PREVIOUS LIFE - English version by Khanh Doan and Thanh Doan

20 Tháng Mười 20236:29 CH(Xem: 2687)


By Doan Quoc Sy

English version by Khanh Doan and Thanh Doan

            Last night it drizzled and the wind blew

            The wind swayed the branches, silver branches and golden branches

            You and I lived in different villages

            How do I know which way leads to your door?

            One I love, two I miss, three I am sorrowful

            I have no appetite for rice, I have betel to live on.

            I love you so much, my dear.

            Where can I find a quiet place where I can lament

            Lament is what I want to do, but can’t

            Look at those stones falling onto the lake shore

            Falling stones may fill up some day

            But I will never get over my love for you.

(Vietnamese folk poetry)

            At each miserable event of the nation. Tâm remained seated in the dark, holding his face in his hands. He had developed this habit for a long, long time. It was not that he took this position to cry or to reflect on his own miseries. (Tâm was not such a coward, was he? Nor were any of us!) Tâm persistently thought that all the people of a nation were born with the noble qualities of their own nations, and to a larger extent, of the whole humanity. As to those doomed with vices and treasons, those qualities were not lost; they were just discarded somewhere outside. The fact that Tâm was often seated in the dark with his hands holding his face was just his way to wish with all his heart that those qualities would be crystalized within him. The crystalization was like assisting someone’s spirit to be united to one’s own. Should this be accompanied by a song? Tâm did not sing, but he recited very softly some verses to promote the crystalization, not to disturb it. He usually chose to recite some verses from Kiều”

            What a pity that white purity

            Will be tarnished by forceful circumstances

Or some verses from folk poetry as above quoted:

Falling stones may fill up some day

            But I will never get over my love for you.

Then, more than ever, how he wished to meet his progenitor...

Encountering his progenitor? Yes, he believed so, for each time he dreamed about his previous life, he woke up with an impression that he was just revived by a new source of energy, which allowed all the typical qualities of the nation, such as dignity, patience, openness, to surge in him. as vividly as the foliage blooming with the spring spirit of infinite love. His first encounter with his progenitor was in the famine year some time ago. A few days before that, he saw a group of street singers playing traditional music for charity money at Bach Mai tram station. They were dressed up in traditional pants, tunics and turbans. They played traditional music like Hành Vân and Luu Thủy (Drifting Clouds and Flowing Water) and other kinds of religious songs. A few days later, the group was nowhere to be seen. Tâm suspected that they had moved to the city gates and slowly starved to death there, contributing their lives to round up the number of two million people who starved to death during this national disaster. Alas, when alive, a human stood tall and brave, but when deceased, he was no taller than a blade of grass. Playing religious music at a tram station was bitter irony, but what Tâm regarded as the bitterest was the sight of those inhuman French colonists who continued to enjoy flirting each other and dancing at such hotels as Splendid and Metropole.

A few days later, to avoid bombardment, Tam’s school moved to Hà Đông. Right on the first day, while walking to school, among the many lifeless faces here and there, he saw a child lying in a curling position, hidden behind a tree, beside a pile of trash and oyster shells. Poor child! He was covered by a torn mat, except for his face and a hand stretching out. He was looking at passers-by with no expressions left in his eyes. Tâm placed a little ball of rice (his own lunch) in the child’s hand; he moved slightly. On his way back home, he saw the ball of rice covered by a tuft of grass nearby. The child was dead. He was too weak to put the rice into his mouth.

The night after, Tâm was back to his hometown. He was sitting with his face slumped over his study desk, leaving his soul to melt into the sighing wind through the clusters of trees in the garden. Then, Tâm caught sight of a young man in ancient-fashioned clothing who opened the door and came in. The man put a finger in his mouth then bit it, his eyes filled with vast sadness. The man bit his own finger, but Tâm’s own heart ached acutely. When he woke up, he vaguely recollected that the person’s face in his dream slightly resembled his and for some reason, he thought he had met his progenitor!

Probably because of his deep gratitude toward virtues and deeds by his ancestors, Tâm was heartedly attached to his belief that he had met them and that. together with his ancestors, he had done his part in sweat and blood to build and defend this nation.

After six years in the Resistance Movement, there came a day when he woke up, disenchanted and totally disheartened. He didn’t bother to ask himself why he could be so blind or too trustful. He just realized, after disenchantment, that it was too late; but better late than never. The last campaign he participated at the end of fall 1951, was named Đông Triều. To get ready for it, two batallions left one month ahead, cleared a path within a bamboo forest, dug two rows of foxholes, all of them carefully camouflaged. The enemy planes watched them so closely that, just on one occasion when two combatants carelessly built a fire to grill a dry fish while a spy plane was passing by, the tiny amount of smoke was enough to result in the instant rumbling appearance of a squadron of B26 from the horizon. Without any tilting motion, they dropped bombs as casually as an absent-minded person dropping a belonging without knowing. Tâm had no idea how many people died in that incident, but among them was a regiment political officer. When Tam’s unit got there, the smell of decaying human flesh among the trees was shocking. They found it nauseating, no matter how they tried to cover their nose and mouth.

Getting to the battle site, Tâm stayed with the Chiefs of Staff while Lam, his only surviving friend, joined the combatants. The next morning at ten o’clock, Tâm got the news on the phone that the commander – his friend – was seriously wounded. Not until the following afternoon was Lam brought back on a stretcher to the military medical house, but he already passed on the way. At Tam’s arrival, Lam’s body was still on the bamboo stretcher, his head tilted aside, saliva flowing from his mouth like puffs of soap bubbles.

Tâm loved Lam because he knew that they both were not scared of death, but started fearing it, just like a simple-minded animal to be killed for an experiment which served an objective that was wicked, devilish and unfitting to the humanitarian living way of the nation.

Each time they left for a campaign, both considered themselves as dead and always lied to themselves that they would die for Motherland. By then, they were already deeply stuck to the serrated cogs of the Resistance system.

This time, Lam’s death was real. His body was really there, with his head tilted aside, white puffs of saliva flowing over the corner of his mouth, but he had slipped through Tam’s fingers to eternally fall into the other infinite world.

During that night, he also dropped his head onto the bamboo table at the office of the Campaign General Staff. Tâm’s progenitor opened the door, then sat down across the table and quietly looked at him, his breath mingling with the restless wind outside. Tâm dreamed that he followed his progenitor to the barren mount where he and Lam had to use their comrades’s dead bodies as a firm grip in a mid-hill slope after an attack. Streams of hot blood went through his shirt and spread down to his feet. Still following his progenitor’s steps, Tâm walked into the white vast foggy field, as white as the bubble of saliva spilling over the corner of Lam’s mouth. Then he and his progenitor rested on top of a mountain that overviewed a winding red river below. Tăm looked at his progenitor quietly and tenderly, sharing all his crystalized miseries and thus feeling much relieved.

Once crystalized, matters did not get lost easily because, by then, they were no longer blurred or shapeless and would shine from any place they were thrown to. Likewise, the universe had started as orbiting dusts finally crystalized to become blue stars of sorrows.

Lam’s body was hurriedly buried on the side of a rice field at the front line, near a village previously evacuated. From Lam’s death, there remained just one striking effect on his mind, pushing him to make a final decision to get away from the serrated saw of the shrewd and hypocritical war system in the name of “People’s Resistance”.

For long, political parties with mean objectives had been created, smearing the noblest project of humanity, sowing pessimism into the peasants’ carefree mind and suspicion into the most generous mind of the intellectuals. Tâm left the Resistance Group to return to Hanoi at the time when that page of history came to its most disgusting level.

Falling stones may fill up some day

            But I will never get over my love for you.

Back to Hanoi, Tâm’s house was located at Ngõ Huyện street next to the Main Cathedral, where he often saw a “phở” seller and his son who carried their merchandise in two baskets at both ends of a pole. They went all the way from Kim Mã, a suburbean area of Hanoi, for their trading. The father was about 40 years old but looked 50. Rumor had it that his wife was raped to death by French legionnaire soldiers at the entrance of the village in 1945, right at the beginning of the Resistance movement. The son was only about eight. He helped by calling their merchandise in small alleys. At someone’s order, he would get back to let his Dad know, then bring the food to the customer. Regular customers often teased him by asking for credit payment or by paying with a $500 bill. They would say: “If you don’t have the change, I’ll pay later.” The boy would react vehemently to the words “pay later”. With tears pouring down, he would loudly argue against the idea of credit purchase and would insist on immediate payment. His heart ached to see how his Dad labor for a living and always feared that customers might fail to pay. Following the boy’s reaction, Tâm felt sorry for him. “Poor boy!” he told himself. “He doesn’t know that the whole nation had to make credit payments in blood and flesh to foreign powers and their lackeys.”

During that time in Hanoi, lots of shining luxury cars were seen along the roads. They belonged to those despicable people who were submitted to foreign authorities for their own power. They showed off their luxurious life as an insult to the sub-standard and unsafe life of the common people. In Tâm’s eyes, they were like a pack of puppies fighting each other for their own mother’s bones. Tâm also perceived them as shameless children who, while their father was dying, would even sell his coffin and fight for the money. Tâm’s soul seemed to be burning eternally. Even a particle of dust hanging in the air could hit and hurt him acutely. Looking at those luxury cars speeding by, he felt a terrible pressure as if being run over. His nerves were on the brink of craziness when, fortunately, he happened to watch a documentary about St Gandhi’s life. There was a scene in which St Gandhi was welcome ceremoniously, then invited to get into a shining car that sped lightly on an also shining paved road. Suddenly, it seemed to Tâm that the car had a soul, which transformed it into an old and faithful horse or elephant. The road also seemed to have a soul, which turned it into a magic dragon stretching itself under the four speeding wheels.

No one would underestimate an engine when it had a soul. The Indian saint, the embodiment of Virtue, by means of his mere presence, had blown a soul into the engine of the car.

Then, one late afternoon, when the street lights had just been turned on, Tâm walked on Hàng Buồm Street and stopped by a small store to buy a few cigarettes. He paid the seller a 5-đồng bill and received a change of 3 đồng and 5 cents in aluminium coins. Tâm wondered how the aluminium was processed to make such light coins, so light that in his hand they seemed lighter than a paper bill.

Standing by a street lamp, Tâm opened his hand to examine the coin: on one side was the picture of a rice stalk with two words INDOCHINE FRANCAISE arranged in the shape of a half circle above it and two bigger words, 20 CENTS, on a straight line below it. On the other side was the image of a lady holding a twig – maybe the Goddess of Liberty?- with the words “République Francaise” arching over. The coin border was smooth, both carelessly and charmlessly smooth. Tâm closed his hand on the coin, pressed his lips together and murmured to himself: “The coin was evidence of the colonists’ shrewdness and shiftiness. It was as light, as empty and as valueless as their henchmen.”

He found himself in a crossroads with traffic lights, where road work was left unfinished. A sewage cover not properly laid revealed the darkish mud inside and let out a horrid smell. Tâm forcefully threw the three five-cent coins into that nasty muddy area. The shrewd system of disguised colonialism, of fake independence, of power greedy lackeys deserved no more than that. Since then, Tâm was obsessed by the carelessness, gracelessness, lightness and emptiness of those 5-cent coins, and used them as units to measure his empathy for some and anger for others. One night, as he slept over at a friend’s house on Bờ Sông Street, he woke up in the morning and saw a heavily pregnant country woman in ragged clothes and with an emaciated hungry face and bare feet. She was carrying a big bag on her shoulder and walking slowly while looking attentively at the ground. Suddenly, she stopped to reach her hand below the barbed wire fence. He realized she was looking for empty milk cans, the common kind of garbage seen everywhere, which she would sell to toy shops on Hàng Thiếc Street. Mid-Autumn festival was only a month away!

Tâm wondered how many cans she would collect after a day’s walking and whether she would earn as much as ten đồng – that is 20 pieces of those miserable, careless and empty five-cent coins!

The image of that low-class and pitiful woman, then, was magnified into the great image of patience of the whole nation in its efforts to construct and defend the native land throughout the ups and downs of history.

Tâm walked further toward Đồng Xuân market to closely watch the simple and gentle country women carrying and hoping to sell their merchandise from distant villages. Like millions of others, they were in the same situation of double threats: daytime facing the colonists’ army who searched and wasted the area and night time dealing with the shrewd Communists agents who both enticed and terrorized. Kolrabis, cabbages, papayas of such and such sizes, the results of so much labor in planting, watering, fertilizing, were harvested with sweat, tears and blood, cherished with hope for 8 đồng bills, equivalent to 16 pieces of those miserable, careless and empty five-cent coins!

Tâm once saw a man with a hair bun and dishevelled beard walking hurriedly in the late sunlight. His two baskets on each end of the bamboo pole were still holding twelve rice cakes he could not sell. Many times Tâm saw a decrepit old man offering his knife sharpening service in the shade of an almond tree at a street corner. At another time, he heard the bell ring from an icecream cart and bought an icecream from an even more decrepit old man. He observed the seller put the coins in his pocket, but still lingered on to see if the customer would buy anything else, then heard the cart bell as well as the man’s hungry feet faded away. All those emotional poverty scenes came back to his mind each time he wondered how many miserable, careless and empty five-cent coins those pitiful people earned to support their families.

He once sheltered from the rain in a suburbean cabin while its owner, a blacksmith, and his four children were having their meals. In the corner of each bowl, he saw a half piece of tofu still untouched. That was probably the ration given to each child by the father. They just ate the vegetables dipped in soy sauce, sparing the tofu. Using chopsticks, they ate their rice very neatly and not a grain was left behind at the end. Just like any other children from poor families.

Life was a rigged game where the losers were always the innocent nameless common people. The more low-class people Tâm met the more he perceived how the noble virtue of patience was crystalized in them. He respected them as he did a representative of God, and he really wanted to gather all his forceful despise and spit it out at the face of those merchants who thrived at the expense of humanity and at the face of their parasite lackeys.

In many of his emotional nights, Tâm had nightmares that were sometimes horrible, sometimes deeply sad. There was a dream he would never forget. He dreamed that all the places were burning, even those with no houses. There was fire right in the center of a flower garden, of Hoàn Kiếm lake, of West Lake. Wherever the fire spread, it caused miseries to the people, left behind children’s naked dead bodies, sometimes heads severed from bodies. One child’s skull was cut into two. The spreading blood smelled disgusting. After that, Tâm dreamed that he was fishing at a river, then a lake, then finally, oh horror, at a pool of black sewage water, where his fishing floatie got stuck in a crack. How could there be fish in that sewage area? Maybe just a school of larvae! Even if the larvae did bite the hook, the floatie that got stuck in a crack could not warn him.

When he woke up, he broke off to the open yard to breathe in the late dews and to confide in the stars that looked as lonely as himself.

One late afternoon, after dinner, his mother told him:

-                      Trading is getting harder and harder. I’ve decided to give it up and switch to farm work.

Tâm had only one answer to his mother:

-                      You are right, Mom. In the current situation. I think each family should have a monk to redeem others’ souls and a farmer so as others would not feel shameful each time they hold a bowl of rice.

With hands holding head, and elbows on the table, Tâm buried his thoughts in emptiness. When he looked up, the late afternoon was getting darker. The stuffy air was signalling a coming heavy rain.

He heard someone giggle:

-                      Such a disdainful man! I said “Hello” twice but still got no response!

Tâm turned round. Dung laughed louder and greeted him in a mocking voice:

-                      Good evening, sir!

Dung, who lived in the neighborhood, was a friend of his sister’s, Thịnh. She dropped by to see Thịnh every day, no matter how early or late, and sometimes helped with the cooking. At her prime age, she was such a sweet beauty. Tâm would never underestimate that expression of love, but considering the tiredness and despise inside him, he would not let those feelings trouble Dung’s pure soul. Tâm knew that, if Dung did not get involved in love issues at such early age, she would be able to stay as fresh as a peasant girl in a time of peace, as described in the folk verses:

I’ll be back to harvest beans and eggplants

So my beloved girl would not be late for the market.

Dung hurried home before the rain. It started light, then became persistent, as persistent as an everlasting melancholy in one’s soul. A machine gun sounded from a military station outside the city, then came the sound of a cannon aiming at a greater distance. In Tâm’s memory came the painful images of people displaced by war, carrying each other and their belongings in the biting winter rain and North wind. He turned on the radio, and heard the introduction to a traditional opera concert. This national melody came at the right time, soothing to his disturbed soul, just like the South wind that came to King Thuấn in the old days. The show started with the humorous but simple song “Pots and pans”. Its rhythm and lyrics fit together so well. The double-chord fiddle sounded derisive, just like a playful but kind-hearted character. Next came the melody of “Long Distance Road.”, gentle, passionate, a bit melancholic but not mournful. It was an emotion that mixed patience and generosity, the kind of patience typical of the poor that Tâm had seen before. The drum sound was at times clear, at times muffled while the clappers marked the strong beats. The two-string fiddles sounded like laments, the flute seemed to be blown in with the afternoon wind from the green field. The melody of “Love Vows” evoked the sight of two lovers walking hand in hand during Spring time of the Universe, amidst flying butterflies of happiness and blooming flowers of love. They walked in a world of balance between emotion and reason. They accepted Life with open heart and blended into its immensity, as overwhelmed as Kim Trọng and Thúy Kiều when they first met by a clear stream.

Suddenly there arose the sound of a one-string fiddle that caused Tâm to hold his face in his hands and drop it onto the table. He could not recognize the melody, but felt that its lament evoked deep sadness along with pure morality. It evoked the scene of a fatherless orphan leading a blind mother through a jungle at night time. The jungle might be full of evil spirits and wild beasts. It might be thicker than night, rougher than steep mountains, vaster than oceans, but filial piety would enable the child to lead his mother out of the jungle into the light. Tâm felt as if he were speeding on an immense fragrant green rice field, as if his feet were treading on cunning faces, causing them to fall into nothingness. Tâm wanted to cry out: “Oh rivers, oh fields that have been ours for five thousand years. How vast, how peaceful you are to humanity. How could anyone sully you?”

The door flung open. Once more, Tâm saw someone he knew: his progenitor. This time he was dressed in martial costume and led him to board a ship. He looked around and saw as many as fifty battle ships advancing toward the river mouth. Further, the river widened into a bay. He heard someone murmur: “Lục Đầu River! Lục Đầu River!”. Ah yes, Tâm remembered this was one of King Quang Trung’s 5 armies advancing toward Thăng Long Capital to defeat the Chinese invaders in the Kỷ Dậu year.

The fleet were still advancing. Once, one of them got stranded at one alluvial ground. Immediately, the whole team jumped into the water, tied the cable to the ship and towed. Half of their bodies were in icy water; yet with bending backs, they stoically pulled the ship, moving it bit by bit with their advancing steps. Tâm saw his progenitor among the rescuing team and shared their pride. Meanwhile, he could feel the icy river water cutting his flesh. After that, his progenitor led him into a very strange world, where his body was chopped into two parts without him feeling any pain.

A dry branch seemed to be cracking somewhere. No, it was just the radio being turned off. Tâm was snatched off his dream and woke up. Dung was standing nearby, reproaching him:

-                      Why were you dozing off at your work desk with the radio on?

-                      Yes, miss Dung. I fell asleep and dreamed about my progenitor.

Tâm nodded his head at the memory of his dream, then continued:

-                      I was taken by my progenitor to a world where my body was chopped into two without any pain. Then I was installed in a new body and was able to walk around effortlessly. Meanwhile, the other part was set in a living statue. Its eyes turned from blue to red:  it saw life in a different light.

Dung shook her head and looked as sad as her own smile:

-                      I don’t understand what you mean.

-                      I think that if we nourish our soul with noble feelings, we will be transferred to a lighter body. If we nourish our soul with mean ambitions, our eyes will turn red and we will see life through an ocean of blood spilling over from our own heart.

Dung sighed:

-                      I know you are right, but why do you keep talking about your previous life instead of focusing on the present reality?

As Tâm kept silent, Dung said:

-                      I am going home.

Tâm looked up, then nodded:

-                      Yes, dear.

This was the first time he called her “dear”. After the door had been closed and Dung had gone, Tâm regretted not asking her to stay so he could teach her the folk verses:

Last night it drizzled and the wind blew

            The wind swayed the branches, silver branches and golden branches

            You and I lived in different villages

            How do I know which way leads to your door?

            One I love, two I miss, three I am sorrowful.

His dream about previous life brought peace to his soul. It was true that noble virtues were distributed equally to each individual. If someone did not make the best of them, someone else would take them over and they would not be wasted. Tâm thought one’s value was built up from one’s own share. No one could sully us, and we could not sully anyone, whatever power we might have. Only embodiments of darkness and narrow minds would falsely believe that power could win over the human heart.

Tâm thought he should look back at himself. Cultivating his own soul would mean purifying the honor of the whole nation. It would mean sowing happiness to mankind. Blood thirsty people would not be able to drown the entire nation, which is just a small part of humanity – in an ocean of blood. Cunning people would not manage to trap others with their cruel schemes. Incompetent and shameless people who were fond of flatteries, but would love to be remembered as heroes could not damage the human creative mind. If so, who would bother to enrage over outer filth. The value of a nation’s people – or of humanity – was laid on the brilliant exploits achieved by that nation. The representatives of Vietnam during the Tran dynasty were Marshall Trần Hưng Đạo and General Trần Bình Trọng, not the traitor Trần Ích Tắc. The representative of India was Gandhi, not the assassin that took Gandhi’s life! The same truth applied to a coin. It had no value in itself. Its value was in the great hope and trust laid by the people on the nation’s system. Just like the trust laid on the captain by sea travelers. Because of that hope and that trust, many captains would devote their lives to the ship and do their best to accomplish their mission. Would anyone ever manage to sully the fields and rivers that had been ours for five thousand years?

And then …

What had to happen happened!

The day before Tâm left Hanoi, he was about to use his torn-out undershirt to clean his feet, but remembering what his mother often said “Don’t commit any indecency, no matter how small”, he decided not to. Later, when he boarded the ship to move South, he was still wearing that torn-out undershirt.

By air or by sea, soon already 800 000 people had left for the South, bringing the nation with them. Those who got stuck or who had duties to fulfill stayed in the North and would have to embrace the nation and keep it warm deep inside their hearts.

Anywhere, in any situation, the nation would be kept unhurt.  Just as Tâm had always thought:

“Would anyone ever manage to sully the fields and rivers that had been ours for five thousand years?”


Comments by Mike Murray

Khanh Oi –


Thank you again for Previous Life. It has all the qualities of the first copy l saw and enjoyed. I still believe it is a work worthy of a classroom reading and discussion. Reading it I think of Kafka, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens and others who, without softening anything capture the realities of the era’s horrors therein. Including the most vulnerable and helpless. To me, Tam finds himself suffering humanity at its most brutal and inhumane – all for status, control, and shameless power.


I found myself pausing at repetitive words, crystalizedprogenitor listening for what the author is saying and what he’s asking from me. I found “serrated cogs of the Resistance system” and other descriptions of human cruelty: waking or in dreamscapes harrowing and powerful.


I, again, find Dung well played and interesting, including when she challenges Tam: “I know you are right, but why do you keep talking about your previous life instead of focusing on the present reality?” She has more on the page than Lam and others. The author knows what the reader needs to know and l find her an example of captivating character structure.


fOf course, “Would anyone ever manage to sully the fields of rivers that had been ours for five thousand years”  foretells much and answers itself.


I don’t know what was done, but this edit made for a smoother, easier read.