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Chin Bo Lam Muoi
(Nine Down Makes Ten)
Pham Thi Hoai
Translated by Peter Zinoman, History, Cornell University
The first man in my unhappy life was slender and gentle with an honest face. His was an honesty easy to find at any time, mainly in people who have lived continually and without interruptions in a sheltered environment. From an ordinary and uneventful childhood, to a college life, really no more than an extension of high school, and on to years as a government employed technician, he displayed diligence, trustworthiness, and benevolence. It seemed that his was a kind of innate goodness, god-given and protected. It seemed that he had always been righteous and good, but in a modest way, throughout a life untouched by self-doubt. I often thought of his goodness as a small thimble of fire, incapable of contributing much heat to the world, but occasionally heart-warming, though only in a symbolic way. And everyone, especially me, would strain towards this warmth; this effort eventually becoming a habit and later on, a moral imperative. Actually, I could perhaps have lived the kind of life most suitable for a woman by his side, in an apartment somewhere with that small flame. I'd give birth to well-fathered children, and sit nightly clutching a ball of colorful wool, knitting colorful clothes, oblivious to self-doubt. Moreover, I would never fear unfaithfulness from him as he could barely conceptualize adultery. But then, I was too young, and I saw him as a sort of precious chessman, fortunate to have been moved by some unseen hand toward the safe squares and away from the violent battles. It seemed he would remain like this until a natural death finally seized him--and of course he'd remain honest, even in death. At that time, I considered my own birth some kind of cruel prank. I underestimated the size of his thimble of fire and failed to realize that his conventional honesty was no less believable than other things in life. Lacking skepticism, how could he understand science, art or religion and in short, how could he understand love, that which I considered the most fundamental craving for a person such as myself. I grew dissatisfied because he was too respectable and secure with his own respectability.
The second man was frivolous and merry, an urban child who had yet to go through a period of spiritual crisis characteristic of civilized society. He was crazy about music from Beethoven to the Beatles, possessed a good singing voice, but couldn't bear to practice. He also loved soccer and had a decent kicking foot but no concentration for workouts. Generally speaking, he had no concentration for anything, not even love. It's difficult to trust such a man as it's never clear where the vectors of his personality are going. He gave off a first impression of someone tremendously frivolous, one who possessed rare and peculiar notions of life, often found puzzling by those who met him. His face was so natural it provoked suspicion and I believed that under that layer of wonderful skin, lay hidden an extraordinary nature. How else to explain the perfect harmony existing between himself and his environment, a final symbol of his capacity to live so deeply and so freely. But after only three sentences had uttered forth from his lovely smiling mouth, this first impression quickly evaporated. He was one of a countless number of fortunate young men who live an unexamined life, not because of some conscious principle, but simply due to circumstance--frivolity as a habit, as a way of life; frivolous in all details and only details concerned him. His frivolity manifested itself in the care he took in striking a relaxed pose, and in the attention he devoted to celebrations, feasting, and to appearing knowledgeable; this all in the context of a larger existence which was not at all frivolous, but serious and substantial. At a certain age, those as extroverted and unaffected as he sink into the cloudy chaos of life's problems. But, nevertheless, he was a person who brought me many pleasant hours, almost my happiest ever. I learned several important things from him, namely the discovery that I have a body and my body has a voice, a voice initially timid, then passionate, sometimes daring and profane, and progressively harder to please. He was the first man to show me that I am a woman, and for long after, how long I'm not sure, I am still grateful to this ordinary man. Life will certainly be impoverished if lacking such merry and superficial men. Furthermore, he loved good food, and that truly is a worthwhile quality.
Man number three was around for less than a week but made me the most miserable. He was extremely handsome, so handsome that expressions of envy clogged up the throats of those who met him. I immediately forgot who I was, and experienced my first near-death state. After that I remained struck by a sensation both dangerous and seductive. This feeling stayed with me throughout the remainder of my life, flooding and overwhelming smaller emotions, causing them to shrink and shrivel up. Recovery would demand a very large dose of optimism, and an ability to adjust to new extremes. I knew that he was an inarticulate dullard, useless except for giving pleasure to the eyes, over-reliant on his unusually gorgeous appearance and frightfully uninteresting. But in his presence, I completely forgot and forgave everything, even though he was genuinely uncouth, foul, and cruel. After one week, I abandoned my urge not to indulge my self-pity and cried like a child whose toy has been stolen before she gets a chance to play with it. He would continue to be so gorgeous and useless for his entire life, and I, throughout my life, would flee from the desire to give myself to him, tormented by the absurdity of god and myself even more. That affair was perhaps my only experience with true platonic love, especially the time I timidly ran my fingers through tufts of hair so beautiful they seemed not to belong to him, and then abruptly jerked away as if stung by an electric shock.
After that, I had an old man, experienced and worldly. He was born into a family whose members had for many generations participated in great historical events. They were thoughtfully educated, upwardly mobile, skilled at rubbing shoulders wherever they went and never ruffled by callous twists and turns of fate. His handsomeness had a majestic air, and his every gesture suggested a profound awareness of his own value. I lived with him the longest, it seemed more than two years, and I grew much during this period. He knew how to answer all of my questions, whether about politics, love, religion or the psychological taboos of bygone eras. He knew the way to sit cross-legged, drinking and composing poetry with literary friends; or dignified and serious with academic friends, simple and easy-going with old women and children in the neighborhood, and brutish and cocky with the scum of the street. Many women revered him as some sort of idol. Old people found him loving and affectionate; he never said anything to hurt them. I enjoyed his generosity until it gradually became like a solid gold chain clamped round my neck. "What right do you have to be so generous?" I protested. And his answer suggested, "Just carry on with your life little girl. You are still so small." Perhaps his brand of perfection was like a perfectly baked earthenware vase, adorned with brightly colored and completely proportioned designs; but its basic components, earth and rocks, originally loose, dirty, and unformed, would remain essentially unchanged forever. When describing him, it's important to emphasize that he seemed profoundly satisfied with himself. Due to his advanced age and precious experience, plus a certain humorlessness, he did not dare or perhaps was unable to reject any part of the status quo. He gave me many things, or he almost gave me many things; affection to a nearly affectionate extent; warmth to a degree almost heartwarming. The whole of his perfect existence symbolized the limitless limitations of mankind. Not only did he unconditionally accept those limitations, but he used them to justify his behavior. He adroitly maintained a cozy family life, while simultaneously offering his generosity to me. He explained that people are truly small creatures, fettered by the environment at birth, and by various obligations as an adult. Thus they can only maneuver in a limited way, and within the confines of some predetermined grid. I hated those grids, and harshly mocked the way he struggled with his limitations. Up until the final moments, he still offered me a generous smile, and it really seemed that compared with other men, he cared about me the most. Countless times thereafter, I longed to abandon my high pressure work and relationships and run back to him, hiding my face in his solid chest and conceding that he had always been right. But, I clicked my tongue and decided against it. Moreover, this flexible man was idealized as a model citizen by the majority, but we must accept that their reasoning is often skewed. While extreme persons may sneer that he is essentially harmless and not worthy of notice, they will concede, if pressed to be sympathetic, that as egotists go, he's not really so bad.
Man number five was an idealist. He belonged to that breed of men not born for women, money, or pleasure, and this made me curious. My curiosity did not last long, however, for contrary to my expectations, he was insipid and shallow. His ideal world--to be brought about by either a struggle to reform educational science, protect the environment, or reestablish a tradition of sarong wearing among ethnic minorities (what a big deal)--perhaps could really exist some day. I never doubted its attractiveness, and sometimes in a highly inspired state, he could transmit a bit of his passion and emotion to the non-believers. But in general, his view of life suggested a narrow corridor which was periodically repainted but nevertheless remained cramped and dreary. In a calculating way, I studied and applied tactics of love, and bearing the costs of lost time and more annoyance than happiness, I contrived to prove the bulwark of his idealism, to test its endurance. This plunged him into an overwhelming spiritual crisis. He received emergency first aid and was injected with 10,000 units of an antibiotic used to treat men who suffer from self-inflicted inflammation of the bone-marrow, and all because he could not choose between his love and his ideals. He was the kind of person possessing only enough internal strength to devote himself to one thing at a time. Leaving the hospital, he embarrassingly thanked me and disappeared down one of his mysterious corridors, this one concerned with the public reform of morning exercises for people too physically unfit to work. However, my calibrated burst of love had misfired and his ideals gave him an easy way out. That was the only affair in which I actively played the role of seductress from beginning to end, and after he was gone I was genuinely sad and regretful. After thinking a while, it became clear that he had chosen his dreary and narrow world over me. A lesson for simple curiosity. But I must admit, he was the purest man I have ever met.
The sixth man was extremely complex, almost irrationally so, in the context of this most poor and backward society. I met him, after he had achieved an undeniable level of prestige in the diminutive intellectual world of Ha Noi, a place where one can meet the most famous people without a prior appointment, and use intimate terms of address immediately upon striking up a conversation. I immediately surrendered before him--this human labyrinth--this infinitely dimensional zone cluttered with the disorder of contradictions, ideology, experience, and ambition. But I couldn't help wondering: do all these interesting and complicated things really exist or are they only an expensive and ultimately meaningless drama which people feel compelled to stage in order to cope with their fellow men and themselves. Conventional geniuses never seem to have personalities; who would dare say that Shakespeare, for example, was melancholy, bitter, or sharp-tongued. Therefore, I concluded that my sixth man was no genius. He had too much personality and was too worried about his own originality. His complexity seemed the natural outgrowth of the uncontrolled interaction between two currents. On the one hand was the traditional educational system, in which the value of everything-romanticism, historical method, even slipping cushions under the bed before a night of love-making--is fixed according to a guaranteed standard of truth, goodness, and beauty. And on the other hand there was real life--vivid, crowded, subverting all conventions regardless of tradition, undermining all ideologies and naturally overturning all values. Because he was sensitive, he found it hard to overlook clashes between the two, but because he was at the same time intelligent, he refused to take sides. Gradually, he found that the best way out was to situate himself somewhere above the fray, and contentedly gaze down. Consequently people who participated in progressively more public discussions claimed that, in fact he systematically rejected everything. They were wrong. He was too complicated and lost in his own complexity to reject everything. However, he did become a somewhat legendary and original figure, and as people stood anxious and sweaty in his presence, time passed, and I grew tired. During the time I lived with him, I tended to dwell obsessively on my own sadness. I uttered strange and often contradictory phrases, ate and dressed on purpose in a slovenly manner and lavished praise on only those books that no one understood. When we broke up, I felt the world to be shallow and its people superficial. It seemed that there was never a time that I received from this famous man a soulful kiss, meaning one both natural and pure. Afterwards, I heard that he had become a radical moralist, preaching about the nature of three distinct roads: the acceptance, rejection, and escape from conventional morality. Later on he became a kind of popular sage, a dialectician who approached society's intricate problems through dialectical methods and by applying extract of oriental and occidental knowledge. In the end he became a recluse, and in an unrelated development, the intellectual life of Hanoi contracted and no one spoke further of him.
The seventh man brought me much excitement but also moments of my greatest uneasiness. He was not unusually attractive, short, with thinning hair and a small forehead. Only his voice was exquisite, deep, melodious, and full of unforeseen contingencies. Upon hearing his voice, difficult-to-please listeners, even those only impressed by outward appearance would be riveted and believe that before them, if not a genius in disguise, was some sort of otherworldly species of man, a being who only used this earth as a temporary dwelling. Or perhaps they would feel that this small man must deeply understand the quintessence of life, as if his existence had spanned scores of generations, and could consequently draw on the experience of both ghosts and men. It was said that he followed nihilist principles, but I didn't understand what this meant. I speculated that it was a unique philosophical idea which can never be fully grasped, or perhaps the final foundation of all foundations or a mode of behavior reserved especially for those without virtue, those both unhappy and very lonely. But this man refused to advertise his noble misery, the pain he felt for humanity, the loneliness in his blood, or the weariness with which he experienced the age. On the contrary, his expression suggested contentment and freedom from worry, the capacity to accept or reject circumstances with equal ease; or sometimes he was simply difficult to read. His one fascination was with the brevity of human existence and the only being who provoked him to fits of anger, and an enduring sensation of confusion and helplessness was god. He considered god to be his only worthwhile rival and lamented the fact that the great one so rarely showed himself. It was perhaps the complexity of his relationship with god that fundamentally distinguished him from the mass of nihilists in the movement. Their lazy activism was habitually insignificant, and they always seemed prepared to shout, "I've found it!" after taking only half a footstep out the door. It was not easy to label him godless, immoral, or relativistic, and finally one could only say that he had a great sense of humor, his genius lying with his comic gifts. Many women went out with him. This small Don Juan was thoughtful and considerate towards them, and because of his skill in the various stages of love affairs, he earned a sultry reputation. After studying with him, many miserable women left and turning on him, denounced what they had learned. I also left him, after admitting to myself that I am to remain a weak woman, and will spend the rest of my life searching for strength outside of myself. In my present state of panic, I dare not enter into his zone, a zone wonderful for creating poetry and philosophy, but inappropriate for comforting the hearts of women. I'm afraid that I will forever grieve over this unhappy Don Juan, and only drive away my sadness by shrugging my shoulders and saying, "He was really pitiable, no emotion, no passion, no faith, in short he didn't know what to live for." But people say that during an era in which subsistence is no joke, to strive only for low-level satisfaction is a vain pursuit, like supporting the expansion of an aerospace program. It is not only an unoriginal idea but, one might say, a backward one.
The eighth man had the hair of a poet, the face of a poet, and soul especially given to poetry. Such qualities are found only in people who have a lot of time and no concrete obligations towards life. When engrossed in the rising and falling of his watery waves, and acquainted with his passionate love of writing, swiftly without semi-colons; I began to understand that the most worthwhile obsession is an obsession that is actually independent of the object of fixation. The object is only borrowed as a pretext, a means, an environment, through which or in which, the obsessed person can project his own eternal and essential hunger; thus fulfilling the requirements of death--the dissolution of the ego for some thing, anything, existing independently outside one's self. Perhaps that obsession should be controlled. At some point the most mundane catalyst, a skirt or a fallen leaf, is enough to provoke a series of captivating chain reactions; while at another time much more important objects will only inspire an absurd indifference. I did not know whether I was worthwhile or mundane, but this was not really the issue. I was grateful to this man, and enjoyed the taste of his affection, despite a small stubborn girl within me, who refused to cooperate. She said, according to this particular mode of obsession, all objects are equal, and therefore I am no different from a potato or an ant, but if people like to manufacture an obsession by constantly stoking their own engine, then by all means go ahead. Gradually I learned to repress that obstinate girl and ignore my uneasiness with the difference between artificially produced obsession and primeval obsession. Let Proust distinguish between the two or the column "Mothers Advise Daughters" in some women's magazine; I am only interested in my own obsession and its consequences. The most ironic aspect of its unforeseen consequences, was that both he and I became pitiful victims of the obsession. It forced him to wait by every street on which I might pass, to pull me away from all activities no matter how fundamental to existence, eating, sleeping, seeking work. It interfered with all my relationships, my family, colleagues and friends, and expanded into all areas and times which I liked to save for myself. I no longer had my own spaces, times, or lifestyle; my environment was upset, my psychological state was upset, my language went out of control. The obsession was like the third character in a love triangle leading him and poking me in the back; it follows its own dizzying trajectory, changes obstinate people into slaves, oblivious to their limited abilities. In short, it swallowed us without chewing; he failed his examinations, unable to resist the rush toward inertia, and I turned blind like a Chinese lantern at a festival. In this situation, people can't help but annoy and grate on each other. The demands of individual liberation eventually transforms society into a mass of "I"s, each one desiring to control the others. This naturally provokes conflict. Exhausted after such a time-consuming conflict, he abandoned the relationship for the call of religion, but this new obsession exacted an even higher price. I returned to an original form of a potato or maybe an ant and heaved a sigh of relief. I felt sorry for God or Buddha as this poet will certainly grate on them. But perhaps those two gentlemen understand the essence of life more than I, and can look beyond him.
The ninth man was a man of action, few words, forthrightness, and pragmatism. He was intelligent, decently educated, and sensitive enough to appreciate the real value of such non-material activities as wordplay, pipe-dreaming, fortune-telling, or making love. However, the road he chose for himself, satisfied a predilection for certitude and controlled vigilance. He believed in no one, entrusted himself to no one, and struggled to force life itself to bend to his will. His profound desire to conquer life was impressive, vaguely like Don Quixote, both desperate and dauntless. He had held down many jobs, for many different reasons ranging from the desire to secure life's basic necessities to attempts to secure glory and power. But he was rarely satisfied, as work never quite met with his expectations. The only measure he took seriously was that of practical advantage, immediate material gain being optimal and the foregoing of useful future connections merely acceptable. He was strict and prompt in the repayment of debts. While people found him useful, they were often cool towards him because he was completely lacking in false ethics, those gastric juices which allow for the digestion of the inedible components in the relations between people. He promised little yet was so helpful with my unhappy life's most pressing problems (more so than all other men combined) that during those moments of satisfaction and gratitude, I confusingly asked myself if this really could be love? And could women like myself have lost such confidence in themselves and in this difficult-to-understand era that we need a love such as this? He did grant me three things: firstly, because he was always so busy, he did not have the time to undergo a period of spiritual crisis, something which I had already been blessed with enough times before; secondly, as relations with women never took up his whole life, I enjoyed a notable degree of freedom; and thirdly, with him, I suddenly felt a daily sensation of being deeply and snugly attached to my life, a sensation which I thought about many times before but never actually experienced. I grew stronger, more contented, and began to seriously consider the prospect of marrying him. Life with such a thoroughly practical man would certainly promise a measure of success, like entering into a contract, in which both sides do not sap the other's vitality, as often happens with those claiming to be madly in love. There is certainly some advantage in avoiding excessive closeness and coolly carrying out contractual provisions. At our final meeting, he said, "In all areas including marriage, I am always faithful to a single measure of value: practical advantage." And upon considering this measure, he determined that I was not to the be the one to satisfy his requirements. Now he must bear responsibility for his heartlessness.
Enough. He was the ninth man.
Pham Thi Hoai, one of contemporary Viet Nam's most influential writers, was born in 1960 in Thanh Hoa province. She has a degree in Archival Studies from the University of Umboldt/Berlin and currently works at the Institute of Religion in Ha Noi. Her first novel, Thien Su, was translated into French as La Messagere de Cristal (Paris: Des Femmes) and published in 1991. She is also the author of Me Lo, a collection of short stories, and the translator of works by Kafka, Brecht and Durrenmatt. Peter Zinoman, a doctoral candidate in Viet History at Cornell, is steadily translating Ha Noi's most advanced fiction writers. See his translation of Nguyen Huy Thiep's Vang Lua (Fired Gold) in issue 4:1-2 of Viet Nam Generation.
The translator wishes to thank Birgit Hussfeld, Hans Schodder, Nguyen Nguyet Cam, and Vu The Thac.