A story lost in the translation


A story lost in the translation


A story lost in the translation


by Nguyen Ngoc Ngan (Clarke, Irwin, $19.95)

On April 30, 1975, the victorious North Vietnamese army swept into Saigon. For Nguyen Ngoc Ngan, “The world as I had known it for twenty-eight years ended abruptly.” It had been a world of social corruption and political delusions huddled under the protective French and American military umbrella. In the panic and chaos that followed the American abandonment of Vietnam, thousands fled the country by air and sea. The fate of people such as Ngan, who chose to remain, was left to “the will of heaven.”

At the time, Ngan was a teacher of Vietnamese literature living in Saigon with his wife, Tuyet Lan, and their son, Tran. During the late ’60s he had been inducted into the South Vietnamese army and was wounded twice. As far as the North Vietnamese were concerned, Ngan’s military service made him one of “the puppet soldiers of [former president] Thieu’s illegal regime.” Ngan spent a grim three years in re-education camps, fed on a diet of wormy rice and Communist propaganda. The “students” had to clear the jungle and replant it with rice; they dug with their bare hands for unexploded mines, grenades, mortar duds and M-79 shells.

The Will of Heaven is the memoir of a brave and resourceful man. But the book is seriously flawed, and the reader’s confidence is not won easily. First, Ngan makes no pretense at being impartial. His hatred for the North Vietnamese is so deep that he caricatures them throughout the book, portraying them as cruel, inhuman, deceitful and stupid. There is no acknowledgment of the courage and dedication that enabled them to defeat the combined forces of the United States and South Vietnam. While the North Vietnamese atrocities are catalogued, Ngan glosses over the barbarism of his own side: the torture and execution of Viet Cong prisoners who were “terminated with extreme prejudice,” as the U.S. government delicately put it.

The major disappointment, however, is the wretchedness of the writing, and most of the blame must fall on the ghostwriter, E.E. Richey. Ngan may have lacked the confidence to write his book in English, but surely a literal translation from the Vietnamese such as in Phuong’s Beautiful Eyes, the moving memoir of another survivor, Tran Quang, would have been prefer-

able. Richey’s cliché-ridden sentences rob the book of its individual voice and blunt its emotional impact. The dialogue is unintentionally hilarious: “Isn’t it all a big pile of crap .... those squeaky sons of bitches really pulled a fast one. They fooled all of us, the bastards!” says one disillusioned occupant of a re-education camp. Are we to believe that Vietnamese speak like American GIs?

After his release from the camps, Ngan returned to a Saigon that was no longer recognizable: his son was being indoctrinated at school; private property was confiscated. In December, 1978, Ngan left Vietnam with his wife and son on an overcrowded fishing boat. After five harrowing days at sea they reached the inhospitable coast of Malaysia, but before they could land a storm capsized the boat, and Ngan’s wife and son were drowned.

This is the climax of the book, and here the false notes are even more excruciating. Striving for intensity, Richey makes an embarrassing attempt at tragic lyricism: “Waves lapped languidly against the shore as though weary from their earlier murderous orgy. Somewhere out there in that tranquil sea my wife lay, adrift perhaps among the bright, tropical sea flowers, her long thick hair billowing softly behind her in a dark cloud.” Such cheap

emotionalism is unfair to both the author and the reader. One longs to know whether this was actually Ngan’s original version. Seldom has an author been so badly served by the well-meaning ineptitude of his ghostwriter.

Ngan was eventually sponsored by the Canadian government and now lives in Prince Rupert, B.C., where he works at a grain elevator. He has been given sanctuary in this country, which is gratifying; he should also have been allowed the dignity of telling his story in his own words. -HUBERT DE SANTANA



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