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Vietnamese literary phenomenon Nguyen Huy Thiep leaves a void behind

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‘The brightest star in our literary firmament has stopped shining,’ writer Nguyen Van Tho said during a talk show Tuesday.

He was speaking about his peer Nguyen Huy Thiep, who passed away at 71 on March 20.

In a 50-year writing career, Thiep, dubbed a “phenomenon” of Vietnamese literature for his unique writing style, wrote 50 short stories, many of which translated into several languages.

Poet Tran Dang Khoa said with Thiep’s death Vietnamese literature has lost a “giant tree.”

“I think during 1985-1996, no one could write short stories better than Thiep. He had a special style which was short and sharp,” he said.

Thiep’s rise was meteoric after his debut in 1986. Just a year later, he had published his collected works. The talk was that 1988 was “the year of Nguyen Huy Thiep. He was among the list for the State Prize in Literature and Arts this year, after decades of writing, which is worthy recognition for his talent and contributions, according to Khoa.The writers’ community in Vietnam has been plunged into gloom at his passing.

Bao Ninh, author of “Noi Buon Chien Tranh” (The Sorrow Of War), compared Thiep’s death to that of legendary poet Nguyen Du in the 19th century.

“But it is less sad, because Nguyen Du had once asked whether the later generations would cry for him. As for Nguyen Huy Thiep, right now, there are readers who know that his name and books will be known forever,” Ninh said.

Thiep has been called a “phenomenon” in Vietnamese literature because of his unique writing style.

He burst upon the literary scene in 1987 with several stories like “Tuong Ve Huu” (Retired Army General), “Nhung Ngon Gio Hua Tat” (Winds in Hua Tat Village) and “Muoi Cua Rung” (Salt From Forest).

Thiep rise was meteoric after his debut. Just a year later, he had published his collected works. The talk was that 1988 was “the year of Nguyen Huy Thiep.”

Critic Pham Xuan Nguyen said Thiep was a “catalyst” in Vietnamese literature. ” I am not exaggerating. After Nguyen Huy Thiep, we cannot write like we used to. His writing is unique, it challenges readers and his peers. And he is the king of short stories,” Nguyen said, adding that Thiep wrote about cruelty with a cold-hearted, poetic voice.

Literature critic Ngo Van Gia said Vietnamese literature can be divided into two eras – before and after Thiep.

“I can say with certainty that of all the contemporary writers, Thiep has the greatest ideas,” said writer Trung Trung Dinh.

Under Thiep’s pen, normal things became abnormal and weird things became the new normal, said critic Bui Viet Thang.

Thiep’s writings explored every angle of life, particularly highlighting cruelty and immorality in families and societies.

In “Tuong Ve Huu”, Thuan, the main character, feels lost after leaving the battlefield behind and living with an uncaring family His daughter-in-law is good at making money, but she is also the woman who brings dead fetuses from the hospital for her dog to eat, telling the house-help to grind it carefully to hide the act from her parents-in-law. When her mother-in-law dies, the only thing she cares about is holding the funeral and parties at the lowest cost.

Among the 50 or so short stories, “Tuong Ve Huu” is one of the most successful.

At Thiep’s funeral on Wednesday, French ambassador to Vietnam Nicolas Warnery said: “In France, a lot of people have read ‘Tuong Ve Huu.’ The French think about this story when talking about Vietnamese literature.”

In “Khong Co Vua” (No King), a messy family is ruined by the greed of its members. When the father has a tumor in his brain, his five sons agree to let him die.

Apart from writing about contemporary issues, Thiep also wrote about history with several fictional stories like “Kiem Sac” (Sharp Sword), “Vang Lua” (Golden Fire) and “Pham Tiet” (Dignity).

He also wrote about people who always yearn to be a better version of themselves in stories like “Song De Lam” (Living Is Easy) and “Nhung Bai Hoc Nong Thon” (Lessons From The Countryside). He also described nature beautifully, having spent a decade living in the northwestern mountainous region.

No romanticizing

Thiep did not shy away from thorny issues. His words carried clarity, even if he used harsh and obscene language to express the reality of life. True writers do not avoid reality or romanticize it, critics have said.

Bui Viet Thang called Nguyen Huy Thiep’s style “counter writing.”

“Nguyen Huy Thiep is a talent, it is an obvious fact. Many people call him ‘an evil genius’, like the Russian writer Dostoyevsky,” said Thang.

Writer Nguyen Quang Thieu, chairman of Vietnam Writer’s Association, said Thiep dared to speak the truth.

“Literature should not always make people feel happy and satisfied; it should also make people feel ashamed. Thiep must have been hurt inside very much to speak out the painful truth.”

With his unique style, it is not surprising that people have been divided over Thiep’s stories. From 1987 to 1989, more than 70 critiques were published about his writing, historical understanding and point of view.

Writer Trung Trung Dinh once said the literature community was also divided over Thiep, some saying he was honest and had a witty outlook and others complaining that he was a swindler, a bluffer using dirty words.

In his book “Di Tim Nguyen Huy Thiep” (Looking For Nguyen Huy Thiep), critic Pham Xuan Nguyen said: “In Vietnamese literature, I am sure that there has been no author that can attract such public attention after debuting. The more he writes, the more attention and mixed reactions he gets. People talk about unpublished stories, and rush to find them as soon as they are released…”

Critic Ngo Van Gia said that despite the division, the literature community and readers appreciated Thiep and his stories.

“Nguyen Huy Hiep is a talent that has contributed a lot to contemporary literature. His artworks can be exported with the ‘made in Vietnam’ label.”

Thiep was born in 1950 in the northern province of Thai Nguyen. As a child during the war, he moved with his family through various countryside areas in the north. He graduated in History from the Hanoi Teachers Training College.

He was awarded the French Literature and Arts Medal in 2007 and the Premio Nonino prize by Italian authorities in 2008.

After suffering a stroke last year, he had become dependent on family members for most of his personal activities.

The passing of his wife late last year hit Thiep very hard, and his condition deteriorated.

By Thu Hue & Long Nguyen – March 24, 2021

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