Trần Dần’s novel, Crossroads and Lampposts, is set in Hanoi in late 1954 and 1955, immediately following the withdrawal of the French and the takeover by the Viet Minh under the terms of the Geneva Accords. Duong, the main character in the novel, is under suspicion of being a collaborator with the former French regime. In this excerpt from chapter three, Trinh (aka Com), Duong’s wife, talks about life under the new regime and her husband’s state of mind.
August 1965. Trinh recalled: at that time, my husband’s mood fluctuated wildly. Mrs. Hoa found work for me carrying sand on the bank of the river. In the morning I went to work, while my husband took his pole and basket and went to catch frogs. In the afternoon my husband usually arrived home before me, but he just left the rice pot there, waiting for me to come home and do everything. There were times when we didn’t eat dinner until 8 or 9 o’clock. There were times when my husband threw the plate of rice out into the yard because I came back after the close of the market and couldn’t buy anything to eat with it. I think that with the stain of being a collaborator and being under suspicion over the gunshot incident, my husband became temperamental and easily angered. Sometimes he paced back and forth in the room, mumbling to himself, exactly like a person fated to die. Sometimes he would be happy, whistling loudly through the house, then he would suddenly sit down dejectedly. There were times when he would be sitting on his own and I would come in, and he would be startled and jump out of his skin. The hardest thing was his irritable disposition, which was quite harsh. My husband still thought that Mrs. Hoa had tried to get me to report to the local authorities about what happened at home. If I had talked back to him, then the sound of slamming doors would have filled the house, so I bit my tongue. In our neighborhood, only Mrs. Hoa was good to me, she still came by for a chat. All the rest of them avoided me. Most importantly at that time, when so many compatriots were going to the South, every day Mrs. Hoa looked after the pigs, planted vegetables, and went to the market, going from one lane to another urging people to stay. Mrs. Hoa was facing great difficulties due to the case of her husband: his name was Thap, and he had written her a letter to tell her that he had the misfortune to be shot in a very critical place, meaning that he would never be able to father children. Thap wanted Mrs. Hoa to find another husband. Mrs. Hoa hid the letter and didn’t tell her mother-in-law. The soldier who had been the target of the unsuccessful assassination attempt that other evening revealed the story, so Mrs. Hoa’s mother-in-law found out about it after all. The two women went all the way to the hospital to find Thap, but he had already left. Afterward Thap wrote another letter, urging his mother to find another husband for her daughter-in-law and stating that he would only return home when Mrs. Hoa had remarried. Mrs. Hoa regularly encouraged me to attend the ward meetings and to forget about my sorrow. She said: “You look really sad. Whenever I see you, your eyes are red.” So I listened to Mrs. Hoa and requested to join the activities of the fire-fighting team of the ward each evening and on Sundays. I was an enthusiastic participant, so little by little the neighbors stopped shunning me. But the most difficult thing of all was the situation at home. Whatever money my husband made from fishing, he drank it all away. For two months in a row he didn’t give me a single cent. I had to spend all my personal savings. When summer came, my husband again became entangled with that woman Lily and ran up a debt at Tinh Bop’s café. He would spend around fifty to seventy thousand each time, running up a new debt before the old one was fully paid off. That shameless Lily wouldn’t wear a thing, summer or winter, and would leave the window open in order to lure customers into her brother’s cafe. At every ward meeting, Mr. Bug-eyed Trung said that the tank soldiers had again raised their heads there and that swarms of butterflies were again flitting around a whore. But in reality it was just the packaging of a whore while the contents belonged to the French Deuxieme Bureau. He said it was politics disguised as debauchery. He made those insinuations so many times that the neighbors knew exactly when he was referring to my husband, to Hoong’s gang, to Ngoc, the royalist soldier, and to that woman Lily and her brother. One evening my husband also came to the meeting. As the neighbors listened to Mr. Bug-eyed Trung, they turned their heads to stare: as they looked at my husband, he laughed weakly. After returning home, he sat smoking one cigarette after another for I don’t know how many cigarettes, his face deathly white like a corpse. Then he mumbled “O Buddha of Infinite Light” over and over, to no effect. But I could see that Mr. Bug-eyed Trung was completely right. The destructive and depraved actions of the clique of puppet soldiers from the former regime had to be stopped. If not, we would have a disorderly city, an epidemic of hooligans and thieves, prostitutes, gambling dens, and broken families.
After we went to bed, I said these things to my husband. I talked about how Mr. Bug-eyed Trung kept telling him to mend his ways, but he kept on acting depraved. If Mr. Bug-eyed Trung didn’t speak out, then his clique would foment disorder everywhere. Immediately my husband gave me a kick. I fell out of the bed onto the ground. My husband shouted: “Stupid fool! What clique is that?” I went to the other room and lay there crying to myself. I had been pregnant since the spring. Thinking of my unborn child, I cried all the more. At midnight my husband arose and angrily got dressed, then left somewhere, pushing his bicycle. He didn’t return until the following morning. My husband treated me very brutally. He had a vicious temper. But he was often dejected, and he often laughed bitterly to himself. We were newlyweds, but our house felt like a funeral home. When the 300th day was approaching and the port of Hai Phong was about to be closed, knowing that that woman Lily would soon go to the South, my husband abandoned our home for 3 straight days and nights to be with her.
From chapter three of Những ngã tư và những cột đèn. © Trần Dần. The novel was written in 1966 and first published in Vietnam forty-four years later by Nhã Nam, 2010. Translation © David Payne. From Crossroads and Lampposts, forthcoming from Oneworld Publications. By arrangement with Oneworld Publications. All rights reserved.