….
So begins a love story that unfolds in the face of many hurdles, perils, and vicissitudes, including a nefarious scheme to deny the talented young scholar the rightful place he has earned in the ranks of officialdom by dint of his sterling examination results. For, as it turns out, the conniving Minister of Rites, the very illustrious official most responsible for guaranteeing the integrity of those results, has other plans in mind….
Rather than summarizing the many ups and downs of the novel’s plot, this review will stress the more thematic, conceptual, and literary qualities of Village Teacher. In doing so, it is apposite to draw from it certain significant features of the historical and cultural backdrop against which its story takes place.
As the 19th century drew to a close, the still-intact, but increasingly precarious, Confucian-based Vietnamese political system continued to be dominated by the mandarins, insofar as not displaced by the growing sway of the French. These scholar-rulers had to be proficient in knowing and emulating the classical texts of Chinese literature, with an emphasis on poetry and philosophy, two subjects deemed utterly essential to righteous and sagacious rule. The scholars were likewise expected to be expert calligraphers in writing the complex ideographic writing system adapted from the Chinese known as chữ Nôm. So exacting were the rules of composition that a single erroneous stroke of the brush on an examination paper could doom a scholar’s entire life chances (thereby opening up the ready possibility of someone tampering with the results).
In old Vietnam, as in China, this emphasis on literary and writing skills, combined with the examination system itself, was expressly designed to perpetuate the entire traditional order and with it, of course, the mandarinate itself. In a way that sharply contrasts with the largely “progressive” mentality that intellectuals have assumed in modern times, in the East as in the West, the mandarins were deeply committed to the preservation and continued practice of their time-honored cultural patrimony, much of it learned by rote. In consequence, as one character ruefully muses, this system made of Vietnam “a country where the status quo was the official policy and where [progressive] changes often met with punishment instead of rewards.”
Yet as Tâm is painfully aware, such classical scholarly training was scarcely a useful preparation for the practicalities of governing, let alone for conducting modern mechanized warfare. With all the modern technology at their disposal, Tâm realizes, the French had a commanding, if not always decisive, advantage over the Vietnamese armed forces arrayed against them. Accordingly, he recognizes that the Vietnamese of his era would have to learn from the Westerners if they were eventually to withstand or, come to that, defeat them. Moreover, as we quickly learn, the mandarinate itself, like much else in the Vietnam of that time (and since), was riddled with its own corrosive moral and intellectual corruptions, extending even to the very examination system that was supposed to validate the mandarin’s righteous claim to rule.
Thus from the very beginning the novel strikes its overarching theme of the wrenching struggle of modernization in conflict with entrenched Vietnamese traditionalism, based on the twin pillars of Buddhist-Confucian order (itself increasingly challenged on religious grounds by the spread of European-imported Catholicism). The deft master-stroke the author has hit upon to flesh out this theme is the gradual transition from the ideographic chữ Nôm (“demotic script”) Vietnamese writing system to the modern, romanized Quốc ngữ (“national language”) that is in universal use today (outside of certain religious and literary contexts). This ingenious literary device grounds the novel in a profound process of actual historical and cultural change, with the transition in orthography serving as at once a master-trope and as a running motif interwoven throughout the story. As such, it is crucial to the plot and its climax, inasmuch as it critically bears on the destiny of its major protagonist, Tâm, a man whose vocation is rooted in language and learning.
In one of the novel’s many subtly ironic turns, the village teacher is first introduced to the new writing system, then taught it, by none other than Giang, his French-Vietnamese love-to-be. As further irony, Giang’s family is Catholic and she herself was taught the new script by French Jesuits — the order of Catholic missionaries that introduced and perfected the Quốc ngữ writing system (all the better to convert as many Vietnamese to Catholicism as possible, by making translations of the Bible widely available to a literate populace).
For all that he is steeped in the ancient Sino-Vietnamese texts, Tâm quickly recognizes the advantages of the new, accessibly simple writing system; after all, he remains a modest village teacher at heart. Thus, he becomes not only a student but an enthusiastic proponent of the new orthography for the sake of his country’s progress, seeing in it a means of promoting literacy among his largely illiterate countrymen, along with the schooling made possible by it, eventually implying a less aristocratic-autocratic, more demotic-democratic, opening-up of the entire culture.
But, of course, the alphabet-based Quốc ngữ (with only 23 characters to learn as opposed to several thousand ideograms) represents a direct threat to the old order and to the grip of the Old Guard who sustain it, they being among the elite few with the wherewithal to master the classical system. The very prospect of universal literacy would likewise be seen by the mandarins as imperiling the political edifice devised to preserve and protect their rarefied place in society. Thus do the plot elements and the major themes of Village Teacher adroitly dovetail.
As befitting the native disposition of the language-haunted Vietnamese people, then, their language is at the heart of the novel. (For that reason alone, it is entirely appropriate that the author presents Vietnamese words with their full complement of diacritical marks, including tone marks — a remarkably accurate phonetic transcription of the spoken language, incidentally, thanks to the linguistic skills of no less a historical personage than Alexander de Rhodes.) Historically, the Vietnamese (like the Chinese) have invested aspects of their language, both written and spoken, with near-talismanic properties. Certain words are infused with awe and mystery, especially names, such as those bestowed on newborns and on royal personages. Correspondingly, there are strict language taboos, particularly when it comes to the many names and verbal associations that accrue to an Emperor. Indeed, the hinge of the plots to destroy Tâm turns on just such magico-religious taboos, and the novel will end with a lexical misapprehension, inciting an accusation that threatens to lead to his precipitous beheading.
To appreciate and enjoy the novel best, it is well to keep in mind that the tale and its telling are rooted in Vietnamese literary and dramatic traditions, both classical and popular, including what many consider Vietnam’s national poem, The Tale of Kiều, the epic verse novel written in the early 19th century by Nguyễn Du. As in the opening lines cited from that work, at issue throughout is the unending conflict between great human character (expressed as prodigious talent) and human destiny or, more ominously, Fate. The major protagonist, Tâm (much like Kim Vân Kiều), is obviously meant to be a paragon, representing an idealized portrait of a Vietnamese person of the highest talent, character, and grit. (His given name signifies a combination of “heart, mind, centeredness.”) As such, Tâm is depicted as a pure and chaste soul cast among the cutthroat schemers and malevolent brutes who populate the debased world in which he finds himself thrown. (The villains may be thought of as perversely “perfected” in their own way, depicted as they are in sharp, almost calligraphic strokes as venal, vicious, and vile.)
Although the story of Village Teacher is straightforwardly told in unpretentious prose (vivified at times by striking visual images), the reader should accordingly be prepared for some melodramatic, even “operatic” elements in the convolutions and coincidences of the plot. Indeed, in places the format can remind one of hát cải lương, or “reformed (Chinese) opera,” the hugely popular Vietnamese genre of musical drama, typically set in dynastic times. There are also mythic or fable-like dimensions to the story. Among them are dread portents of betrayal that well up in dreams and the uncanny way that vectors of the plot come together at certain times, what with the crisscrossing and interlocking of the fates of various characters, some of whom (unbeknownst to them) are related by blood, notably including misbegotten children, the issue of forcible rape. In addition, there are some touches of Dickens-like sentiment (or, more germanely, of merciful Buddhist compassion), such as poignant portrayals of the plight of orphans, abandoned children, and other innocent victims of forces quite beyond their control. (But then, Vietnam has had more than its share of such unfortunates down through the ages.)
Village Teacher also features several strong female characters (including the intrepid Giang and a daring beauty of a spy) who are also drawn in an idealized fashion, as is only befitting a Romance. As in The Tale of Kiều, much is made of the distinctly “modern” way of choosing a marriage partner on the basis of personal feelings and choice, as opposed to the time-honored practice of arranged marriages. Not that this comes easily in the face of parental pressure and the old ways of doing things. The most colorful character in Village Teacher is a crafty old bag of a matchmaker by the name of Bà Bí (“Mrs. Pumpkin” in English), who is adamant about dissuading headstrong young people from their sentimental modern illusions of romance when it comes to such all-important affairs as marriage. (It is she who pronounces the hoary adage, “Love does not lead to marriage but follows from marriage.”)
Combining elements of an adventure story, a political allegory, and a historical romance, Village Teacher is certainly not wanting in eventfulness. From the capital city to Tâm’s small isolated village, corruption and mendacity are rife, particularly among the rich and the politically powerful, but extending even to complacently worldly Buddhist monks. In the labyrinthine affairs of the royal court, there are insidious intrigues and machinations aplenty: blackmail schemes, bribery, moral extortion, and ruthless pressures to betray come to the fore. Spies and informers abound. Rivals or supposed superiors are bought off, out-maneuvered, or cagily manipulated. Treachery lurks everywhere.
The novel is amply populated with diverse types of characters, both high and low in terms of station in life, rectitude, and inner fortitude. There are those who serve as symbolic alter-egos or Doppelgängers of other characters, sometimes mirroring each other’s traits in reverse, sometimes evoking better or worse aspects of one character in aspects of another. There are love triangles and wrangles, with no shortage of rivalry and jealousy over love interests and potential marriage mates. Enjoyably, many are the ways that characters indulge in teasing and toying with others, sometimes in the innocent form of playful flirting or mirthfully outwitting haughty superiors, more often by taking malicious pleasure in discomfiting, belittling, or pulling rank over supposedly unworthy or inferior others. (If the Vietnamese do not have an exact counterpart for the German word Schadenfreude, or the French ressentiment, the novel suggests that they certainly have a well-developed comprehension of the basic ideas.)
Fate is a constant theme of the book (and nothing is more characteristic of a traditionalist culture than an unshakeable belief in implacable Fate). Behind the dramatic twists and turns of the plot, the novel can be seen as a sustained rumination on how the intersections of different people, with all their contending motives, can profoundly affect others in unexpected ways. As the novel proceeds, the reader comes to appreciate that Fate is not simply some nebulous, but overpowering, cosmic force (for all that it may be perceived that way by many Vietnamese). More intricately, fate can be taken to represent the whole constellation of forces — historical, political, social, economic, cultural, and personal — that shapes individual and collective lives and fortunes.
In a very real sense, for instance, the contingent fact that one has been born at all, and now exists, can be traced to the fateful moment of one’s conception, and all that led up to it, for better or worse. To a considerable extent, a person’s disposition and innate capacities are a product of one’s parents and the family one grows up in. In traditional Vietnamese society, as in many others, one’s lot in life can decisively stem from something as elementary and arbitrary as birth order in a family (which, when combined with gender, can make the crucial difference between being a Crown Prince instead of a mere highborn princess. And that’s not even to consider the likely dismal prospects of an outcast bastard child). So, too, with the political order and social-economic stratum one is born into. A whole nation may be at the mercy of fateful decisions made by some high-level rulers and generals a world away across the sea.
In more personal terms, particularly in the Buddhist worldview, the notion of “karma” is a cardinal aspect of one’s destiny as well. The notion of karma, both good and bad, plays an appreciable part in the tale of Village Teacher, often in piquantly incongruous ways. For instance, in the course of several pivotal events, Tâm is subjected to victimization along the lines of the sardonic precept that “no good deed goes unpunished.” At work is a perversely inverted psychological dynamic whereby well-deserved gratitude somehow gets transformed into spiteful “comeuppance.” When that happens, a kind of reverse-karma comes into play in human affairs, such that persons of stalwart character are thwarted and schemed against not in spite of, but just because of, their noble qualities and commendable deeds. (Human, all-too-human.)
But even karma is not simply a brute mechanical process, for as Heraclitus observed ages ago, character, too, is Destiny. As The Tale of Kiều proposed, history itself is the product not simply of irresistible predestination, but rather of exceptional character and human will locked in an unending struggle with all the consequential forces bearing on people at any given time. (If “Fate” chiefly carries a sense of predetermination, of one’s fortunes foreordained or foredoomed from the start, “Destiny” has more to do with innate talent and the willingness to act in keeping with one’s essential nature, bearing more on the future than the past; the Vietnamese word mệnh, like the idea of the “will of Heaven,” ambiguously encompasses both senses.)
The choice of marriage partner is entirely to the point when considering personal fate in traditional Vietnamese society, given the absolute centrality of the family to one’s identity, social place, and prospects in life. In Vietnam, it has typically been mothers who took the leading role in judging and recruiting suitable mates for their offspring, relying on the beneficial blessings of the heavens, to be sure. Professional matchmakers were commonly brought in to broker such arranged marriages, exerting their proficiency so as to extend a family line advantageously and enrich its fortunes to the maximum extent.
So it is with the services provided in Village Teacher by the wily matchmaker Bà Bí, who is more than willing to tempt fate itself should that serve the supposed interests of all concerned in a prospective joining of mates. In a wryly pointed twist on the theme of fate, Mrs. Pumpkin takes it upon herself to collude with her claque of soothsayers in order to “adjust” what turned out to be a prospective couple’s unpropitious astrological signs, all the better to satisfy her client’s express wishes and, not incidentally, fatten her own fees. Such are the human wiles that can bend even the star-crossed trajectory of predestination by realigning the course of the very stars themselves.
Given the tormented history of Vietnam to come in the 20th century, the author of Village Teacher on the whole takes a fair-minded, not retaliatory or recriminatory, attitude towards its non-villainous cast of characters, including the foreign ones. After all, coursing through all the political and historical particulars of the tale is a love story that is both bicultural and biracial. That forbearance also extends to the two most admirable French characters, Capt. Bonneau and a humble and good-hearted French Jesuit priest, Father Stéphane (known as Cha Phan), who recognizes that he at bottom has more in common with the idealistic Tâm than not. (Pointedly, both of these Frenchmen are fluent in Vietnamese and versed in the culture of Vietnam that they have come to appreciate for its own sake.)
The author is willing to recognize that the French (and the Christian religion they imported into Vietnam) had their own mixture of good and bad features. (As portrayed, no doubt accurately, colonial French officialdom is seen as not without certain mandarin-like qualities of its own.) While far from being an apologist for the French role in the Vietnam of that era, let alone the one to come, the author presents them as having perforce a modernizing — not to say “civilizing” — influence that the Vietnamese of the late 19th century would have been well advised to adapt to for the sake of their own national future. Tâm himself, while indifferent to religion and wary of its practitioners sectarian tendency to provoke doctrinal disputes, contends that fighting the Catholic religion per se is nothing but a great waste of energies best spent on more important things. (As if to underscore the point, both he and Giang have uncles who are temperate, salt-of-the-earth Buddhist abbots, who will play a moderating role in the plot.)
Spoiler Alert: The next five paragraphs divulge details of the novel’s climax in order to underscore the carefully constructed symmetries of the plot. Readers may skip as they will.
The story comes to a climax with an underhanded scheme to remove the capable and beloved village teacher from the teaching post he took over from his late father some years ago, thereby perpetuating one of the most traditionally revered positions of village society. Tâm’s cunning antagonist, drawing on both xenophobic emotions and the limited literacy of the villagers, paradoxically paints him as a traitorous proselytizer for foreign political and religious influences. Just as The Tale of Kiều has sometimes been used for bibliomancy (using lines from a book for divination or exorcism), so (in reverse) the villagers are made to believe that a French-Vietnamese dictionary (the Vietnamese words printed in both traditional and romanized script) is actually the tabooed Christian Bible. (To make the false charge seem credible, Tâm’s accuser points to an ideographic character of but two strokes that is misconstrued as a forbidden symbol. This represents a truly clever stroke of literary legerdemain on the author’s part, looping the plot back to the cunning calligraphic stratagem used to nullify Tâm’s examination results.)
For the crowing touch, the suspicious villagers come to learn that another supposedly sinister book printed in the new “national language,” far from being subversive of Vietnamese culture, is actually a collection of renowned Vietnamese texts. In short, the new romanized script, for all its foreign look and in spite of being devised by foreign missionaries, is just what will allow classical poetry and other literary works beloved by the Vietnamese to be disseminated far more widely than ever before, thereby representing a confluence of the classical and the modern that perfectly fits the novel’s overriding themes.
This development is also in keeping with the considerable sympathy the author expresses for the common Vietnamese people of the time, even the lowest of the “lower orders,” notably a pariah family of “night soil” gatherers (euphemistically dubbed “gold farmers”) who come to play a signal part in the plot. Indeed, an underlying theme of the novel is that the general run of the common people, with their earthy, animistic-influenced Buddhist outlook on life, were in many respects closer to a pure Vietnamese spirit than the erudite mandarins, with all their intellectualism and saturation in Chinese cultural influences. (The centuries-long tension felt by the Vietnamese over the penetration of Chinese culture into their own, from borrowed political models to forms of written and spoken language, is an undercurrent of the book, paralleling in some ways the fraught relations between the Vietnamese and the French.)
The novel’s theme of transition to the new writing system offers one final point, an especially pertinent and poignant one, foreshadowing an aspect of the eventual Vietnamese diaspora after 1975. For not only will the village school where Tâm taught become the center for spreading the new alphabetic writing system; the children who first learn the script take it upon themselves to teach it in turn to their older kinsman, thus inverting the usual teacher-student relation of adults to children. And so is has been on the part of many adult Vietnamese immigrants in the post-war era who have been instructed in foreign ways and languages by their children, rather than the reverse.
The novel ends on a note of cultural accommodation and tolerance as Cha Phan, the Catholic priest, and his Buddhist counterpart (Tâm’s uncle) come together to preside over a long-awaited marriage ceremony. Their joint participation proceeds not by disregarding or collapsing the tenets of their respective creeds, but by transcending them in temporal practice, all the better to promote harmony, tolerance, and the blessings of love between two human beings. In the end, the novel instructs, love may not conquer all, but it at least provides a saving human bulwark against the mulberry-red, blood-dimmed tides of historical fate.
As with any good storytelling, particularly of love stories, the reader of Village Teacher becomes invested in the characters and is keen to know what happens to them. Beyond that, the novel is intricately “dialectical” (in a literary-symbolic, non-Marxist sense) in its artful interweaving of its plot elements, characters, and themes. While the novel obviously bears on the many complexities and contrarieties of Vietnamese society, culture, and character (as entangled with the encroachments of the French), it consistently keeps to its historical setting and is not designed to prefigure in any detail the harrowing history of modern Vietnam to come. At most, it adumbrates many of the forces that would play out in the coming century, exuding a pained wistfulness as to possibilities thwarted, roads not taken, might-have-beens that were not to be. In that sense, although steeped in the history of its time and place, and suffused with politics of major and minor scale, Village Teacher is more of a meditation on the human condition and human destinies, as played out in Vietnam on the cusp of the 20th century, than an ideological tract, let alone a score-settling work of propaganda. It is, rather, a moving and gratifying work of literature.