A Work of Art
Translated and adapted from the Vietnamese by
Phan Huy Đường and Nina McPherson
Vietnam Forum 14 (1993)
Yale Southeast Asia Studies
Last update by the author : 2003-12-11
[Originally published in 1988 in Đoŕn Kết, the newspaper of the Union des Vietnamiens en France]
The historical context of the article's publication:
In 1987, hundreds of articles of criticism appeared in response to the publication of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's novella: A General Goes Into Retirement. The most virulent critics, outraged by what they called Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's "disgusting" tendency to describe animal functions of life (sexuality, eating, day‑to‑day human relations), went so far as to dismiss his fiction entirely, claiming that his brutal, denuded style was "not art".
In 1987, Trần Độ, a retired general and then Director of Culture and Art to the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) Central Committee, invoked the spirit of "đổi mới" or glasnost then in vogue with the Vietnamese Communist leadership and called on Vietnamese writers and literary critics to partake of the new openness. In 1988, Trần Độ founded a new review called Phę Běnh vŕ Dư Luận (Criticism and Opinion) in which he intended to publish short stories, criticism, and essays by some of Vietnam's most experimental and daring writers. More generally, the review aimed to promote a democratic pluralism of literary criticism. In fact, Criticism and Opinion was only published once before the Vietnamese authorities, worried about the spread of its influence, closed it down. (The VCP also moved quickly, and by a sleight of hand, to dismiss Trần Độ from his post on the Central Committee when it merged his committee on Culture and Art with the party committee on ideology (Văn hoá tư tưởng).)
The article published below by Phan Huy Đường (written under the pseudonym Trần Đạo), had the distinction of being the only article by an overseas Vietnamese to be published in what was also to be the only issue of Criticism and Opinion! Since the editor‑in‑chief, Trần Độ realized that Phan Huy Đường article – and its ironic political subtext – might be considered somewhat daring, it was prefaced with the following introduction and a caveat to Vietnamese readers:
Since the publication of A General Goes Into Retirement, the writer Nguyễn Huy Thiệp has received considerable attention. His writing has fascinated countless readers from extremely different walks of life. A flood of articles and critiques have analyzed this short story from many different angles and have expressed a number of different readings. These articles have appeared in a broad range of publications: Văn Nghệ (Art), Nhân Dân (The People), Tuổi Trẻ (Youth), Quân Đội Nhân Dân (The People's Army), etc, and many more abroad.
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's stories have also been the subject of numerous debates, conferences and discussions, and have elicited extremely different opinions. Nevertheless, virtually all of these opinions have recognized the exceptional nature of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's writing, a kind of writing which has been made available to readers thanks to the current atmosphere of renewal (đổi mới) adopted by the Party.
In order to widen the circle of opinion embraced by our review, we present here a text written by Trần Đạo, which originally appeared in the review Đoŕn Kết, of the Union of Patriotic Vietnamese in France (No. 3, 1988, March). For some, not all of the ideas expressed herein will be easily acceptable, but we present them despite this risk so that our readers may benefit from exposure to different sources of information. [Editor's note.]
A Work of Art
To read A General Goes Into Retirement is to experience an acute sense of anxiety. Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's short story is at once captivating and unnerving, disorienting the reader to the point where it is difficult to distinguish between feelings of attraction and disgust. You try to understand. You re‑read it. You analyze the plot and find nothing much of interest. In fact, there's no real story to speak of. No particularly remarkable characters. Nothing but insignificant facts: the daily life of an average family from a little town in a poor country. Nothing particularly unnerving about that.
Then you try to analyze the author's perspective, his politics, his vision of humanity, of life. Here and there, you might pick out an idea which appeals or which repels you. Nothing scandalous, nothing really out of the ordinary. And you re‑read it, falling, once again, under the spell, succumbing to the anxiety. Right up to the very last word. Afterward, you can't sleep; an odd feeling of unease has slipped into your brain, into the night.
Without morals or messages, the power of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's story lies in the style: the writing both charms the reader and excludes him, preventing him from slipping into the story, from losing himself in the narrative. This is the mark of a Thiệp story.
What strikes one, first, is the brevity, the simplicity, even the vulgarity of the language: There are no superfluous words – just enough to make the point, to record the facts.
For readers who are weary and nauseated by the benign variety of literature currently in vogue, who have waded, painfully, through interminable speeches and essays, groping for meaning ... this "Realist" language is refreshing and novel in and of itself. But everyone knows that to move readers it hasn't been enough to be brief, simple, realistic. We've already lost count of the number of soporific works in this particular genre.
The beauty of NHT's style is not the form (usage, syntax, narrative structure); it's the content. But it is neither the content of the narrative, nor the writer's thoughts: the beauty of it lies in the writing – the act of writing. Thiệp writes in a way which strikes beyond the heart of things, which moves us because it exposes the truth ... the half‑truth of things, of the world of facts and figures. To only speak of these half-truths is to suffocate the other half. What is snuffed out here is human truth, truth as human beings experience it. Despite its "Realist" appearance, this writing is a pure lie: it lays bare the emptiness, the impossibility of the real world, a world where it is impossible to live as human beings. This void is what plunges Thiệp's readers into anxiety.
It is through language that we define our humanity. Language expresses man in relation to others, to his ancestors, to his contemporaries, to his progeny. Human beings use language to tell life, to weave a narrative, to recount and perhaps thereby understand themselves. Even the man who prefers to speak to a stone than to his fellow men has chosen an auditor.
Describing and understanding embrace two very different processes. The first belongs to science (to describe the precise nature of things, of fact); when we wish to merely communicate knowledge of the natural world, we use scientific and technical language. In this kind of language, everything is either true or false. Nor can there be any misunderstanding, any "com‑passion". When we want to tell the story of the human condition, we use the vernacular, the language of politics, literature, and art. In these tongues, describing and judging are inextricably linked. Whether a writer describes a tree or a landscape, whether he speaks to us of the sky or the earth, the writer takes a stand vis-ŕ-vis human existence. That is why sentimental, political or religious discourse is always full of adjectives, while art rarely needs them.
Language simultaneously expresses the human being as both an individual and social being, as a generic human being. While in one sense language is the product of Society and History, in another sense, for the individual, it is the richest means of expressing his thoughts and feelings.
If we understand language as such, the singularity of Thiệp's style in the novella, A General Goes Into Retirement, strikes us immediately: here, writing is a conscious attempt to limit language to its technical dimension, an instrument for taking inventory of objects and facts. It is, in fact, an attempt to reduce language – and by demeaning language it forces human beings into silence.
This style of writing leads to chaos of things and facts, to a world shattered, whittled away, in which everything is laid out, side‑by-side, in disassociated present tenses. Here, even human beings are objects, no different than tables and chairs. To raise dogs and pigs, to cry, to laugh, to defecate, to live and die – everything is recounted in the droning monotone of a weather report. The world of Thiệp's fiction is a dehumanized world because, in reality, human beings yearn to order the universe, to give it coherence by projecting their own dreams and desires beyond it. Through these dreams and desires, they create a future for all things and all events which fall in life's field. Somewhere, in the yawning chasm between the future and the present, lies a value. And it is this human capacity to create value that gives meaning to the words: love, hate, beauty, ugliness, life...
In A General Goes Into Retirement, the author describes human beings as things, relating their actions and thoughts as if they were natural phenomena. In this story no one lives with anyone. Everyone is there, next to the others, in the way a tree grows at the foot of a wall. If they encounter each other, it is an accident.
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp uses a number of techniques to achieve this effect. None of his characters have faces: everyone is described solely by the characteristics and functions that assure their most basic, animal survival
My father is called Thuấn, eldest son of the Nguyễn family (…) I'm 30 years old. I'm an engineer. I work at the Physics Institute. My wife, Thủy, is a doctor. She works at the Maternity Unit. We have two daughters, 14 and 12 years old. My mother is mentally ill. She sits in one place all day.
All the other characters are presented in the same manner. They are what they are, do what they are supposed to do, all in keeping with their roles and functions. Everything you would want except from a human being.
Another technique: The story is full of speeches, but the characters never speak to each other. Parallel speeches, voices in the desert, an anomie of words. Hence, the passage where a brother is about to lose his sister:
He says: 'It is a bad sign that she tosses and turns like that.' And he asks: 'Elder sister, do you recognize me?' My mother says: 'Yes.' He asks her again: 'Who am I?' My mother says: 'A human being' Mr. Bổng bursts into sobs: 'You are the only person who loves me. The whole village, the whole family calls me a kind of dog. My wife calls me a kind of bastard. Tuấn (his son) calls me a kind of miserable creature. You're the only one who calls me a human being.'
Where does love fit into a world like this? What monologue could be more pathetic than this 'dialogue'? Moreover, through the tears of a man at the bedside of a dying woman, the word human is thrice contrasted to the Vietnamese word for species (đồ). To be considered a human being, even without a face, without a name, even just once; isn't this man's ultimate aspiration?
Even Thiệp's typography contributes to the desired effect of suffocating human dialogue: the writer makes no distinction between narrative and dialogue; there are no line spaces, no indentations, since their presence might force characters to confront each other face‑to‑face. Nothing but words carefully diluted in the narrative.
The carpenter grumbles: 'So you suspect us of stealing wood?' Mr. Bổng asks: 'How wide are these planks?' I respond: 'Four centimeters.' Mr. Bổng says: 'My God, that's enough for a living room! And to think you're going to make a coffin with dổi wood. When we dig it up, give the planks to Uncle.
Reading such passages is disorienting, nauseating. Where is the dialogue? Where have the words gone, the bridge that links us to each other? Here there are only loudspeakers emitting a cacophony of frantic sounds.
The most conscious element of Thiệp's style is to brutally and relentlessly tick out facts, facts, facts and facts until the end of the narrative, without a single pause to allow the reader to catch breath, to take time, to find the distance necessary to envision the larger whole, whether it be true or false. A staccato rhythm, brief, stuttering phrases, sentences that bustle along, one beside the other without any apparent link in content or form. In fact, a madness of words which evoke nothing, which signify nothing. An avalanche of sound from which, occasionally, emerge a few distraught words uttered by faceless men.
That is how Thiệp's human beings behave towards each other. The same goes for man's relation to himself; feelings, ideas, actions fuse and merge together like natural phenomena, like plants, herbs, ... scattered, disarticulated. From this point of view, the "character" of Mr. Bổng is a type: he cries, laughs, swears, eats, and speaks as automatically as a baby would satisfy its needs.
In sum, the world of A General Goes Into Retirement is a world where man has no desire, no hope, where society has no future. The General is the only one of Thiệp's characters who understands that "faith gives us the strength to live", and yet he is also the one who lives, and who chooses to die in the name of an obsolete faith.
That is why Thiệp's novella doesn't need the "skeleton" of a story; it is the story because it evokes and stands for a world which holds no vision of the future. Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's art is to suggest this world through the act of writing, to evoke the sensation of what it feels like to live in this unrelenting, eternal present. No fastidious explanations. Not one grandiloquent adjective. Just simple words, accessible to everyone, and yet here, suddenly the atmosphere of madness creeps in, and we glimpse a world where no one is capable of understanding anyone.
This world gone awry is not, cannot be the real world. It is a human world, the world of art. To qualify Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's style as "Realist" is an insult.
Art is a lie. In this text, the lie is the fact that the human eye has been replaced by the eye of the camera. The camera eye feverishly collects; images of life, places them side‑by‑side, and in a pretense of storytelling (the Vietnamese words truyện or chuyện have a nearly same pronunciation and mean novel or story), the story of a world where man has been disassembled, broken up into parts which are less than the whole. In effect, the eye of the camera differs from the human eye in this: It only knows disparate presents; it has no memory and no future. The eye of the camera lacks the thread capable of linking today's action to yesterday's desires; and the call of tomorrow creates, through its yearning for a future, the kinetic identity of the present – a time which only man creates to cast his indelibly human shadow. The world of A General Goes Into Retirement reduces human life to a political curriculum vitae of near perfect objectivity.
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp writes at the edge of the precipice: One step further, and there would be nothing but ... silence. Even this method has its limits. For the tree to grow at the edge of a wall, presumes a human presence, a human conscience to posit the world as order or chaos. But it will be a specifically human construct, since the natural world is neither order nor chaos: it just exists. The emotions, the thoughts, the actions of characters, despite their dispersion in space, manifest themselves in the passing of time: the time of a reading. And this, simply because the author must write from left to right, from top to bottom. These emotions, thoughts and actions must all, inevitably, belong to someone, must all bear a name.
A General Goes Into Retirement gives an artistic shape to this contradiction. Each of its 15 chapters relates to a very specific subject (very ordered). Inside each chapter, each phrase (each proposition) is self-sufficient (very ordered), but nowhere is it linked to adjacent phrases (total disorder, notably in the "dialogues"). Reading Thiệp's novella in its entirety is disorienting; we forget who and what it is about!
I like A General Goes Into Retirement because it leads us to the edge of this vertigo, because it knows to stop right there. To enjoy it, you don't have to bend over backwards, to meditate on each phrase, to digest each word. Thiệp's writing washes us up on the shores of silence. Here, at last is a realm without stories, characters, or literature. Just someone who hears a human voice. Who is he? Why does he read? Why does he live? No doubt this is why Thiệp's story is at once poignant and unnerving.
In contemporary Vietnamese society it is not surprising that this short story has provoked such passionate reactions, that people either love it or hate it. To use words to suffocate the human voice, to write in order to snuff out writing, to torture language with language, is to question the society which gave birth to this language, to call to account the men who use it or who have accommodated themselves to it. To write like this is also to demand that they speak, that they write their truth and that they act on it.
But why has this story moved someone who lives in France, who will probably die here? With the passing of time, will this story still move us? I think so. There is a Vietnamese saying which goes: "When the dog dies, you know the story is over." And yet in truth it is only after the dog dies, after we get the story over with, that we can get on with the work of art.
Human beings, like their language, are a product of society and History. Language will live on and metamorphose as society evolves. But each of us will die. There is no work that does not come to an end, even if it is in the middle of a phrase. Death seals the value of a life. No one ever has the last word and each of us dies alone, restoring his silence to life. The solitude that emanates from this voice is the human condition as we live it today, as we may always live it. This value, this solitude takes shape in the silence that creeps in when human speech ceases. At the end of our reading – after the dog dies – we can forget everything but the silence. Of course, everyone is walled in his own silence. But it is also the same silence, a silence which we share and which permeates the human condition, is there with us through the months and years of our lives, until a time when human beings will be able to die with no regrets.
If this day ever comes, humanity will no longer need art or literature. Until then, A General Goes Into Retirement is truly a work of art.
 Phan Huy Đường makes an ironic and mocking aside here to Socialist realism. In fact, Thiệp's style subverts the realist ethic from within.
 To write: "Bring me back the planks" would have been more in character. But "Give the planks to Uncle" is in fact more Vietnamese and, in this way, more jarring, more alienating. Thiệp's use of the word "Uncle" here evokes exactly the opposite feeling the Vietnamese evoke when saying it. And that is Thiệp's intent: to trample the language underfoot. (As the Vietnamese proverb goes: Mất cha cňn chú, mất mẹ bú dě: "if your father dies, you still have your uncle, if your mother dies, your aunt will offer you her breast.")
 Phan Huy Đường uses the Vietnamese word "cốt truyện", which evokes the idea of the narrative as the "backbone" or skeleton.
 Art is a lie in the sense that it aims neither to describe nor explain man – which is impossible – but to recount or "tell" man in the world imposed on him. Art attempts to "tell" of a man who exists beyond the material world, beyond language – because language is also part of the given, part of what is imposed. In Thiệp's fiction, the art consists of recounting man by imprisoning him in silence, by destroying what makes him a human being; the experience of time as "inhabited" by the past, a time suffused with desire and hope because it contains the vision of a future.
 Phan Huy Đường refers to what the Vietnamese call "Lý lịch", a political dossier which under the current system follows the performance and behavior of each citizen from cradle to grave. The "lý lịch" (literally "calendar of reason") defines man politically and socially, which for the Communist Party is the sum total of a human being! In practical terms, the "Lý lịch" determines a Vietnamese person's access to education, work, political power – even expression and speech – over an entire lifetime.
 PHD here alludes, ironically, to the fact that at the time Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) propaganda constantly alluded to the need for truth and "speaking the truth" (nói thật), but that this official, material truth is really only half the truth. In fact, NHT's novella subverts our process of reading by speaking in this half‑truthful language, and by using the empty "truthful" language advocated by Vietnamese officialdom, he lays bare its spiritual bankruptcy.
 In Vietnamese, which is a monosyllabic language, the proverb goes: Chó chết hết chuyện: (Dog‑dead‑finished‑story)