By Anamika Ragu (23A01A)
What is history to you?
To Nguyễn Thanh Hiền, it is a river of thought, ebbing and flowing through moments and deeply rooted in chronicling the world through the individual’s eyes. Chronicles of a Village opens with the charge of “sightless humans”, when our unnamed narrator’s village is ambushed and ravaged by colonisers. At first glance, then, this is a tragedy of a peaceful, faraway and tucked-away community interrupted by outward cruelty; a classic recount of injustice.
However, this tale soon evolves into one far less invested in what happened than in what was. Hiền expertly weaves in what his translator, Quyên-Hoàng, calls an element of “orality” to celebrate the tales of his village, situated around various ancient peaks and rivers, before and during a time of great transition. He describes growing up outside the real world, revering what now seems like archaic legends of the “birthsoil” while learning about cutting-edge inventions and external power structures that reduced his world to its commodities.
This collection of stories is dubbed by Hiền a “novel” and a “history”—yet its fragmented and seemingly directionless nature casts doubt on the former definition, and its overwhelmingly personal narration refutes the latter. It seems to be at once a series of oral histories passed down through generations (hastily recorded by an eager scribe), the personal diary entries of a troubled young man who has suffered great losses (yet maintaining a voracious instinct for learning and storytelling), and the observations of an outsider uncovering the traditions of an extraordinary society.
But perhaps this sense of confusion is exactly what Hiền intends—it has proven impossible to read his tale without being immersed in its contents, and so he implores readers to think as he does, delving into a realm of pensiveness and a deep, inexplicable grief. He writes as if taking the hand of a new friend, introducing them to discovery after discovery: this and this and this and this; this of the mountain god’s beautiful daughter, this of the cruel colonisers whose first instinct was to uproot the peaks which gave them life, this of an old man’s maxims on wine, this of “entering the world” with the help of Mr Ra-đi-ô (referencing a satellite radio smuggled by one of the villagers from France), and more. We meet his family and all of his and his village’s makings, without ever knowing his name or that of his hometown.
The book’s challenging of conventions does not end there. Each chapter, with the exception of his notes and asides, is written entirely in lowercase, and as one long sentence (with a full stop situated to mark the end of a chapter), further immersing readers in a low-stakes, uninterrupted flow of thought—except when Hiền stops to ask questions of rhetoric, which only further immerses readers in the openness of his recount.
It is these unique transgressions that epitomise Hiền’s storytelling—he is not concerned with the prospect of a clear or even conceivable history. It is a bold statement to make, especially for a historical novel. He employs his poetic style to endeavour towards an abstraction of his village instead; readers will not walk away well-acquainted with the geography or historical details of the place, but will have profoundly absorbed its essence.
The book’s translator writes that his job is “to grasp not only the rhythm or tone, but the scent of the text”. This proves an inadvertently fitting description of Hiền’s writing, as he has himself translated the vibrancies and tragedies of his village to us, the outside world, in all its evocative glory. If it is this moving a tale in English, I can only imagine its impact in its original language.
And so, this book is a great read for anyone who enjoys texts with contrarian perspectives towards storytelling conventions—the ardent Literature student without too righteous a love for History, as some might say.
It is highly reflective, but easily achieves the balance between elusion and haunting. Within each of these tales lies the beating heart of a community that has gone too long without its story told, evoking a strange ache for what was lost and to learn more—at least, that’s what stayed with me when I read it.