The Writers Post - Volume 11 Number 1 Jan 2009 - Kinh Duong Vuong





(ISSN: 1527-5467)
the magazine of Literature & Literature-in-translation.


JAN 2009












Laughing masks



translated by PHAM VIEM PHUONG


Kinh Duong Vuong, pseudonym of Nguyen Tuan Khanh, artist, poet, and short story writer, born in 1941, known as Rung for his painting, Dung Nham/Co Dong for poetry, and Kinh Duong Vuong for short story. Kinh Duong Vuong’s Chiec Mat Na Cuoi, his first collection of short stories published by Van Moi (US) in 1997, was followed by two collections of poetry and prose: “Dung Nham - Tho Toan Tap” / Dung Nham - The complete works of poetry (Ho Chi Minh City: 2003, hard cover, 450 pages) and “Kinh Duong Vuong – Van Xuoi Toan Tap”/Kinh Duong Vuong – The complete works of Prose (Ho Chi Minh City: 2003, hard cover, 1198 pages).



Lacking a full knowledge, a stranger would certainly make a wrong guess about how old Hai the Knee was. He was nicknamed so because he could attack fiercely with his knees. When he launched such attacks, the strongest opponents could hardly stand three blows. His hand, with long and pointed finger-nails, could grasp the nape of his opponents’ necks and push down. When being pushed down, the chest of his victim would receive a blow from his knee jerking up. His acts were so quick and neat that his victims, from the time they saw him until the moment they tumbled down, couldn’t know how they were knocked out. He used to show off his well- painted and manicured finger-nails. The dark red on long finger-nails of a man looked horrible. One of his nails had once broken during a fight, he said with deep regret:

“It takes months for it to return to its usual form,” he said angrily. “The nape of that guy’s neck is as hard as that of a bull.”

He always dressed well. His clothes were ironed perfectly. His pointed shoes were shiny. Particularly, I’ve never seen anything untidy about his wavy hair. All hairs were kept in place by a luxury and fragrant hair-oil. By his appearance from a distance, Hai the Knee looked like an elegant young man, a sort of greenhorn, and you could hardly think of any job for him except flirting women who loved reading women’s magazines. But if you got a chance to have a closer look at his handsome face, you would be surprised at something that made him some ten years older than his age. It came from his yellow eyes full of tiny red veins. He didn’t like talking. It was rare for him to manage a cold and soulless smile with his red and tight lips. When he talked to me, his yellow eyes would seem to be lost in another world, looking totally strange, which discouraged any effort to intrude into his impenetrable world. He would walk, stand, eat, sleep or communicate with others but some alienation was set up around him, like a glass wall through which he could be looked at like a perfect living effigy. The coldness and indifference have become second nature to him, which made many low-spirited people reluctant to look at his eyes. And if they had an accidental eye contact with him, most of them turned away hastily... That was why he had no friend, even in his circles. His colleagues also felt some inhumane manner that covered him like a thick layer of ice. Besides business meetings, everybody wanted to keep away from him. He fell into a lonely world, but he didn’t seem to be aware of this. While he looked cold, tough, distant and poorly adaptable in the social life, he became extraordinarily vivid when he was in another place in his field where he was a person of authority. The environment where he could find some appropriate air and enjoy his life to the full was a poorly –lit and moldy room with walls whose whitewash had peeled off and been full of brown patches, with batteries and other devices specially designed to cause pain for human bodies – to force them to confess even crimes they had never committed – with the smell of burned flesh and the red and warm fluid flowing from mouths and nostrils. In that atmosphere, he seemed to be energized, he came back to his true self in the right environment, and he became as agile as an owl when the night fell.



“Don’t be so stubborn,” the interrogator looked up at the young man and said displeasingly. He had just read the statement of the young man who looked like a student – and he didn’t feel satisfied.

“You must tell me everything you knew,” he continued. “We want to know all.” He stopped to light a cigarette, made a draw and put his chin on the cigarette-holding hand with his face turned away – he had stared at the young man’s face so far – he tapped the writing pad with his ball-point pen and smiled wryly. “According to what you wrote here, you are not only an innocent but also a respectable man because of your courage and selfless deeds. How could I see you here if you were such a man? Be reasonable, boy!”

The young man looked surprised at gentle protest from the interrogator - a reaction he never expected.

“If you want the truth,” the young man said. “There is nothing more than what I wrote there.”

Although hesitant, his voice was very calm and clear. The interrogator admitted so himself. Poise and politeness also showed themselves in his face. The interrogator, however, noticed knuckles of the young man’s hand that was clinging to the edge of the rough wooden table had become white as blood drained away. You were making the best use of you courage, the interrogator thought.

The young man’s words were like a loud slap on his face making him furious. His courtesy towards detainees was not intended to get such a blunt answer and arrogant calmness. He wanted everybody when facing him to show fear, humiliation or beseech humbly like thefts. They had to be servile towards him and call him sir. His courtesy towards detainees – who were totally at his mercy – meant that he was not an onlooker, but an executioner who represented the law; and his dignity was much higher than theirs. He didn’t utter his thought but his manner, silently, forced unfortunate persons to become aware of it. Fear and baseness displayed by outlaws satisfied the two aspects of his mentality. He felt his ego was flattered when showing contempt towards them. Everybody who had stood before this familiar table never failed to satisfy those two aspects. That was why the calm and courteous manner of the young man became a sin that he found less forgivable than crimes against the country he was trying to force this young man to admit.

Some irritation flickered in his glance at the young man but he was familiar with such feeling and could hide it skillfully. “How can a man of my position get angry with you?” A sensible could easily notice this in his eyes. “You are only a greenhorn whom I can finish off any time.” And through a puff of smoke that came out timely, the young man could only see a pensive look and felt that his words had fallen into emptiness without any impact. He didn’t expect such a calm attitude.

Although disappointed, the interrogator could keep his gentle and condescending voice but failed to conceal a sarcastic tone in his question:

“You know Hai the Kneel, huh?”

“No sir.”

He laughed but it sounded like a snuffle.

“He likes your kind very much.” He said and cast a mysterious glance at the young man. “You are far from his rival,” he added. “Even bullies bigger than you couldn’t stand up to him, and I’m afraid a thin boy like you...” He left his sentence unfinished. As he had expected, the young man looked frightened, which gave him a kind of content. But the fear only flickered across the young man’s face. What showed itself clearly in his pale face was a great sorrow. Strange to say, it’s the sorrow in his eyes that made the interrogator suddenly wary, an unexpected feeling that he hardly encountered in his career. What he failed to get, however, was the pity the young man conveyed harmlessly to him in his sad look.

To act means accepting adversities. The young man was clearly and definitely aware of it. It’s not that he paid no attention to physical pains in store for him, but the real pain was in his enslaved spirit. He had done what a human being’s conscience demanded, according to the need of an oppressed majority. His young enthusiasm drove him to act selflessly. His conscience had no trouble, and he felt a simple joy. He had acted as a human being in its most precious meaning.

He didn’t resent anybody who saw him as an enemy to destroy. Because what a dictator considered as equality the oppressed would call it inequality, and there was no exception. Oppression was the weak position of the strong while revolting was the strong position for the weak. Each party took actions according to its position. They were similar to each other in their effort but their goals were much different. Both of them were trying their best but one party wanted to bring about light, the other maintained darkness.

He didn’t believe, in this age, one’s goodwill could lead to good results. But it’s his trust in direction given by human conscience that gave rise to his actions aiming at good goals. He also believed that any deed of good intention would be supported by invisible forces. This mood was traditional and symbolic but it was the foundation of his people’s moral traditions that made his people treat one another equally without resorting to punishments to lower or destroy human dignity as seen in modern societies under influence of violence-based doctrines.

What happened to his people in the past fifty years had destroyed the humanistic morals root and branch. He had once had his doubt about its passiveness when witnessing prevalence of violence, and reward given to bad instead of good behavior. But he also realized that maintaining the ethic based on humanitarian ideas was very important and urgent, and relative to the survival of his people.

The prevalence of the violence-based civilization, he thought, might be temporary, like a rising tide. Everything thing, including human beings, on its way would be destroyed. But the tide couldn’t kill the whole humanity and rise forever. There would be one day when its strength reduced and it would fall and vanish into the ocean. The tide from the Occident and America was attacking the Orient. The Orient was the ocean into which the tide would vanish.

But it is a matter of aims. The human life is not always oriented towards its aims and there are immediate problems to solve. Ones should take action to deal with the current situation - an action to protect their aims – to save or repair timely damage caused by the destructive wave, including the act of making oneself an obstacle with a view to enlightening it or reducing its destructive force.

In his country there were some people who only used their wisdom to avoid being destroyed by the wave of violence by helping the wave go faster and collecting benefits produced by the wave while ruining their countrypersons. To them the young of his generation were under an obligation to talk of their mistakes and bring them back to communities and traditional order of a society based on humanistic morals.

He and other young men one day had preached this truth and were oppressed by slaves of violence. He was not surprised to see their failure to recognize the goodwill in what he and his fellows did. It’s understandable because a coating of honey and good scent outside a poisonous pill is always more attractive than the sour or bitter taste of a vitamin pill. The subtle smell of chloranth and magnolia and other wild flowers are often harder to recognize than the fascinating scent from man-eating flowers.

The interrogator looked up at the young man’s absorbed face, feeling incompetent in persuading him to acknowledge crimes as suggested. This was the third time he met the young man in this room, and his job in the first stage ended here.

“All right,” he put papers in order and his voice sounded part threatening, part angry, “If you don’t want to be treated properly, we will take other measures.” He raised his voice to stress his last words. “If you feel sorry then, it will be too late. Don’t blame me for failure to tell you beforehand.”

The young man made no reply but his look showed that he understood what was told. He felt no remorse for his testimony whatever consequences were in store for him. The truth is unique, how could he accept any other ones? He couldn’t understand the word Justice said by representatives of violence when they cracked down the weak.

The interrogator tapped his pen on the table as a signal. A man came in quickly and a pair of handcuff was put on the young man and the man signed him to follow.

It took a short while for the interrogator to overcome his confusion. He couldn’t make any reaction to the young man’s nod and thank you before he disappeared behind the door.



I came across Thanh in a highland town when I dropped into a street cafeù. His appearance had changed so drastically that I couldn’t recognize him at first. But he did it well and called to me regardless of my bewilderment: “It’s me, Thanh. Can’t you recall?” He smiled disappointedly.

I noticed some confusion in his face too. I squeezed his hand in excitement.

“Oh, is that you? Long time no see.” I said warmly but my voice didn’t sound natural. I embraced his shoulders. “You’ve grown up so fast,” I said hurriedly. “Time really flies... and you are a man now.”

I asked about his parents and changes in his life and many trivial things. I felt strange to see a sad expression in his face that looked down as if avoiding eye contact although I had tried to talk intimately to make up for my failure to recognize him in the first place. He seemed to be in another world while standing beside me. He didn’t answer my questions for a while, and then, he looked up and started talking about other topics.

Changes in his face and appearance surprised me. Besides his natural curly hair that was combed neatly and not difficult for me to recognize, Thanh preserved almost nothing from his old self, even the smallest details that had embedded in my mind when he was a schoolboy.

He and I had lived in the same neighborhood. It’s a community of civil servants’ families that occupied a short distance of a secluded street in the inner citadel. The house of Thanh’s family was at a corner. It’s a semi-detached house with a pale green gate and a pergola of bougainvillea covered with red flower every summer. I could remember Thu, Thanh’s elder sister who was in her senior year at Dong Khanh high school then. She had a long hair, a chubby and fair face and black eyes; and she liked standing in the arbor of bougainvillea holding a green leaf between her pink lips.

Thanh was the second child of the family and in the grade 10 at Quoc Hoc high school then. He never put his shirt inside his trousers. His curly hair tended to flap gently in the wind. He was studious and used to getting lost in reverie as well. In moonlit nights, I usually saw Thanh and his friends in the neighborhood wandering late in the moonlight on streets lined with trees. They would smoke individually-bought light cigarettes and whistle softly... Sometimes Thanh allowed me to read some of his poems and other sketches or something of the kind. His poems were usually filled with some sorrowful feelings caused by an unrequited love for some girl. Although sentimental, these writings were suitable to his innocent age of fourteen and idealistic and loveable passion.

“I want to become a poet or maybe a novelist.” Thanh once told me light-heartedly.

“To praise the love, huh?” I said mockingly.

“I really mean it,” he said seriously. “To praise the love for humanity.”

I was then in my last year at a senior high school where I was responsible for the publication of the school newsletter and some of Thanh’s poems were published there.

Thanh’s father, Mr. Y., was reportedly a policeman but I had never seen him for years in the neighborhood. His station was on the highlands and he rarely came home.

During the Tet Offensive, my neighborhood was almost leveled. Thanh’s house was also shattered by bombs. Mr. Y. returned and took his family to the highlands and I had never heard from him since. Until today.

Thanh took me to his accommodation, in a secluded suburb neighborhood. Thanh said he wanted to live by himself to enjoy some freedom while his parents lived somewhere else. I felt doubtful about some mysteries in his life but refrained from asking him. His room was a square one with pale blue walls that looked beautiful and comfortable for a bachelor boy. I was surprised at its neatness and tidiness. All pieces of furniture, though simple, were clean as if being cared by a housewife. I had visited his room several times since then and never saw signs of disorder that was a common feature of unmarried young men. A writing table with a pale flowered cloth was in a corner, piled with books – detective and Chinese martial arts novels – and some trivial things. A single bed with a white sheet was placed beside the table. On a bedside table there was a small vase in which Thanh put some pink and purple chrysanthemums. In another corner, there was an electric oven used for making some tea or coffee. On the wall above the table, there were four or five masks that were frequently replaced with new ones, along with a flute and a Spanish guitar. Other walls were decorated with some pictures of foreign movie stars but there was no nude that I used to see in rooms of other bachelors.

Thanh usually went out, especially at nights. I had spent many nights in his room without seeing him coming back, before two or three after midnight, if any, looking extremely bored and tired. Sometimes he hadn’t come back for two or three days, or only returned to take away some masks after wrapping them carefully. He never bothered or wanted to tell me what he was doing. Occasionally he stayed home for a whole week. In such occasions, we would have rediscovered some relationship between friends who were from the same hometown, but Thanh didn’t show any feelings that allowed me to re-establish such relationship. He had never told me about his memories or family, or asked about my business or concerns. Never had any emotion shown itself in his face and had he confided anything to me. I had sometimes tried to tell him some of my memories with a view to encouraging him to do the same. Thanh always listened to me silently with a distant manner, which made me think my words were falling into an empty space without echo. We shared the room silently like two shadows and told each other no more than some words of great necessity. I used to read martial arts novels while Thanh did his one and only job – I had never seen him doing anything else – pasting sheets of paper on a terracotta mold to produce masks, and painting and decorating them carefully. His tools were placed in a carton and kept in his closet and he only displayed them when he was at work, which I only learned later. At times when all masks on the wall were taken away, he was in a hurry to make new ones.

Thanh colored all of these masks carefully and beautifully, but they looked extremely unpleasant shocking. I thought he had a gift, like a professional artist, of making gruesome masks. Refusing to adopt any artistic school, Thanh could select right colors and lines to make these masks more disgusting. I found his ironic delight materialized in the disgust he had given to the masks. They were faces of demons, cruel spirits, flatterers, the cruel and the vile. I thought his success was on that score – at least to me –because I couldn’t help feeling some antipathy to the masks. Their narrow foreheads reflected stupidity and betrayal, their small and squinty eyes looked crooked and deceitful, and their grins were arrogant and defying. I told Thanh about my feelings and he only looked up at me with his yellow eyes.

Perhaps it’s not Thanh’s fault that I felt this atmosphere getting increasingly suffocating everyday when I was with him seeing the face of a friend who buried himself in a closed world I couldn’t break into however hard I tried. When Thanh looked at me, I thought I was only a non-living object in his inanimate eyes. He seemed to realize that his attitude had led to my emotional paralysis and he tried to change his behavior. He talked to me and showed some care for me, but it was very pitiful because his efforts went against his almost second nature, which made him look clumsy and unnatural. In fact, what I needed was not such a feminine care. I wanted Thanh to expose his real feelings and emotions as a human being. I needed some warmth that emitted from human beings during their most ordinary activities and even their fits of anger or envy.

At many nights Thanh played his flute to me, or played his guitar singing. But the passionate sound of his flute or his evoking singing couldn’t drive away his cold and lifeless secret. The moving sound of the flute and singing seemed to come from a machine, and more horribly, that machine had a perfect human form. I could love the sound of the flute and singing but how could I love the machine that produced such a sound? How could I feel some human nature in the machine? The human nature would have been a noble part beside instinct of an animal, and it didn’t always show itself fully. But both of them would combine in some ways to produce human vitality. In Thanh I didn’t even find some animal instinct. I couldn’t keep on communing with a human being like Thanh. Something seemed to emit from him, which made me horrified when thinking of meeting him again.


And we had lost contact with each other for a long time. One day, not by post, I found a letter in my mailbox. No name of sender was found but there was an alias on it – the kind used by hoodlums. There was a thick wad of handwritten letters inside. It seemed to be written by a sick and trembling hand. On a sheet of paper I read the following lines in pencil:

“I can’t keep on living with hatred that gets increasingly heavy in my soul, erodes my human nature. But I can’t find some compromise that helps me to come back to the human world where, in my eyes, the human love has been destroyed. A spark from my conscience told me that I should not foster and disseminate feelings of hostility. I couldn’t find again the human love in the human world. This may be a mistake against my will and I hope I will be forgiven.

“I think the only way to kill the hostility is to do away with myself.

“Please read my suicide narrative with tolerance and pity for a sorrowful soul.

“I will join my parents and siblings in the afterlife. Perhaps it is the only joy I felt before leaving this world for good.”


The narrative was so long that I couldn’t transcribe it here. In addition, there were many sections in which strong feelings of the author made descriptions of his thoughts obscure. I only wanted to copy out here some remarkable sections with respect – the greatest one- for the spirit of the will of a person determined to leave this world.


“I am the embodiment of a demon in the human form. I felt so myself and by looking into eyes of persons I meet.

I had once been a human being. When I allowed the hostility to take control over myself and got rid of the so-called human nature within me and kept back and fostered only the most disgusting thing named wickedness, I turned at once into a living demon. A dead demon is possibly forgivable, but a living one is the most horrible to humankind. I saw a lot of them around me but they knew how to disguise their nature, not only by taking a human form but also human feelings – as demons, in fact, they had no need to preserve such useless emotions – but I hid nothing and I wanted everybody to know I was a living demon. And as a result, I was treated with contempt disgust by other demons. In behaving towards human beings, they always try to show that they are not demons so they can make friends with and cause harm to them but many people even thank them for what they did. That is why, as a living demon, I still feel some pride because I think of myself as a “noble” demon. I consider taking a human form as regrettable. I could have had a demon face, which could save me from a contradiction between my soul and body and allow everybody to know who I was and how to avoid being harmed by my acts. This is fair enough. They would have nobody to blame when falling prey to my wickedness.

I had not tasted the liver of all living things so I couldn’t tell which one was the best. To a certain extent, however, where living creatures whose liver I had tasted are concerned, I could say that no liver is better than the human one, especially if you have it when it has just been taken from a body, hot and stained with blood. I was no surgeon but I could take a liver out of a human body skillfully. I knew beneath which ribs it lay, and you can use a sharp and pointed bayonet to make an incise of four inches long between those ribs, the liver will pop out when you turn the bayonet slightly to separate the two ribs. Then you can cut it away and finish your job. I can finish it before you can say Jack Robinson. My victim sometimes felt almost no pain and didn’t know what was happening to him. All he could do was to look at me with eyes open widely in innocent surprise.

“But it is only a form of recreation, or more exactly it is of material needs that I always hold in low regard. I am an unusual demon who has learnt to feel contempt for material needs. This is the biggest contradiction between me and my demon fellows, which made me feel alienated from them because they aim at gathering not only souls and bodies but also wealth from human beings. What matters most to me is spiritual need. In my opinion, the human beings only go after material needs while maintaining that they esteem the spiritual life. Conflicts caused by struggles for material interests are bloody ones that made even a demon like me horrified. As for me, I can feel full up by simply witnessing human sufferings. The greater the pain in those who are tortured by me, the higher my happiness. Human sufferings are like opium to me, and I enjoy it in the way they enjoy opium by which I am brought to a wonderful and superhuman world. Sometimes, because of my greed I allowed my soul to be so flooded with human suffering that I fell in a faint on the spot. It is, however, a miraculous dizziness. I was dazed when seeing myself drifting in a marvelous world where I could meet my parents and siblings whose bright smiles and happy look seemed to send me their praise and encourage me to take more revenge on human beings for them, to exert more cruelties, much mercilessly than what they had done to my family.

“... It was late now, the small hours had passed. All members of my family had slept while I reviewed my lessons in my small room. Suddenly, a deafening explosion broke out in my house, all lights went off, and I was thrown up and fell down, which made me see stars and I felt breathless for a moment while bricks and nameless things fell on me. I closed my eyes and thought I had died. But I regained my consciousness shortly afterwards, a burnt smell filled my nose and mouth. My house was on fire! I hastily stood up from the jumble and staggered across the room, and bumped my head against a beam. Oh my God! I cried silently when realizing my house had collapsed. I heard moans of the wounded. I ran towards the bedroom and felt my way in the dark. Blood! My hands were wet with blood and dirt. I cried like a madman:

“Daddy! Mama!” I burst into tears. Where was my sister Thu? My little Ty, Gai Lon and Gai Nho? I heard my dad groaning near by. I found him under some beams and debris. His head was on a twisted iron bar and his leg broken.

“Dad!” I called him painfully and touched his blood-stained face. I uttered hopeless cries like a madman. How could I bring him out of this pile of beams and how could I dress the bleeding wound in his broken leg?

“I’m still alive,” my dad whispered. “I can stand it. Look for and save your mother and siblings. Hurry up!”

I left him there, and crawled under some beams. Where were my mother and siblings, under this debris?

“Mama! Thu! Gai Lon, Gai Nho!” I cried like a howling dog. My eyes blurred with tears. I heard someone calling my name. I felt my way towards the source of that voice and touched an arm. I picked it up. There was a marble wristlet on it.

“It’s sister Thu! It’s Thu arm! Oh my sister Thu, you are dead...” I pressed the arm to my cheek trembling.

“I found my mother under a collapsed wall. Hearing her panting and moaning, I ran around the wall at a loss calling mummy as if begging her soul not to leave. It seemed to me that if I stopped calling she would die, leaving me forever.

“My son... Thanh...” My mother voice under the wall sounded feeble.

“I’m here... Mummy...” I answered in tears. “How can I save you, the wall is so heavy?”

“I can’t stand it any more. I’m dying. Look for you father, Thu and your little sisters...”

I dared not tell her about my father and sister Thu...

“No, no!” I shouted hastily. “I must save you!” I cried crazily. “You are expecting a baby. I must save you. Mummy!”

“I tried my best to lift the mass of wall but it was too heavy for me. I kicked it and bumped my head on it. It’s so heavy and hard, and it was crushing my pregnant mother. I took a long piece of wood and tried to lever it. The mass of wall moved a little but my mother was too weak to crawl out. I kept levering it when an explosion went off. Flashes of light appeared before my eyes, the bar of wood flew away from my hands. The mass of wall fall back to its place. My breath was cut abruptly and I fell into a total darkness.

“After the catastrophe, my family comprised only my father and I. But my father was hardly called a man. He looked like a strange animal with parts of his body covered with large, red and shriveled scars. I would haven’t recognized him when he was brought back from an American hospital ship if I hadn’t been told that the “strange creature” was my father, Nguyen Van Y., Sheriff of the Police Department of Town of X., who now had a hairless head. New white and pink skin now covered his scalp and face. He was blind in both eyes and deaf in both ears. His arms and legs were cut off. I found no trace left, even the smallest, that helped me identify him. His voice also changed. He tried to talk to me but I couldn’t make out sounds from his toothless and lipless mouth. I touched him and rubbed my face against his disgusting face thinking it was the only way to help him recognize me, his son who survived miraculously a massacre. I saw each piece of skin on his face contract, and his whole body swing, and his head sway, like a self-righting doll. It meant that he was in deep emotion when identifying me. He cried but no tears appeared from his blind eyes. I could only know it when looking at his lipless and twisted mouth. When he cried, it and other muscles produced an ugly grimace making his hairless face - no eyebrow, no any hair – horrible and disgusting.

“...My father – that disgusting mass of flesh – was the result of humanitarian efforts and medical advances by the world’s most civilized and powerful country in the twentieth century. When seeing again my father in such a state, I experienced for the first time the irony of the humanitarianism materialized by efforts to save my father’s life. I thought it’s really inhuman to maintain one’s life in such a miserable state and only helping him die peacefully was a true humanitarian deed.

“Promoting the humanitarianism by saving my father’s life was similar to the act of building orphanages after killing their parents. It was only an act that aimed at satisfying some need called altruism by some people in the same way they satisfied their animal needs. This was the way they covered up bad deeds and eased their conscience. This was an intentional division of labor: one killed people offering chances to others to save them. And they all found joys in their jobs satisfying their own emotional needs – some unhealthy ones – making their sleep more peaceful and their meals more delicious. If they hadn’t killed parents and had helped them raise their children properly, no parents would have sent their children to open homes where love was distributed in a self-satisfied manner. If and when they start helping parents raise their children instead of killing them, they may find some meaning when taking care of forlorn and helpless children.

“Why should we need some medical advances to prevent radioactive elements from entering human bodies if atomic bombs hadn’t been invented?

“If you had intentionally put poison in the glass of water for others to drink, your efforts to invent some antidotes would be meaningless and worthless.

“There are a lot of inhumane researches and inventions I don’t want to mention here. For example, they have succeeded in finding ways to make napalm turn quickly into flames on human bodies; or poisonous gas that harms human nervous system...

“The more progress in serving violence the mechanical civilization makes, the nearer to the end the world goes, because this civilization goes against the humanity. It can affect seriously the human mind, which seems inevitable. And what will be more sorrowful than a situation in which human beings become machines?


“My father’s sufferings didn’t last long. He could not hear or see but he could think. He knew he couldn’t lead an animal’s life or something worse than that, because even an animal could control its excretion. My father did excrete without his control because his nerve centers that regulated this activity had been damaged.

“One day when I was out, he put an end to himself by bumping his head against the wall.

“I felt relief as if I had been rid of a burden. I felt shame at having said so. Perhaps during days I lived with this disgusting mass of flesh I secretly hoped he would die soon.

“It’s not easy for him to kill himself when his body was in such a condition. Being without arms and legs, deaf and blind, he might meet with great difficulties in doing himself in.

“I felt a terrible pain that paralyzed both my soul and body when imagining how my father – a deaf and blind mass of flesh – gathered his courage and will to fight against his instinct for survival when he bumped his head on the wall. Certainly, he could not succeed by doing so only one time. I held the helpless and blood-stained mass of flesh and cried my eyes out. I didn’t regret at his meaningless life but I still experienced an extreme pain whose cause I could only vaguely realize. I might have passed out for a while in agony and when I regained my consciousness my soul got hardened. Some dramatic change had taken place in me. I found myself in another body and another soul whom I had to get accustomed to.

“...I lost my trust in human beings. I had no trust in any religions too. They are precious legacies from great people used by their followers for private purposes with the result that these legacies are in a state of ruin now. I couldn’t believe in dogmas that were intentionally misinterpreted. Moreover, I though, the divine authority was only a product of imagination use for deceiving naive souls. The religion, as a unique and omnipotent creator who has right to give blessing and punishment, is nothing but an imaginary plank for a shipwreck victim who, before drowning, saw himself clinging to it and thought he will survive while his body keeps sinking to the bottom of the ocean. It is a life buoy in the imagination for persons who are drowning. Although unreal, it is a solace to weak souls when they feel powerless in face of misfortune and death, the last borderline they can not pass however hard they try. They are stupid, selfish and greedy ones. A promising afterlife is an attraction for them. But what is painful is the fact that some of them know that it was only a gross lie but they keep on believing it, out of their desperation, to soothe their pains.

“... I have an absolute trust in human beings. Under the sun, on the earth, they are only creatures who could share, help, console and save one another in adversity. No divinities can do so. Favors and blessing from the outside of the human world are only deceits. If there is an idol, it should be the human being. There is no other idol from outside the earth who doesn’t breathe this air and feed themselves on food from the earth. My life clings to the earth and the human world. I take in nourishment from the soil and return it to the soil when I die. The human beings are self-sufficient and they have no need to beg for anything from invisible authorities. The only fight for them to wage, the one to the finish, is the one against their own weakness, cowardice and fear of their end – it is this fear that produces an imaginary thing called God, an omnipotent entity that may save the so-called souls bringing them to some afterlife – to take back the right to lead a life in their own way, a life of truly strong beings.

“I’m not afraid of death, and I don’t care about it and spend time searching for the reason for my existence in this world. I don’t care about where I have come from and where I will go. I am a blade of grass that grows from the soil and will go back there. The earth is the first and last home I’ve ever known. What worries me most is the time I linger between two dark pits: the womb and the grave. It is the time of absolute meaning for human beings. All worries about other worlds for souls are frivolous.

“The destiny for human beings is a harsh one. It puts the humankind on the edge of the precipice with only a blade of grass to cling to and orders them to stay firm. This is a dear price the humankind has to pay for their predominant position on the earth.

“... The blade of grass still root firmly to the soil and I try to cling to it, but I has been forced by others to let go of it and I have fallen down the pit. The most painful thing to me is the fact that this coercion is so cruel that all my enthusiasm vanishes into thin air. In spite of my efforts and will, my hopeless and miserable fingers that have clung to the thin blade of grass have to let it go. Other people have refused to let me live among them, sharing food, air and sunlight with them, and they have push me down the pit mercilessly. The humanity didn’t allow me to trust them.

“... I’m like an aimless ship on a dark sea. My pains caused a devilish flame of hatred to flare up in me. All right then, if the humanity makes me lose trust in them, I will revenge them by allying with the Devil. Animosity floods my soul night and day, turning me into a living devil.

“Besides the human society that rejected me, my animosity also targeted at those who have blown my house killing my family. Killing my father may be justified – because they could consider him as their enemy – but what sin did my mother with the baby she was expecting, and my sisters and brother, have to pay for? I was determined to avenge that crime as long as I was still breathing, by taking the most brutal and vicious actions I could think of, to torture those wicked people.

“Their sufferings from my tortures will be the breath of life and nutriment for me. I will bring any person I can lay my hand on to an adverse world. I gave everybody a suspicious look, everyone around me. How could I know, everybody around me, who they were? They looked exactly like me, they were familiar to me, I had seen them since I had been born. They were my country fellows but I couldn’t tell ones from the others.

“To keep my animosity as full and fierce as a flood, kill all traces of humanity that still somehow existed within me, and drive my hatred to its peak, I tried to destroy their lovely human faces – all human faces had their own lovely expression that could make me soft – so I could sink to the bottom of my animosity and my devilish soul became perfect and able to enjoy the agony I brought to bear on them.

“Frightened cries and shouts, bodies squirming with their flesh burned, bodies jerking and mouths drooling because of an electric current, blood dripping from fingertips pierced by needles, and all entreaties and tears... made me excited like a ferment. I enjoyed greedily and happily such feelings, my flame of animosity rose like hell...

“Ha... Ha! You can still smile. Your smile looks very defiant, detestable and provocative. There is one more electric current for you, and baking-hot tongs keeping gnawing at you flesh, pointed needles being stabbed into your fingertips; under your nails, your soles receiving deadly blows of club. You fainted now, but you keep smiling. Ah! Your smile is so dirty and hateful. Your small eyes look dangerous and deceitful. You defy me? Are you looking at me and smiling defiantly? All right, I will help you learn who I am. Here is a dipper of cold water for your face... Have you come round? Good. You should stay alive. You must live to suffer more torments I will give you. You have come round in time. Taste a blow from my knee. Oh! You vomit blood, eh? It’s the stinking blood of your human race. One more dipper of water. Are you crying? Are you throwing yourself on my mercy? Ah! You stupid and thoughtless human beings! Look at your tears mixed with stinking blood. It’s useless to cry for my pity. It is a deceitful luxury I have destroyed. It’s a mask worn by everybody to deceive one another and hide their evil intentions. I hate such cheap emotions! I hate them... I hissed with my teeth ground while my tongue trembled. I splashed a dipper of water on the disgusting face, and another more. Do you still smile? You still give me your arrogant glance, eh? I raised him to his feet and gave him a blow with my knee. It’s over. You stubborn bastard! You refuse to tell me the truth, eh? You are motionless now. Your heart has stopped beating. This boy is so weak. He was dead now. But you are happy enough. You died with your limbs, eyes and nose intact. You are still in your human form. You are a lucky boy. You may be identified as a human being. You may be... you will be... Ha... ha!

“... I staggered into the room. Before my eyes could adjust to the dark I felt his glance on my whole body. It was as if my body, and my soul as well, were covered with the gentle and warm light from his eyes. The glance that covered me in a friendly manner made me embarrassed. As a demon, the warm air always upsets me and I tried to resist it. And for the first time after I sold my soul to the Devil, I had had to use alcohol to evoke my animosity that was dampened by his glance like the hell fire extinguished by some holy water. My new victim, a thin student, was huddling up in a corner. I looked at him but I had to turn away. I didn’t want to look into his eyes lest I got soft-hearted. I looked up and poured some more liquor into my throat. The smell of alcohol was so strong and it burnt my throat. Blood ran quickly in my veins and my body seemed to start burning. I regained composure as a living demon. Ha ha! I took two steps towards him, grasped his arms and pulled him up. But before I could finish my act, he seemed to know what I wanted and tried to stagger to his feet with some difficulty, which made my pull lose its counterpoise and I almost fell. When I regained my balance with my legs wide apart, I saw he was looking at me quietly.

“For three days in a row, I had become almost powerless in face of this young man, a leader of the youth movement in the city. He stubbornly refused to accept the new face – my mask – that I forced him to wear.

““Listen, it’s not my face.” He said in a calm and friendly voice, as if talking to a close friend. Nobody had talked to me like that for years. I was extremely surprised and upset. It’s the first time I saw somebody standing against me in such a calm manner. It hurt my pride deeply.

“Did he identify me as a demon? Other victims, at their first sight of me, always went pale, kneeled down and begged humbly for my mercy. They had heard of me, the last door to their graves. Some prey was so terrified that they wet their pants and cried their heart out – we usually saw such scenes in animals in slaughterhouses before they received a blow of hammer on their heads or a knife in their throat. But all of them accepted obediently the new faces I put on them. They thought their obedience would please me and save them from tortures but they were wrong. They didn’t know that I was a real demon. All of my victims had to share the same fate: confessing a crime that I wanted them to do so, “secret commandoes in cities.” Hundreds, and even thousands of them, had to confess the same crime – which surprised even my colleagues – or passed away because of tortures with smiles on their faces. These were disgusting and mean smiles of my masks.

“... No! I couldn’t yield to him. My animosity couldn’t be dampened. I’m a demon and I should do demon’s jobs. I have to harbor and evoke my deep hatred and heartlessness as an obligation to my deceased kindred. I should defeat kindness because it is not allowed to exist in a demon. The kindness has vanished from the earth.

“Before me, he still had a glint of calmness. Behind his shabby appearance was fearlessness. His appearance made my both angry and awesome. But I tried my best to force my anger to defeat my awe. Avoiding looking into his eyes – my anger would dampened when our eyes met – I took a step forwards. As quickly as a hawk plunging for its prey, my hand with its five pointed fingers grasped his shoulder and pushed him down while my right knee went up. A harsh and low cry could be heard. He flung backwards and his head bumped against the wall. Apart from noises caused by my knee striking his chest and his head bumping into the wall, I heard no moan from him - quite different from my previous victims. He stayed absolutely silent. This silence made me dizzy. I felt exhausted and everything seemed to spin around. I knew it was not some effect of wine. I found this feeling very strange. I pushed his head down again and but it seemed that my push was neutralized by a much mightier force. Apparently, he had let his thin chest be pushed by my hand without resisting or evading, like an act of carelessly offering. My devilish soul was flooded with a part awesome and part disgusting feeling like a whirlpool.

“... I can’t be defeated, I must win... I must... I sprang up crying like a mad man and threw another dipper of water on his face washing away stains of blood. He still closed his eyes. I threw more water. He opened his eyes, looked at me and before his eyes could make me feel embarrassed to the point of misery, I walked forwards and tried to put a mask on his face in order to cover his eyes. He turned sideways to evade it.

“It... It is not... my face.” He whispered weakly in the same friendly voice while looking at me.

“This face is yours... yours...” I screamed like a wild beast in its dying hour. My arms and legs trembled. I plunged forwards and kicked and hit him mercilessly. He suffered my brutal blows without a word. When I forced him to wear my mask, however, he tried his best to escape. I flung myself about like a mad man. I hit and scratched him while screaming. I held the mask with both hands and smashed him with it repeatedly until the mask was torn to pieces in my hands and he collapsed. I gave him some more dippers of water and looked at him. He opened his swollen eyes and looked back at me. But the strange glint in his eyes that made me shiver didn’t disappear. He whispered something under his breath.

“What?” I stooped down to his face and asked but I had to look sideways, “What did you say?” He breathed heavily... Viet... Viet what? Cong, eh? But he was so weak that he could not repeat what he had just said with all his strength left. I could only hear something like “Viet” and saw him opening his mouth, his tongue going up and down like a child who wanted to spell N-A... but he couldn’t utter any sound and his mouth closed. For good. I pressed for his answer, “Cong, eh? Viet Cong, eh?” but the last glance he sent me seemed to mean that, “You have misheard me.” He smiled and the glint of friendliness in his eyes got dim. In the last effort to save my defeat I hurriedly put the new mask on his childlike dreaming face, but it was no use. Under the cruel and malicious expression of the laughing mask I still saw his eyes and smile. It was a smile of a man who has just seen the lotus.

“... I have lost the game. I underwent a pain like a man possessed by the devil. No. It’s not right. I have been a superior demon, so I couldn’t be possessed by any kinds of demon.

“... There was something, that I had forgotten, very gentle and indestructible, that I had seen in his calm and fearless eyes. Yes, it was what obsessed and tormented me extremely. I tried to escape the obsession in vain because it was not tangible or controllable, but it did exist and stay in my soul. The young man’s eyes contained it. His eyes closed forever but it had escaped. The young man had quietly and innocently sent it to me. From the young man’s eyes, it had rid my soul of demonic part and made his eyes a kind of human-exposing mirror in which I saw, in fear and trembling, my real human form with the disgusting face of the demon hiding behind it. In the young man’s eyes I recognized again my human face. Unlike humble and terror-stricken eyes I had seen before, which considered me as a demon, the young man saw me as a human being.

“Oh, the eyes, bright, fearless, free from darkness, seemed to contain the light of an inextinguishable lamp. The eyes looked at me, and like the holy water, it killed the flame of animosity in my devilish eyes, so much so that I couldn’t look straight into his eyes. They were so tolerant, generous and free from hostility although I had vented all my animosity on him. The overflowing love in his eyes was as vast as the sky, as gentle as the river in my home village; and like a rice field, a forest of green leaves, a new hope, millions of sounds of laughter from children, a calm and blue ocean bathed in the endless moonlight. They were eyes of benevolence, peace and selflessness. I had destroyed the eyes physically but I failed to kill what were inherent in them and reflected the spirit of the young man. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was but I could feel its supernatural strength that no power of demons could make a stand against. It was boundless, high and large, and covered all natural forces. It existed everywhere but human beings met with difficulties finding it while it was inside everybody. It has no name but human beings can feel it and if they know how to follow it ones can find themselves. Everybody can name it as they wish. It is the genuine human nature.

“... The young man had died, I couldn’t ask him an unnecessary question, but... I still wanted to get a clear answer from him. What did he want to utter after saying “Viet” and trying to open his mouth and then close it, as if he said “Na...” or something like that, and refused the sound “Cong” I tried to insert into his mouth?

“... I rediscovered my own self in the strange young man’s eyes. It might be a secret desire at the bottom of my soul during the period I carried a demonic spirit. Since I had found again myself, and along with it, the peace of mind, I felt a pain, a bitter shame, and an unforgivable sin. I couldn’t forget the animosity towards those who had murdered my family – it was an unavoidable fate for me – but I couldn’t live indecisively through the struggle between my animosity and remorse.

“I long for nothing in this life now even if I am in my youth. I only want to quit it, the world full of my beloved fellows who let their souls be occupied by devils.”

Hai the Knee



I went to see Thanh in the hospital. The bullet with which he intended to do himself in had missed its target because of his deep emotion, so he was still alive. Seeing me, Thanh buried his face in the pillow and cried. Waiting for him to regain his composure, I said, “I’d received your letter,” and held tightly his pale and cold hands with their long nails still painted in red. He looked at me with his yellow and bloodshot eyes, but his look was the one of a wounded beast beholding the hunter imploringly with its tearful eyes.

He took an ID card from his breast pocket and handed it to me. The photo on the card was of a young man who resembled Thanh in many features. He also had a naturally wavy hair covering part of his forehead, square jaw, and broad and pale eyebrows like those of girls. His lips are graceful, and two corners of his mouth turned slightly upwards as if hiding a smile. What attracted me most were his eyes. The bright eyes looking straight ahead innocently seemed to contain some spiritual strength that filled me with awe.

Nguyen Van Nh..., the card read, date of birth..., Father: Nguyen Van Y... Mother: Le Thi Th... A deep emotion seized me sending a shiver down my spine.

“Perhaps it’s only a coincidence, isn’t it?” I looked up at Thanh in amazement and said.

“No... It’s true,” anticipating my wonder, Thanh wiped his eyes and said. His voice was choked with emotion. My hand holding the card also started trembling. “I had studied his CV.” He continued sobbingly, “My father had had a wife and given birth to him before my father divorced her and married my mother. He many times told me confidentially that I had an elder brother. He had heard nothing from the unhappy woman and their son for twenty years... That young man was my brother, my half-brother... It’s me who killed him, the man of the same blood as mine. I had...” Thanh burst into tears. The shock sent Thanh into a coma.

When I left, Thanh had passed his shock and sedative allowed him to get some sleep. Looking at his calm face in his sleep with closed eyes and thin and pale lips like those of a girl, I saw again the image of a schoolboy in the past and I recalled his innocent words, “I want to become a poet... to praise the love for humanity...” My eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. I covered my face with a handkerchief but I didn’t wipe them away and let those drops of tears roll down my cheeks.


                                              KINH DUONG VUONG



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