Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Happier days must be coming

‘Once awake everyone starts louse-hunting.
At eight the gong sounds for the morning meal.
Come on, let’s go and our stomachs try to fill:
After such long misery happier days must be coming.’
This is just one of many poems written by the great Vietnamese revolutionary and politician Ho Chi Minh - born 130 years ago today - while incarcerated by the Chinese for a year or so in the early 1940s. The short undated poems were published in English as Prison Diary even though they bear no resemblance to the kind of texts normally found in literary, historical or political journals. Ho’s manuscript which contains these poems is listed by the Vietnam National Museum of History as a ‘national treasure’.

Ho (originally Nguyen That Thanh) was born on 19 May 1890 in Hoang Tru in central Vietnam, or French Indo-China as it was then known. His father worked at the imperial court but was dismissed for criticising the French colonial power. After being educated locally, Ho and his brother attended a Franco-Vietnamese academy in the city of Hué. Ho left before graduating and worked briefly as a schoolteacher before making his way to Saigon and taking a job as cook on a French vessel heading for Marseilles. From there, he began two years of travelling. He settled in London, but during the war he moved to Paris where he became a founding member of the French Communist Party. He became very involved with anti-colonial activities, and he authored a petition demanding the end of the French colonial exploitation of Vietnam (which he attempted to present to the world powers at the Versailles Peace Conference).

In 1923, Ho visited Moscow for training at Comintern, an organisation created by Lenin to foment worldwide revolution. There he became acquainted with Trotsky, Stalin and Bukhari. Two years later, he was in China with Mikhail Borodin, organising a revolutionary movement - Thanh Nien - among Vietnamese exiles. This soon established links with other nationalist and revolutionary groups inside Vietnam. In 1930, he founded the Indo-Chinese Communist Party, spending much of that decade in the Soviet Union and China. After the Japanese invasion of Indo-China in 1941, Ho returned to his home country. He founded the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated independence movement, to fight the Japanese. He adopted the name Ho Chi Minh, meaning ‘Bringer of Light’. In August 1942, he was arrested in southern China as a suspected spy, and shuffled between various prisons for a little over a year before he was allowed to return to Vietnam.

At the end of WW2, Viet Minh announced Vietnamese independence. When France refused to relinquish its colony, war broke out. After eight years of hostilities, the French were pressed into peace talks in Geneva which, ultimately, split Vietnam into a communist north and non-communist south. Ho became president of North Vietnam, and was determined to reunite Vietnam under communist rule, supporting and financing insurgents in 
American-backed South Vietnam. The communist insurgents became known as the Viet Cong, and formed the National Liberation Front. Ho began suffering from ill health and withdrew from active leadership. By 1965, the Americans had launched a full-scale military campaign against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Ho died in 1969, and when the communists finally took the South Vietnamese capital Saigon in 1975, they renamed it Ho Chi Minh City in his honour. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, BBC, History.com or this timeline.

There is no evidence that Ho Chi Minh left behind any diaries; nevertheless two years after his death, The Foreign Language Publishing House in Hanoi brought out a book by Ho translated into English (by Dang The Binh) called Prison Diary. It is not a diary by any normal sense of the word - there are no dated entries, for example - rather it is a collection of poems written during his year long imprisonment by the Chinese in 1942-1943. The book can be read online at Internet Archive or Banned Thought. Ho’s manuscript is held by the Vietnam National Museum of History in Hanoi, and is rated number 10 on a list of ‘national treasures’.

Steve Bradbury has made a more modern translation of the poems, published by Tinfish Press in 2004 as Poems from the Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh. Bradbury writes about the process of translating Ho’s poems in Issue 61 of Translation Review. He says: ‘If The Prison Diary is not a great work of literature, it is most certainly an important (albeit neglected) contribution to the 20th-century poetry of witness, and this by virtue not only of its content but also of its form.’

The following extracts are taken from the earliest translation.

In jail veteran inmates greet the newcomer;
High above white clouds are chasing black ones away.
In the sky both white clouds and black freely have gone their way;
On earth a free man is to stay a prisoner.’

Every morning the sun, emerging o'er the wall,
Beams on the gate, but the gate is not yet open.
Inside the prison lingers a gloomy pall,
But we know outside the sun has risen.

Once awake everyone starts louse-hunting.
At eight the gong sounds for the morning meal.
Come on, let’s go and our stomachs try to fill:
After such long misery happier days must be coming.’

The meal over, the sun sinks below the western horizon.
From all corners rise folk tune and popular ditty:
Suddenly this dismal, gloomy Zingsi prison
Is turned into a little music academy.’

On this side of the bars, the husband.
Outside stands the wife.
So close, only inches distant;
Yet as heaven from earth apart.
What their mouths cannot let know
Their eyes try to impart.
Before a word is said, tears flow:
Truly their plight rends your heart.’

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