Dressed in a thin brown windbreaker and gray wool pants, the man hunched against the wind blowing from Boston harbor and withdrew into his thoughts. As usual, he thought about the war, about the battles for Hue and Khe Sanh and Saigon, about the buddies falling around him. He thought too about the aftermath of the war, a time of damaged psyches and broken dreams—in many ways the worst time of all.
The short, square-shouldered man braving the New England wind could have been almost any American who survived the Vietnam war. But Le Luu, 45, had been a soldier in the North Vietnamese army. He is also a novelist, and it was in that role that he had come to Boston.
The first North Vietnamese writer to visit this country since the war ended in 1975, Luu recently concluded a month as a guest of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He brought with him the latest of his 12 novels, Thoi Xa Vang (literally “Long Time Passing”), which the University of Massachusetts Press hopes to publish in English. The book won first prize for literature from the Writers’ Association of Vietnam in 1987, and it has sold 120,000 copies, which—given the Vietnamese propensity to share books—makes it a runaway best-seller. The novel tells the story of a simple peasant warrior much like Luu himself—of his years of struggle against the French and the Americans and, finally, of post-war adjustment. “It is very different from American novels about the war,” says Ngo Vinh Long, a Vietnamese professor at the University of Maine who will spend at least a year translating Luu’s book. “The American novels have been autobiographical, not about the war per se. This is a piece of literature that spans 30 years of history.”
One of nine children (five of whom died during the 1945 famine), Luu was raised by his peasant mother and a father who taught Confucianism. After leaving his rural village to join the army in 1959, he served three years of combat duty; for nine more years he worked as a correspondent for the People’s Army, a military journal distributed in North Vietnam. He lived with the soldiers he wrote about, following them into battle and calling in his reports over a field telephone. At night, hidden in the jungle or in secret caves and tunnels, he wrote his fiction.
“I had big sheets of paper, as big as a newspaper,” Luu recalled, through an interpreter. “In the tunnels it could be very windy, so to hold down the paper I had to use four large stones on the corners. You could be bombed, attacked at any time, so this large paper you could just roll up quickly and make into a bundle so you didn’t lose it.”
Still shadowed by his memories of those troubled times, Luu came to this country as much for reconciliation as for literary exchanges. Married almost immediately after the war’s end, the former soldier lives quietly in a modest two-story dwelling in Hanoi with his wife, their daughter, 12, and their son, 8. He is clearly without animosity toward his former enemies. In Boston, Luu spent much of his time meeting with U.S. vets, and he was struck by how much their experience resembled his. “My first impression was one of kinship because the questions the American veterans posed raised the same things I have thought about—the policy of the government regarding veterans, the difficulties and adjustments [of the homecoming soldier] and the future relationship between Vietnam and the U.S.” The lot of the veterans in Vietnam is difficult, says Luu, because there are so many of them and the country is so poor it cannot properly respond to their medical and emotional needs. In some respects, though, he believes the American vet has a tougher time. Although he had read about the hostility that greeted returning servicemen, he was still surprised at the depth of the American vet’s alienation.
Luu encountered vocal enmity from a few American veterans. One man whom he met in the town of Avon, just south of Boston, angrily recounted that the remains of 27 Americans had been returned by Hanoi in exchange for several hundred tons of rice. The veteran told Luu he had information that Hanoi was holding 400 more bodies in a warehouse. “He asked me bitterly how many more tons of rice I thought we could get,” says Luu. “My answer was that I didn’t think there were any remains of American soldiers there, and that I thought it was a degradation of the American remains to exchange them for any amount of rice.”
Yet for the most part, Luu found that even the most bitter American vet softened after a few minutes. “Some asked me sarcastic questions, and I accept them,” he says. “I understand them because I am a writer and a veteran, and eventually the truth will surface, and then we will know each other. During one meeting, I told the veterans of the many battlefields where I had been present, and one of them said he had been there when I was. The American veteran said it was lucky neither of us had killed the other, because it would have been such a waste, and we hugged each other warmly. It was a very intimate atmosphere.” At the end of his stay, his hosts and friends gave Luu and a South Vietnamese writer named Nguy Ngu, 42, a special farewell party—an early Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the fixings.
Already Luu has two new writing projects that he is anxious to start on. “I plan to write a novel about peasant life when I go home,” he said, “but first I will write a journal of this trip. I will write about my impressions and my feelings about the Americans. During the last month or so I have stayed here and met maybe 100 veterans; I feel like I am leaving a family.”
—William Plummer, and Richard Woodley in Boston