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North Vietnam: Language

It is reiteration that even sympathetic Americans find wearisome in the North. “Are they still harping on that leper colony?” an American said to me when I mentioned the subject in the Thong Nhat hotel; he had heard all about it last year, on an earlier visit, and his attitude was that they ought to change the phonograph record. “Well, actually I asked them about it,” I replied, defensive. “I’m interested in lepers because of the ones I saw in the South.” He accepted the excuse, but there was no doubt that he felt that the North Vietnamese were over-exposing their cause. As though they could use some lessons in public relations, the soft sell.

YET, to be fair, it was natural to get bored and impatient sometimes when obliged to listen to what you already knew—otherwise, why would you be here? Tangible facts never bored me, facts of destruction and counter-facts of growth, nor did real exchanges of ideas or snatches of autobiography, but it was different with formal speeches, feature films, documentaries, plays, playlets, songs, poems, lithographs, oil paintings, which were all implacably about war and defiance. The documentaries were interesting in themselves, and the feature film they showed us was superior to most Hollywood war movies, yet after the third or fourth private screening, it was understandable for a Westerner (especially one who is not very fond of movies) to suffer a loss of affect and then immediately feel ashamed, for example, to look around restlessly in a projection room during a sentimental sequence—the heroine was leaving her father to risk her life clocking a delayed-action bomb—and find a Vietnamese girl silently weeping in the next seat.

They are moved by their films, by their graphics, by the endless photographs and mementos in the Museum of the Revolution. They delight in the animated relief model of Dien Bien Phu displayed in another museum whose name I forget—a panoramic history of the battle with little trucks and troops moving, cannon firing, lights winking on and off, which in fact was delightful and extremely ingenious, like the electronic crêche I had seen in Sicily last winter with the Magi arriving on camels and shepherds grazing their sheep around the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, and the Empire State Building. Pop devotional art, combining the reverent and the playful; people’s art in the real sense.

Some of the weariness I felt was unselfish. If I longed for a change of theme, that was partly for my companions’ sake, for the whole Vietnamese population. But the North Vietnamese cannot get enough of this material, which to them is, quite simply, true to life. If a magic carpet were to transport them to a performance of Don Giovanni, they might find it false and tedious. The girl who was crying at the movie had been telling me, apropos the pellet bombs we had seen in the War Crimes Museum, about one of her friends, a school teacher, who had been walking along a country road with a pupil when the planes came; she flattened herself out to cover the child and was lucky—she got the pellets only in her back. Next year that story, emblematic, could be turned into a movie with newsreel shots of real bomber planes already on film and available to the scenarist. Such shots did not have to be faked. And indeed in the war art of all kinds that I saw there was nothing that to me was recognizable as untrue.

One-sided, you might argue, except that in my opinion the Americans do not have a side in this war, that is, do not have an excuse, surely not that of ignorance. This war is no Antigone, where both Antigone and her uncle Creon are right according to their lights. No Iliad either. Furthermore, the Americans as shown in North Vietnamese feature films and animated cartoons are not so much villains as merry caricatures; they are meant to be laughed at, like the French colonialists, who, in their day, were satirized in witty colored prints. Nor are they only targets for humor. At the Writers’ Union, a young writer described the idea of his new novel: to present in alternate chapters two points of view, that of a simple GI and that of a North Vietnamese soldier—both would be sympathetic. At the War Crimes Commission, Colonel Ha Van Lau, a delicate-featured, slender, refined officer from Hue, of mandarin ancestry (he reminded me strongly of Prince Andrei in War and Peace) discussed the problem of conscience for the US pilots; some, he thought, were aware of what they were doing and some were naïve or deceived. The pilots in North Vietnamese hands are brought to repent (if in reality they genuinely do) not by being fed lies or, in my judgment, mysterious drugs but by a simpler method: shortly after their capture, or as soon as they are able, they are taken to see some bomb sites—the first step, it is hoped, in their reformation.

WHAT YOU SEE on the stage, in films, and street posters is not untrue or viciously biased, unless you think that rubble of a school, church, hospital, TB sanatorium, is biased. On the screen and in graphics, you are shown heroes and heroines, but the Pentagon itself would not deny that the North Vietnamese people are heroic, though “tough” would be the word preferred. Even if the figures of planes shot down are exaggerated (and I have no way of testing this), their defense of their land has the quality of an epic, i.e., of a work of art surpassing the dimensions of realism. Seen in movie terms, it is a thriller, a cowboy-and-Indians story, in which the Indians, for once, are repelling the cowboys, instead of the other way around. No normal person, set down in a North Vietnamese rice field beside an anti-aircraft unit manned by excited boys and girls, could help being thrilled, whereas in the South, beside an artillery battery, surrounded by sandbags, you share the sullen gloom of the population and the sardonic resentment of the soldiers.

Nevertheless, the Westerner in North Vietnam, stirred and convinced by the real thing, finally resists it in art and falls back on some Wordsworthian preference for emotion recollected in tranquillity. Besides, hortatory art has the troubling property of resembling all other hortatory art, which makes it difficult to distinguish, for instance, fascist architecture from Stalinist architecture or socialist realist painting from Roman Catholic oleographs. In the visual field, North Vietnam is no exception to this rule; the declamatory painting and sculpture seem to be reliving, phylogenetically, the history not just of socialist realism but of allied species including US post-office murals and paintings of Pope John. A war monument in Hanoi is almost the twin, stylistically, of the war monument in Saigon, and neither has any relation to Vietnamese tradition, which in the North survives only in folk art—charming decalcomania-like designs of fish, birds, roosters, who exceptionally have not been recruited to the war effort.

OBVIOUSLY, in a short official stay in North Vietnam, I was not in a position to meet dissenters, if they existed. But I was able to use my eyes and when feeling bored during long speeches in Vietnamese, film showings, protracted visits, I could look around me, seeking a fellow-sufferer. Boredom is one of the hardest of human emotions to conceal, and the Vietnamese are the reverse of inscrutable (though they sometimes leave you to guess the cause of the lively emotions that are passing across their faces), yet it only happened twice that I noticed a sign of flagging interest except in myself. Every member of the audience was following what was said or shown with evident absorption and content.

The exceptions stand out. One was in the Hanoi feature film studio, where a young director was openly, obdurately bored while his chief was talking. Artistic “temperament”? Hostility to US intellectuals, regarded scornfully as tourists? The other was during a visit to an anti-aircraft unit in Hanoi when the blushing young political commissar of the battery read aloud an especially long speech of welcome he had evidently written out that morning, with great pains, in a round schoolboyish script. It was the day the bombing stopped north of the 20th parallel—April 1. Glancing over the boy’s shoulder, the lieutenant of the outfit, a somewhat older man, ascertained after fifteen minutes or so that he still had two closely spaced pages to go (a point I had been checking on myself from the other side of the table) and kindly but firmly indicated that the speech should draw to a close. “That’s enough,” is what he said, in Vietnamese. Everybody smiled broadly, with grateful relief and perhaps especially the boy, as he folded up the sheets of paper and tucked them back in his pocket.

Not only were there no signs of disaffection; the announcement, on March 21, of a decree against “counter-revolutionary crimes” took even long-resident foreign journalists by surprise. Nobody could understand what or whom was aimed at. The list of fifteen counter-revolutionary crimes punishable by jail or death comprised treason, espionage, plotting, armed rebellion, sabotage, defecting to the enemy, disrupting public order, making propaganda, intruding into the territory of the DVN. The last perhaps offered a clue. The decree may have anticipated a US invasion, which was then being discussed as a serious or semiserious possibility in the American press; the Hanoi government was warning future collaborators of the punishment that would follow. But who were those future collaborators, unheard and unseen until this moment and now produced like a photo-negative by the law formulated against them?

Perhaps they were a mere apprehension in the mind of Hanoi. What was striking here in comparison to other Communist countries was the utter, total absence in conversation, movies, plays, pictures, short stories, of the theme of treason. Not a word about backsliding, incorrigible elements, “former” people. The figure of the “wrecker” or evil counselor never cast his shadow. There was no question of any villain or faint heart opposing the war; at most, there could be a problem of priorities, whether, as in a play they took us to, it was more important for a young medical student to continue his studies at the University or go to the front. Mr. Phan decided that two acts were enough, so we never saw the end, but it was clear that the hesitant student would finally choose action over inaction: he was basically a “good” boy.

Former” people must exist in North Vietnamese society (“My uncle in Hanoi,” said a lady in Saigon, “used to own eighty houses; now he has only one”), but they are spoken of, when at all, in terms of the distant past. Once they agree to work with the various councils and cooperatives that past is forgotten. If an ex-landowner were to appear in a film script, he would be already reformed. No, there is another possibility: he might undergo a conversion from “former” to present, bad to good, as he saw the bombs falling on the irrigation project, the dikes, the sweet-potato field—a perfectly plausible story which no doubt could be documented by many real-life examples.

Conversion, from bad to good, or the other way around, which was the great theme of Western nineteenth-century fiction and of early movies, is never represented in Western novels these days and seldom on the screen. It is as though the West had agreed that people were incapable of change. You do not see Bonnie and Clyde decide to become mass murderers; no choice seems to be offered them. In the Free World, to judge by its artifacts, nobody is free to make a decision to be different from what he is. But in the unFree World, the opposite is assumed, and one indication of revisionist tendencies in a Communist country is the gradual disappearance of regenerative themes in popular art. By this criterion, Hanoi, unlike Belgrade, Prague, Budapest, even Moscow, is a bastion of anti-revisionism.

Nor is this found only in movies and plays. While Novotny, say, in Czechoslovakia has been given up as a bad job, the North Vietnamese still have hopes of converting even their worst enemies. The idea of forgiveness and rehabilitation is underlined by North Vietnamese and NLF officials in discussing the government functionaries of the South. “Anyone who wishes to come over to us is welcome.” Once in a conversation with Ngo Diem, the small, gentle, slightly mournful Press Chief of the Foreign Ministry (the one whose mother is in the South), the topic came up, and I, half teasing, tried to test him, choosing the most horrendous example: “What about Ky?” “Even Nguyen Cao Ky,” he said, gravely nodding his head up and down while at the same time smiling at the enormity of the thought.

WHETHER Nguyen Cao Ky would have to do penance—and how much—is another matter. What I am trying to describe is a state of mind I found in the North, at once categorical and in a strange way indulgent. People say of Communists that they see everything in black and white, which is certainly true of the North Vietnamese rhetoric: “bandits,” “dark maneuvers,” “pen hirelings,” besides the terms already mentioned. But beneath the forbidding rhetoric there is something else. Unlike Western liberals, they do not accept difference, but they accept change axiomatically as a revolutionary possibility in human conduct—which Western liberals do not; that is why liberals have to be tolerant of difference, resigned to it.

The North Vietnamese reiteration of their “correct position” implies the conviction that their enemies, if they hear it stated often enough, will un-understand; it is so clear, they seem to be saying. “Johnson,” officials repeated, “can call off the bombing in five minutes and have talks. Why not then?” This was said with genuine mystification, in the plaintive hope of getting an answer to a puzzle. Johnson was pursuing a mistaken policy; even the stock market was telling him so. Why not correct it? Far more than his American critics, the North Vietnamese officials put themselves in the President’s place. They spoke of offering him “an honorable exit,” an idea repugnant to me. Their questions, in short, rested on the proposition that Johnson was free, like any other human being, to change his course. The contrary is pretended and possibly believed by Johnson, who acts like the honest prisoner of circumstances, locked into a bombing policy that now bears the name of “a first step in unilateral de-escalation.” In the Stalinist days, we used to detest a vocabulary that had to be read in terms of antonyms, “volunteers” denoting conscripts, “democracy,” tyranny, and so on. Insensibly, in Vietnam, starting with the little word “advisers,” we have adopted this slippery Aesopian language ourselves, whereas the North Vietnamese, in their stiff phraseology, continue to speak quite plainly; although we complain of the monotony, the truth, renamed by us ‘propaganda,” has shifted to the other side.

(This is the fourth in a series of articles on North Vietnam.)

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