Audrey Chin reviews niehtn’s Village Teacher, a novel that offers a refreshing look at the French colonization of Vietnam. Although this narrative follows a love story, it is one that is beautifully embedded within the larger story of Vietnam.
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Nguyen Trong Hien, writing as neihtn, has crafted a uniquely Vietnamese story that’s not about the war, nor the diaspora. His novel Village Teacher offers a refreshing look at a Vietnam rarely featured in English language fiction.
Village Teacher, set in the early years of French colonization 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 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.
Despite being self-published, Village Teacher is not a poorly paced amateur effort filled with typographical errors.
The book was well plotted, from the scholar’s initial meeting with his beloved all the way through the obstacles the two must encounter — a reactionary mandarin, a protective mother and a bullying village headman among others — until the bitter-sweet finale.
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, are featured. It is apparent that the author is someone who appreciates the legacy of the Vietnamese language.
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.
Readers may find the author’s voice unnaturally stilted due to his adoption of late 19th century linguistic and narrative conventions creates an but I thought the device appropriate to the subject matter. The result is a well-rendered English-language version of a typical Vietnamese classical tale, which I believe is the author’s intention.
The problem with Village Teacher was that when I emerged from the book, I did not regret leaving the characters behind.
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Typical of a 19th century Confucian moral tale, most of the characters were too patently white or black, including the scholar and his beloved. The motivations of the two villains, the bullying village headman Xa Long and the MIinister 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 “forbidden” 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.
These small glitches aside, I emerged from Village Teacher as if from a different Vietnam, one not yet tainted by the war we’re all still haunted by, yet already foreshadowing it. It was a worthwhile journey back in time.
I would recommend the book to anyone with an interest in late 19th century Vietnamese society. Although a work of fiction, the setting, norms and mores are so realistically described, the book could be a work of cultural anthropology. It offers a valuable look at a rarely discussed part of Vietnam’s history.
Nguyen Trong Hien, writing as neihtn, is a Vietnamese-American living in Princeton. NJ. Born in North Vietnam and the great-grandson of a village teacher, he followed his family South in 1954 and went to college in the United States to study Engineering and Industrial Administration. In Vietnam, Hien was a professor, a writer of textbooks, a soldier and a technocrat. He has lived in the US since 1975 and worked mostly in IT. Village Teacher took Hien over four years of weekends and evenings to complete. Find out more about this multi-talented writer from this e-interview by Audrey Chin.
Audrey Chin is a South East Asian writer who has been a daughter-in-law of the Vietnamese diaspora for over thirty years. Her latest novel As the Heart Bones Break, about 60 years in the life a Vietnamese man, will be released by Marshall Cavendish at the Singapore Writers.
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