Sai gon Nang Nho Mua Thuong.
The first book relates the author's childhood and girlhood in Hanoi and takes the reader to 1954, when she followed her close-knit family in the exodus to the South as a result of the Geneva Armistice Accords. The second work in the sequence is less memoirlike and contains all the elements of a delicately told love story, indeed an exquisite autobiographical novel. The body of Sai gon Nang Nho Mua Thuong consists of 354 pages, followed by a five-page epilogue by the writer Ho Truong An and five pages of comments about the first book and its author as a woman. The work under review is adorned with photographs of the city of Saigon, reproductions of several paintings, and photos of the author's family.
Nguyen's story is presented in three parts. In the first, the reader learns about the life of refugees from North Vietnam, now settled in the Republic of (South) Vietnam, where they had to adjust to the hot climate in Saigon, to the southern dialect, and to multiple problems which beset people uprooted from their ancestral land and transplanted into a new environment, albeit in one and the same country. The elegant and romantic author "misses Saigon," where she met and fell in love with a famous writer, also well known as a lady-killer. Their marriage was praised as a perfect example of "talented boy weds beautiful girl." Their conjugal life in sweat and tears is described in detail in part 2. Not only was Nguyen's mother not the most understanding mother-in-law, but Nguyen himself was an inveterate adulterer, which inevitably led to the breakup of the marriage. (The cheated wife never berates her husband, whom she only calls Nguyen - the common Vietnamese family name.)
Beginning with part 3, the young divorcee has to leave the protective atmosphere of her family and look for a job as a secretary without much training. In the office she meets an American diplomat, who asks her to marry him and kindly takes care of her children. This story is not unique, for during the Vietnam War there were quite a few such marital unions characterized by great fulfillment and genuine happiness. The author, however, has skillfully related the heroine's life with all the episodes that were so true and so moving. Historical events, many agonizing phases of political life in South Vietnam (including the Tet offensive of 1968), as well as cultural events (movies, plays, dance parties, literary productions) and real writers and artists with whom the author came into contact - every human being, every fact is vividly depicted in language that is at the same time refreshing and flowery.
Here is the alumna of Trung-vuong Girls' High talking about her school, her teachers, and her classmates. Next she takes the reader to scenic spots in Dalat, Can-tho, Nha-trang, My-tho, Vung-tau, et cetera, where Vietnamese young and old used to enjoy outings, picnics, beach parties. There are also references to bitter tears, quarrels, betrayals, and jealousy, which made the life of our heroine so miserable as a daughter-in-law oppressed by traditional Confucian ethics, then as a betrayed and battered wile, and a mother devoted to her children against all odds, but also making sure they would not despise their father.
The reader cannot help empathizing with the Hanoi girl as she "said good-bye" to her past and bravely stepped into the new world of exciting literary pursuits and wondrous romantic dreams, which she generously shares with her readers, young or old, male or female. Even in her darkest days, Nguyen communicates well her frith and her soul: she writes as she feels, and that is the fundamental quality of both memoirs, despite some infelicities and misspellings.
Dinh-Hoa Nguyen Southern Illinois University, Carbondale