Village Teacher by Nguyễn Trọng Hiền (Neihtn): A Review
by Michael Delaney
February 7, 2022: The writer of this long review of my first book passed away five years ago. I am republishing his review without any change other than adding my full name as the author of the book.
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.