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North Vietnam: Language

YET THE NORTH VIETNAMESE attach great importance to this formula. You can read in the daily English news bulletin a dispatch from Reuters or UP: “The South Vietnamese [puppet, Ed.] government met this afternoon to discuss a draft of eighteen-year-olds.” Conversely, when a US agency quotes Radio Hanoi, you read: “The puppet [South Vietnamese government, Ed.] forces suffered heavy losses today at Bien Hoa.” At that point, it becomes a war of words on both sides, a fight between blue pencils conducting search-and-destroy operations on a daily basis.

One awkwardness for a Western writer in a Communist country is that he is committed to a convention of freshness, of making it new. In antiquity, originality was not so highly valued, and it has occurred to me that the set phrases of North Vietnamese diction are really Homeric epithets. Compare “the insolent wooers,” “the long-haired Achaeans,” “cloud-gathering Zeus,” “the hateful Furies” with “the American aggressors,” “the American imperialists,” “the war of destruction,” “the air pirates.” And no doubt too they are Oriental ideograms; some, like the “just cause,” are the same in the South as in the North, though with different referents, of course. There is also a prescribed, quite angry Marxist language in the Eastern European countries, but behind the Iron Curtain, as opposed to the Bamboo, it is not a spoken language; the Izvestia correspondent in the Thong Nhat hotel used the ordinary vernacular when he drew up a chair to our table, like party members in Warsaw, Cracow, Budapest, but probably when he wrote for his paper he used the official language, just as a man in the Middle Ages wrote in Latin and spoke in the vulgar tongue.

Anyway, it has to be acknowledged that in capitalist society, with its herds of hippies, originality has become a sort of fringe benefit, a mere convention, with accepted obsolescence, the Beatnik model being turned in for the Hippie model, as though strangely obedient to capitalist laws of marketing. Not only that; the writer’s “craft” is more machine-tooled today than the poor scribe likes to think. How could he compose without his apparatus of dictionaries, thesauruses of synonyms and antonyms, atlases, glossaries, Fowler, Follett, to direct him to the right word? In prose our industrial revolution dates back to the Flaubert process, invented about 1850, which can be defined in the simplest terms as the avoidance of verbal repetition: do not use a word (excluding prepositions, pronouns, articles, and connectives) that you have already used a few pages back; find another, i.e., a synonym. Application of this unnatural process is now all-but-automatic with us—second nature. This may be because we keep on describing the same old things—that is, bourgeois society—and some stylistic variation is needed or everyone would die of boredom. A magazine like The New Yorker is especially nervous about the repetition of words and phrases; underscoring and marginal question marks call the contributor’s attention to the fact that an adjective he has used (“employed”??) on Galley 3 reappears on Galley 8. Similarly, a phobic dread of clichés is manifest in the jittery styling of Time, whose whole editorial policy is to reduce people and events to filler and boilerplate.

NEVERTHELESS, an American is what he is, and a writer perhaps more than most, in that he has to stick close to his language, listening to what it will let him say, and it will not let him talk in readymade phrases except in jest or mockery—mockery of authority and the sacrosanct. The American language is selfconscious, like a young person. Hence the cat sometimes got my tongue during long car-rides with my friends of the Peace Committee, and when we conversed I tried to bypass subjects that would oblige me to say “the Americans” or “We” while’ they were saying “the neo-colonialists” or “the Johnson-McNamara clique.”

Instead, I asked them about the flora and fauna of the regions through which we were driving. In that way, I learned something about the native trees, flowers, birds, folk remedies, how the rice seedlings were transplanted, the difference between Vietnamese tea and Chinese tea. Like the geometry lesson on the blackboard in the school in Hung Yen Province, botany and zoology reassured me with the promise that they would be there when the war was over and the last “Johnson” had been shot down from the skies. My companions probably thought me quite a strange person—superficial—and indeed I felt myself that to be so concerned about the names of flowers and trees (the dragon’s eye—Nephelium longanum; the early-flowering bridal ban tree, slightly reminiscent of the New England shadbush; the red-flowered kapok, the abrasin, an oleaginous tree whose product is used to polish airplane parts and gun bores) was a luxury typical of a capitalist author, who could afford the pedantry of nomenclature, just as if North Vietnam were still Tonkin (another unmentionable word, of colonialist memory, like Annam, which made it tricky to discuss the Tonkin Bay incident), and Frenchmen in tropical helmets were still exploring the upper reaches of the Mekong, looking for the shortest route to China, and Englishmen were writing in the Britannica (eleventh edition): “In the wooded regions of the mountains, the tiger, elephant, and panther are found, and wild buffalo, deer and monkeys are common. The delta is the home of ducks and other aquatic birds. Tea, cardamon and mulberry grow wild…. The natives are skilled at enamelling and the chasing and ornamentation of gold and other metals.” If only that were all, but the unnamed ethnographer had more to contribute: “The Annamese (see ANNAM) is of somewhat better physique than those of the rest of Indo-China…. (ANNAM)… The Annamese is the worst-built and ugliest of all the Indo-Chinese who belong to the Mongolian race. He is scarcely of middle height and is shorter and less vigorous than his neighbors…his hair is black, coarse, and long; his skin is thick, his forehead low…. Though fond of ease the Annamese are more industrious than the neighboring peoples. They show much outward respect for superiors and parents, but they are insincere and incapable of deep emotion.” The old Britannica would not be spared if we white people began our cultural revolution; that doubtless whiskery Edwardian who looked on the “natives” as zoological specimens was a cultured ancestor of the GIs who cut “Charlie’s” ears off as souvenirs—it was just a fad, they say. But the tea, the cardamon, and the mulberry? Must the mind be forbidden to collect them in its neo-colonialist trunk?

FORTUNATELY Mr. Phan shared my (let me hope) harmless interest in the names and properties of things in Nature, and he was always happy to acquire an English word, “seedling,” for instance, in exchange for a Vietnamese word, and to reprove me when I kept saying “betel,” when I ought to be saying “areca.” “The betel leaf,” he wrote firmly in my notebook, and “the areca nut.” The point is that the betel leaf, which comes from a pepper plant, is chewed together with the areca nut, which comes from a palm. Or used to be chewed. In the North that bad habit (betel acts like a drug or intoxicant) has practically disappeared; only once or twice, to my surprise, did I see the blackened teeth and gums so familiar in the South. Mr. Phan confirmed my observation. Small, sturdy, dark-skinned, with a wide, confiding grin (“They say I am a Stokeley Carmichael”), chain-smoking, in a brown leather jacket, he was something of an explorer himself. We compared travel notes. He knew China, Russia, Poland, Cuba, where he had stayed at the Havana Hilton. He showed me a short piece he had written in English about a trip he had taken last summer through his own country in which he had carefully set down the good points and the bad of what he had seen. He gave me “the Vietnamese man-of-letters recipe for making tea”: the pot must be scalded, and the water just below the boiling point—first the bubbles coming to the surface will be the size of a crab’s eye; wait till they are the size of a fish’s eye, then pour over the tea-leaves. Mr. Phan was a harbinger and a bustler and often prepared our “visits.” His great ambition was to visit France.

Clearly in these conversations, while searching for common ground, I was trying to hold onto my identity—a matter of loyalty, refusing to betray oneself. But this could be read two ways. In that very refusal was I not betraying myself in the unpleasant sense of showing my true colors? Having been an anti-Stalinist ever since the Moscow Trials, I had remained, I thought, a socialist of a utopian kind. In North Vietnam, the vocabulary repelled me precisely by its familiarity. I had heard that jargon before, and too many lies had been told in it: “the people’s democracies.” Yet were they all lies? I suddenly recalled the comfortable American joshing of US officials in Europe a few years back: “You old capitalist war-monger, you!” Ha ha. But if it was not true at the time, let us say up to 1960, it was already in the process of becoming true, prophetically, as those decent, amiable men were confidently laughing it off. The Bay of Pigs was waiting in the wings. And from the Vietnamese point of view—a point of view which I must say I gave little thought to until it was too late, i.e., until 1964—the United States had been capitalist-war-mongering at the side of the French practically since the death of Roosevelt and right up through Dien Bien Phu. And the current term “the American imperialist aggressors,” like it or not, expressed the current truth. Whatever the motives, originally, behind the US intervention in Vietnam, at present there was no doubt that it had turned, as if by itself, perhaps with nobody in particular propelling it, into a war of aggression, and capital investments were waiting to follow the flag, personified at a low level by the would-be real-estate developers piloting airplanes I had met in the South and at a high level by Mr. Lilienthal and his Mekong Valley Development project.

As for the air war against the North, it was certainly a war of destruction and not of interdiction, as was at first pretended, unless the two terms are synonymous; you could “interdict” the flow of men and supplies to the South by destroying all life in the North, a program, I hear, that is within the technical capacity of the US but is not contemplated because of the damage foreseen to the American “image.”

WHAT THE UNITED STATES calls propaganda is in fact reiteration. Our officials, like our writers, want to “make it new.” Give us a little variety, the US delegates at the Paris conference and their echoes, American newsmen, moan after the North Vietnamese delegates have said, once again, that all acts of war against the DVN must cease. Meanwhile in reality US policy has remained undeviating, though clothed in seasonal changes of words as the years have rolled by. Johnson “limits” the bombing by announcement April I while actually intensifying it; his speech-writers design new wardrobes for the corpus of his Baltimore address, which keeps popping up in Manila, San Antonio, Washington, thickly disguised in woolly presidential “offers,” which seem to blind the American electorate but not the Vietnamese, who have no difficulty seeing through to the old naked proposition: reciprocity.

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