Providing a look back into colonial Vietnam, this excerpt from Kim Thuy's coming-of-age novel Vi tells of the moment when a young girl's slender fingers had the power to change the course of a family's history.
When I was eight years old the house was plunged into silence.
Under the extra fan fixed to the ivory wall of the dining room, a large bright red sheet of rigid cardboard held a block of three hundred and sixty-five sheets of paper. On each was marked the month, the day of the week, and two dates: one according to the solar calendar, the other according to the lunar calendar. As soon as I was able to climb onto a chair, the task of tearing off a page was reserved for me when I woke up. I was the guardian of time. That privilege was taken away when my older brothers, Long and Lôc, turned seventeen. Beginning on that birthday, which we didn’t celebrate, my mother cried every morning in front of the calendar. It seemed to me that she was tearing herself at the same time she was ripping off that day’s page. The tick-tock of the clock that usually put us to sleep at afternoon naptime suddenly sounded like a bomb waiting to explode.
I was the baby of the family, the only sister of my three big brothers, the one everyone protected like precious bottles of perfume behind glass display cases. Even though I was sheltered from my family’s preoccupations because of my age, I knew that the two older boys would have to leave for the battlefield the day they turned eighteen. Whether they were sent to Cambodia to fight Pol Pot or to the frontier with China, both destinations reserved for them the same fate, the same death.
My paternal grandfather had graduated from the faculty of law at the Université de Hanoi, identified as an indigenous student. France was in charge of educating her subjects but did not accord the same value to diplomas awarded in her colonies. She may have been right to do so because the realities of life in Indochina had nothing in common with those of France. On the other hand, school requirements and exam questions were the same. My grandfather often told us that after the written examinations came a series of orals that led to the baccalaureate. For the French course, he’d had to translate a Vietnamese poem into French and another in the opposite direction as his teachers looked on. Mathematics problems also had to be solved orally. The final test was to contend with the hostility of those who would decide on his future without being rattled.
The teachers’ intransigence didn’t surprise the students because in the social hierarchy, intellectuals were placed at the top of the pyramid. They sat there as wise men and would be addressed as Professor by their students all their lives. It was unthinkable to question what they said because they possessed the universal truth. That is why my grandfather had never protested when his teachers gave him a French name. From lack of knowledge or as an act of resistance, his parents had not done so. In classes then, from year to year, from one professor to another, he acquired a new name. Henri Lê Van An. Philippe Lê Van An. Pascal Lê Van An . . . Of all these names, he had retained Antoine and transformed Lê Van An into a family name.
Back in Saigon, diploma in hand, my paternal grandfather became a respected judge and a fabulously wealthy landowner. He expressed his pride at having created, at the same time, an empire and an enviable reputation, by giving his own name to each of his children: Thérèse Lê Van An. Jeanne Lê Van An. Marie Lê Van An . . . and my father, Jean Lê Van An. In contrast to me, my father was the only boy in a family of six girls. Like me, my father arrived last, just as everyone had stopped hoping for a scion. His birth transformed the life of my grandmother, who until then had suffered every day from malicious comments about her inability to beget an heir. She had been torn between her own desire to be her husband’s only wife and his duty to choose a second spouse. Luckily for her, her husband was one of those who had adopted the French model of monogamy. Or maybe he was quite simply in love with my grandmother, a woman known throughout Cochin China for her graceful beauty and her delight in the pleasures of the senses.
My paternal grandmother first met my grandfather very early one morning at the floating market in Cai Bè, a district on one of the arms of the Mekong that was half-land, half-water. Every day since 1732, merchants had been bringing their crops of fruits and vegetables to that part of the delta to sell to wholesalers. From far away, the color of the wood mingled with the brown of the clayey water gives the impression that the melons, pineapples, pomelos, cabbages, gourds are floating independently of the men who have been waiting on the wharf since dawn to snap them up at the first opportunity. To this day, they transfer the fruits and vegetables manually, as if these crops were entrusted to them, not sold. My grandmother, standing on the deck of the ferry, was hypnotized by these repetitive and synchronized movements when my grandfather noticed her. First he was dazzled by the sun, then stunned by the young girl with her generous curves accented by her Vietnamese dress that tolerates no superfluous movement and above all, no indelicacy of intention. Snap fasteners down the right side keep the dress closed but never really fasten it. As a result, a single broad or abrupt movement causes the tunic to open all the way. For this reason, schoolgirls have to wear a camisole under it to avoid accidental indecency. On the other hand, nothing can prevent the two long panels of the dress from replying to the breath of the wind and capturing hearts that find it hard to resist beauty.
My grandfather fell into that trap. Blinded by the gentle, intermittent movement of the dress's wings, he declared to his colleague that he would not leave Cai Bè without that woman. He had to humiliate another young girl who had been promised to him and alienate the elders in his family before he could touch my grandmother's hands. Some believed that he was in love with her long-lashed almond eyes, others, with her fleshy lips, while still others were convinced that he’d been seduced by her full hips. No one had noticed the slender fingers holding a notebook against her bosom except my grandfather, who kept describing them for decades. He continued to evoke them long after age had transformed those smooth, tapering fingers into a fabulous myth or, at the very most, a lovers’ tale.
© Kim Thuy. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sheila Fischman. All rights reserved.