As the Nobel Prize for Literature is set to be awarded to a French author next month, Vietnamese literary critics are speculating about why local writers have never received the honor.

In a recent essay titled, “Why has Vietnamese literature yet to win the Nobel?” award-winning Cham poet Inrasara says local writers are weak on philosophy and courage.

Nobel Prize winners, the poet writes, must do one or all of the following: capture the quintessence of contemporary life like Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway; explore new ideas that affect the human soul like Jean-Paul Sartre; fearlessly ask the unasked questions of their peoples and countries like Orhan Pamuk; or find new ways of expression that influences their contemporaries like William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez.

“Can we name a writer in Vietnam who can do these things?” asks the poet, who won the Southeast Asian Literature Prize for his poetry collection, Le tay tran thang Tu (The April purification festival) in 2005.

Literary critic and professor at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education Le Ngoc Tra says 20th century southern writer Ho Bieu Chanh left an impressive legacy of 64 novels, but most of them were too specific, with portrayals of local culture that don’t appeal or apply to the outside world.

He says the Nobel Prize, on the other hand, often goes to works that address universal human issues.

Inrasara says writers must explore and expand on a new idea or an urgent human problem persistently throughout their numerous works.

“Vietnamese writers too often jump from one topic to another,” he told Thanh Nien Daily.

“Our old literary critic Pham Quynh once likened Vietnamese literature to a bird short on breath,” Tra says. “But if it wants to cross the ocean, so to speak, it must have strong lungs.”

Pham Quynh, an early 20th century writer, was known for saying “If we still have Truyen Kieu, we still have our language, and if we still have our language, we still have our country.”

But Tra says that Quynh made no exception when he said Vietnamese writers were short of breath, not even for Truyen Kieu (The tale of Kieu)’s author Nguyen Du.

Truyen Kieu, a world-famous 3,254-line epic written in the 18th century about the life of a talented young woman who sold herself as a prostitute to save her family, is the “only great thing” from Nguyen Du, Tra says.

He says the poem, considered Vietnam’s greatest literary achievement, is appreciated around the world more for its “distinctive cultural beauty” rather than for addressing universal themes.

But Nguyen Du is a “strange” case in Vietnamese literature, Tra says. “There isn’t an equal – before or after him.”

Culture and history

Vietnam’s literature, Tra says, is too attached to its own local culture.

“Our culture is a small one – very interesting – but very small. What do we still have from the past? A one-pillar pagoda? An imperial city in Hue?”

Economic development definitely plays a part in the making of local culture as poverty and hunger kill creativity, he says.

But he doesn’t think economics is the only reason literature isn’t thriving here. There might be another factor: what he calls “the Vietnamese character.”

In a much-cited essay titled “Khoa hoc xa hoi va nhan van: Ganh nang duong xa” (Social Sciences and Humanities: A Burden on a long road), Tra writes, “for many different reasons, the strength of the Vietnamese thought seems to be somewhat limited, especially regarding remote and abstract things. Knowing that, our people often choose to do small, neat things within our reach. And if we have to travel a long road, we often stop somewhere down the road to take a break. If we’re comfortable, we sometimes end our journey right there, feeling no need to walk on.”

Vietnamese traditional culture, the literary theorist continues, is thus characteristically practical.

Vietnam has not given birth to great philosophies, he argues. Painting is less popular than sculpture because sculpture is needed to create statues for worship. In literature, the novel was born long after historical writings, proclamations, announcements, and obituaries. And poetry is mostly used as a vehicle for emotions and dreams, rather than to “reflect, philosophize, grasp and express shapeless things.”

And something outside both traditional Vietnamese culture and economics might also be holding Vietnamese writers back.

Tra says Vietnam’s “patchwork” culture, made up of different cultural aspects forced upon the country by foreign powers, is not “big” enough to reach beyond its borders.

But for American expert on Vietnamese literature Dan Duffy – an anthropologist and former college lecturer who now maintains the Vietnam Literature Project, a North Carolina-based website promoting Vietnamese literature in English translation – the depth and history of a culture can’t be measured so easily but must take into account the intricacies of everyday life and the achievements of common people.

To have even one work from even one author – the Tale of Kieu for example – recognizable by classical literary theorists around the world, is already a great achievement.

“Shakespeare and his plays were not as widely recognized 150 years after composition as Nguyen Du and Kieu are now,” Duffy says. “I am not sure that there is a single American work of the stature of Kieu.”

If Inrasara can’t find any local writer matching the likes of Nobel laureates, Duffy can.

For him, early 20th century writer Khai Hung is as good as his contemporary Sinclair Lewis at depicting the constraints of traditional life and the pain of change. Or Nguyen Huy Thiep, with his “almost-poetry prose,” is also an equal of the young Hemingway.

The point, he says, is that “Vietnamese literature is robust and varied, especially including that produced overseas and by Vietnamese in French and English.”

Crossing the ocean

For local writers who don’t write in French or English, the low quality most print runs are in the low thousands.

In an interview with local media, Nguyen Huy Thiep, a well-known short story writer who has seen many of his writings published in French and English, says many foreign writers don’t know anything about Vietnamese literature.

Vietnamese writers, on the other hand, don’t know foreign languages well enough to talk with foreign writers at international book fairs, or read foreign literature in their original languages or help translate their own works.

The country also lacks qualified translators who can bring Vietnamese works to foreigners, he says.

And as rampant pirating continues to chip away at writers’ incomes, the Vietnamese publishing industry, which is mostly state-run, isn’t good at “nurturing” local talent.

Professor Tra says success in creative fields like literature is often “accidental.”

“We won’t get the Nobel Prize simply because we want it.”

But what a country can do, he says, is fertilize the field of social sciences and humanities by freeing it from all constraints.

In his essay, Tra writes that Vietnamese social scientists still look through too narrow a lens to fully analyze the world.

Most either take a “proletariat stance” or a “materialistic view of the world.”

This, he says, has become the only theoretical foundation for social science and humanities research.

The solution, he believes, is to “boldly open up, actively open up and open up completely,” to new thoughts in the changing world.

and quantity of English translation often hinders international access to good Vietnamese literature.

Duffy estimates the number of Vietnamese authors and titles published widely in translation in countries like the US, UK or France is only in the low double figures and

By Thuy Linh - Thanh Nien News - November 17, 2008