Nguyễn Văn Sâm – “Khói sóng trên sông”. Nguyễn Đình Hòa
World Literature TodayWntr, 2001 by Dinh-Hoa Nguyen

Nguyen Van Sam. Khoi song tren song. Tran Nho Bui, ill. San Jose,California. Van. 2000. xviii + 263 pages, ill. $14.

THE AUTHOR OF THIS collection of fourteen short stories is a SouthVietnamese refugee writer and editor (see WLT 69:2, p. 444) who had earnedacclaim even before the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975, followingwhich debacle he chose (in 1979) the United States as his country of asylum.The volume's title comes from the last line of an often-translated Chinese poemby Cui Hao (Thoi Hieu in Vietnamese, graduated around 730 A.D.) about "TheYellow-Crane Pagoda" in Hu Pei Province: "Yen ba giang thuong su nhansau" ("Beyond the Broad River, Its Waves, and Its Foam" [HerbertGiles, tr.] or "With a Mist of Grief on the River Waves" [WitterBynner, tr.]). Having received classical training at the College of Letters inSaigon, where he later served on the faculty, Nguyen Van Sam has simplyfollowed the common practice of using cogent allusions derived from Chinese literature.Indeed, not only this final story in the volume, "Smoke on the RiverWaves," but all the preceding ones as well reflect his background as botha romanticist and a realist writer who feels deep compassion toward the peopleand events in the rural settings he himself comes from.

"(What You Owe Your Mother Is) Like a Gush of Spring Water" isan insightful analysis of the psychology of a handicapped boy, who candidlytells us about his consenting to marry a pregnant girl and his embarrassment atapproaching her on their nuptial night. Before that, despite his grandmother'srebuke, he enjoys sitting on his crutches outside his home and listening to thecolorful profanities that a betel-chewing virago in the hamlet heaps upon therunaway fiancee of her son. In "The Coolness of Golden Years" thereader learns about the devotion of a peasant girl to her senile mother-in-law,who needs the home care and sympathy due an elderly parent in Confuciansociety.

Several stories are quite moving, including that of a young Vietnameseman who unwittingly harms his benefactor, or that of a refugee girl raped byher American benefactor, or that of a "Viet-kieu" returnee who seekseasy sexual encounters in the country he had left two or three decades before.This "overseas Vietnamese-American" inwardly nurtures a dream commonto all expatriates of someday flying back to their homeland to enjoy the oldway of life in spite of memories of, say, an elder sister's rape by sea pirateson the flight out, or of a younger brother with his unfaithful wife.

In the preface, Nguyen Xuan Hoang, another refugee writer and editor, likensNguyen Van Sam's depiction of Saigon to Konstantin Paustovsky's descriptions ofParis. Indeed, NVS details the urban growth and development of "the Pearl ofthe Orient" from a malaria-infested swamp into a metropolis withmultistory hotels, dance halls, coffee shops, colleges, and high schools aswell as slum and ghetto areas with their substandard dwellings for laborers andcoolies. When writing about the Mekong River delta, however, Nguyen proveshimself a realist writer as well, one who portrays the rugged lives of SouthVietnam's rice growers, fishermen, and emigrants. The latter truly approachlife through sweat, tears, and blood, but also with open eyes, like Chuyen, thewaitress in a Little Saigon beef-noodle shop, who has no illusions about herflirtatious boss's passes or the attentions of her refugee patrons.

Calmly, Nguyen Van Sam shares with his readers his detailed observationsabout the beauty of his native land and the virtues of decent individuals inhis community, whether he writes about the "real Santa Claus" or the"immense [South China] Sea." Readers can learn much from thistalented writer regarding southern regionalisms and colloquialisms, indeed thevarious patois of Co-chinchina swamplands, mangroves, and coconut farms,including the reduplicated expressions with vivid imagery that the Frenchlinguist Hardricourt has called "impressives." This feature aloneamply rewards the reader of this magnificent bouquet of what can be called"written folk literature."

Dinh-Hoa Nguyen

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

COPYRIGHT 2001 University of Oklahoma

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