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Against the Flood caused a sensation in Viet Nam when it was published in 1999 because of its controversial description of sex and politics in that country. The plot revolves around a writer, Khiem, whose book is banned and who is publicly censured by his contemporaries, while the tangled relationships in his own circle involve drug-trafficking and adultery. His lover, a pretty and intelligent woman, is slandered and sacked from her job. She leaves Hanoi and becomes involved in opium traffic in an attempt to investigate it, but is arrested before she can report the activities to the police. His wife, a smuggler, has an extramarital affair and dies during an abortion. Khiem and his lover are finally reunited after a long separation. The novel presents a vivid picture of contemporary Vietnamese society, examining the dramatic tensions inherent in a changing society, and is imbued with the themes of friendship, love, and betrayal.
About the Author
Ma Van Khang was born in Hanoi, Vietnam. He is the author of several novels and the winner of the 2012 Vietnamese State Award for literature and the arts.
Phan Thanh Hao is a poet and translator.
Wayne Karlin holds the title of Professor of Languages and Literature at the College of Southern Maryland and has published seven novels.
Read an Excerpt
Khiem stretched himself out on the beach.
The waves rolled onto the shore in a measure as regular as the breathing of a giant. The water slowly inundated the edge of the sand, licked at his ribs like a puppy. His eyes half-closed, he let his muscles relax, let himself become part of the dream of the beach. First light was opening the sky like a door. A long purple cloud shaped like a sword lay low over the horizon. It elongated, and the sunlight glinting beneath it clarified its shape and reflected down onto the sea and then onto the shore where it lay like a moment at the creation of the world: a strange, vaguely dewy light that trembled between the new day and the slow melt of the darkness.
Dawn as an opening book. The faint, bass voices of breezes. The sound of waves swelling, falling, slowly withdrawing, their frothing white foam impregnating the dry sand, leaving white, crooked traces. The soft shuffling footfalls of the all-night fishermen as they moved backwards up the beach, drawing their dripping nets towards their chests. The fierce flapping of the desperate fish caught inside.
Under these sounds, a worshipful silence. A temple, well and cleanly kept. The salt taste of the sea, permeating his senses, smoothing the chaos of his life. Silence as the melting of all the noises and troubles eroding him and the vague sense, somewhere in it, of the true form of his life, fastened to the shapes of sky and sea in the early dawn.
The sun, like a red egg yolk,like hot iron, rose above the horizon. Khiem squinted at the huge form that carried in it the memories of millennia. Here on the smooth sand, he felt suddenly that he was lying in a false calmness. He stirred, as if half caught by an idea that had just come to him, or a desire just out of his reach.
The cadence of the waves until now had sounded like hesitant footsteps, reluctant to destroy the dawn's silence, gently rattling the shells left like night gifts on the shore. The footsteps suddenly grew louder now, rushing, the stampede of a horde released from cages, dashing into one another, pouring out. Some inner force seemed to be building in the waves; they threatened now, roared, threw themselves onto the beach, overran the dry zones, boiled up like water thrown onto a metal stove. Waves smacked into Khiem's flesh. He felt the sand washing out and collapsing under his back in stages, his body being pushed and drawn, and suddenly he was sliding out of the place where he'd been lying. He closed his eyes, enjoying the sensation of lightness, of slipping away from the complications and troubles of his days in a haze of nebulous longing, floating towards her, the woman who had asked him to come here.
After a while, he opened his eyes. The landscape around him had changed. The sun was higher. The ceiling of cloud was high now too, hanging over an immense expanse of blue sky. The curve of the beach separated itself from the sea and the empty sky; behind the rows of sea pines, the shore was crowded with guest houses, hotels, and hostels of all styles, each competing with the other to push close to the water. Nearby, the squares of the salt-production fields sparkled like segmented glass, and down the coast he could see villages here and there behind the sea dikes, their houses white as crumbs of rice powder cake.
A faint worry rose in him, here in front of this immensity which seemed a symbol of absolute power. Yet at the same time he felt a sense of joy, a lingering of the serenity he had just touched.
He had seen the sea for the first time when he was twenty years old.
In the summer of 1965, after their wedding, he and Thoa had received a honeymoon leave from her trade unionshe was a skilled textile workerand had gone for some days to Sam Son Beach. He was a citizen of a country with more than three thousand kilometers of coastline, and a social science teacher as well, yet until then he had been like a person living in a house who had never seen its façade. Nguyen Tuan had written that a person should know the geography of his country the way a child knows his parents' names, and Khiem had always felt remiss. But that first visit to the sea had been cut short when the Americans began bombing along the coast; it was the beginning of their war of destruction against Vietnam. The managers of the beach guesthouses had quickly chased their guests away, so they could close their doors and evacuate themselves from the area.
Khiem had become a teacher in the northern highlands. Because he was responsible for his students' safety, the idea of asking for a holiday had seemed shameful. Those were years of difficulties and uncertainties, and all individual needs had to be subordinated to the demands of the war. Later, as the fighting became worse, Khiem joined the army and fought for five years. When he returned, his relationship with Thoa was on the verge of collapse, and the last thing either wanted was a holiday together at the beach. Moreover, it was a time when a need for creativity had started to burn in Khiem. He had written some stories now and then when he was twenty, but had never really had the time to devote to that work. But back from the war, he felt both the inspiration and the need to write. It was one of the most exciting periods to be a writer in Vietnam, and his work and those times had consumed him. In all the decades since, he had never returned to the sea.
But that brief, long-ago meeting had left impressions that had never gone away, and he sensed in those memories, that feeling, a piece of the Creator within himself. Humankind came from the sea; its salt still traceable in their blood. He had read that somewhere; he remembered it forever, and he'd inherited the elements of the ocean in his own body. His ancestors were the children of the Lady of the Nation, Au Co, Mother of the Hundred Eggs that became the Hundred Children, fifty who went to the forests, fifty who went to live by the sea. His forebears were tattooed fishermen, pearl divers, strugglers against the fierce creatures of the ocean, its waves and its wind. Their lives and legends had burned like stars in the firmament of his childhood imagination. He'd loved those stories in which people had to put aside their own safety, struggle with terrible creatures and poisonous snakes when they were forced to dive for pearls under the terrible Chinese Ming dynastytheir suffering imprinted on his boy's mind when he read Uc Trai Nguyen Trai's proclamation of victory over the Ngos. He'd loved the passions and treachery told in the story of My Chau's love and betrayal by Trong Thuy, her beheading by her father, King An Duong, as she was sitting on horseback by the sea. Her innocent blood dripping into the sea, caught by oysters, transmuted into pearls.
The sea. In that first meeting with it, Khiem had come face to face with something invisible and magnificent that stood outside of time and whispered to him the secrets of a divinity.
* * *
In fact, he hardly understood the sea. He'd come here now for a summer holiday, both for his healthhe'd been working too hardand to meet secretly with the woman he loved. He was sharing a hostel room with two other people: the retired head of a dairy collective named Biu, and a naval engineer, Coc, who was taking leave after a long voyage. As for Biu, he was enjoying his stay in the guesthouse immensely. Hot water in the bathroom, air-conditioning in his room, and constant, caring service from a staff of pretty girls: Miss Duyen, Miss Xuyen, Miss Phuong, Miss Loc, Miss Vui, Miss Hoa. Bui had done what men of his generation did whenever they were very moved: composed a poem. It wove each of the young women's names into a single sentence.
"Hey, writer," he called to Khiem, when he'd finished. "Listen to my poem and let me know what you think."
For most of their stay, it had been Bui's poem that had defined Khiem's relationship with the retiree. He would have liked to ask Bui about his life: he'd heard the man had taken wild buffaloes from the forests, trained them, and transported them to the Mekong Deltaa possibly interesting topic to write about later. Instead, day by day, line by line, word by word, he would listen and suggest, suggest and listen, probably until the day he would take the old man to the bus station. By then he would know the poem, with its old folkloric style, by heart; he would know the stress on every syllable of each of the girls' names.
But it was Coc, the naval engineer, who pointed out Khiem's ignorance about the sea and appointed himself Khiem's teacher.
"Do you know what Tsang-tsu said the sea means to Vietnam?" he'd asked. "'If one has a house with a façade on the main road, one can be a wealthy man.' That's Vietnam!" Coc had laughed triumphantly, his teeth white against his tanned face.
But what about the life behind the façade? Khiem had thought. Was it as cheerful as the former head of the dairy collective's poem? Coc faced the sea, but there was so much he didn't see behind him. Like himself, Coc was a veteran of the American war. He'd studied and graduated from a university in the former Soviet Union but knew nothing now about what had happened there after its collapse. He was like a man with only one woman in his life. He knew only the sea. His life consisted of a series of journeys, each twenty days long and spent on a boat that traveled eleven nautical miles every hour and then stopped to mark its position on a chart.
Yet he brought a methodical passion to his work that Khiem admired. At every anchorage, Coc would observe the weather, the chop of the waves, the wind speed, the temperature at various depths; he would take samples of the water for chemical analyses. Then the boat would start again, slowly, taking specimens of sea life, cataloging the ephemera, studying them. Nature is more abundant than anyone can imagine, he enthused to Khiem. In the waters off Vietnam there was a type of squid as small as his thumb, and flying fish that changed the color of their scales, and porcupine fish with spines as hard as wood and as long as two fingers. There were seahorses that carried their unborn in their bellies, and crooked-back salmon that swam back up the rivers where they were born to breed and give birth and die in the same place, as their offspring swam back downstream to the sea. There were devil fish, with long beards, and bodies glowing with luminescence, and leaf-shaped fish that stuck themselves into cracks and crevices from which they couldn't be removed, and crawfish that jumped like Russians dancing. There were toadfish that could swim backwards and had poisonous skins, and tough, fierce tiger-pointer sharks who feared tiny fish that wiggled into their mouths and gills and ate their mucus, sapping their vitality.
Once Coc's boat was caught in a storm for three days, blown here and there like a bamboo leaf in the water, bringing him right to the brink of death. Afterwards the sea smoothed back to calmness and lay still, "as spent," he'd said to Khiem, "as a man after orgasm," reflecting sky and cloud so clearly he felt as if he were floating in a vacuum between heaven and earth.
He had been sitting with Khiem here on the beach last night, next to the ocean he was describing. They had rented canvas chairs and stretched out their legs, and the waves lapped against them, making the two men feel as if they were floating. Night and sea had flowed into each other. Behind them, the white sand dimly reflected the sparkling of the stars. In front of them, waves pulsated and boiled on the immense black ocean. Staring at it, Khiem had remembered why he was here. The sea has always been a place for love affairs. What could be a more powerful reminder of the storms of life that will buffet the lovers, that they will innocently swear their love will withstand?
The sea and the sky mirrored each other in the night, the sea appearing as old as the sky protecting it, sheltering Khiem and Coc as well, stretching out over their heads, fastened by the silver nails of millions of stars. Khiem had stared at their vast numbers. Which star had written its characteristics on the hour of the Rat, the day of the Tiger, the month of the Pig, and the year of the Rat that marked his birth, his unique fate? He felt a sudden, giddy kinship to the stars. Coc fixated on aquatic products, and Biu composed poems to hotel maids. But writing was Khiem's daily business; his fate, it seemed was to try to find substance and pattern and order in the dark and chaotic universe around him.
It had grown later, and Coc had left, had been gone a long time. But Khiem had stayed until the sky began to lighten.
He was alone on the beach, in the dawn. But soon a couple collecting seashells increased the human presence to three. Next a family of four appeared. A dozen young girls on summer holiday. Then a team of young men playing ball multiplied the population to about fifty. Old men in t-shirts and shorts powerwalked by, their arms rising and falling in rhythm with their breathing. More people appeared, then more. Cars and buses, the sunlight now reflecting off their bright colors, beeping noisily as their drivers searched for parking spaces under the canopies of the pine trees. Now the guests from the government hotels and the private guest houses rushed out, flowing into the crowd, multiplying it, until it was uncountable.
Eight o'clock. Needles of sunlight glared off the crown of each wave. The beach was now jammed with thousands of people.
The small inns and restaurants of the resort town had covered the entire shoreline, Coc's façade. The beach itself, which used to be empty, had become the façade of the façade, cluttered with small jury-rigged huts roofed with plastic, palm leaves, canvas, or, sometimes, only a big umbrella. The concessions sold wine and beer, rice and noodle dishes, dog meat, and other snacks that went with the wine and beera new custom Khiem had heard called "instant noodle lifestyle." Or they offered inner tubes, canvas chairs, or bathing suits for rent. Or massages. Or freshwater showers. Moving aggressively through the pressing, pushing crowd were the old women and children who lived hand to mouth, selling cheap gifts and snacks: barbecued squid, fish with chili sauce, rice cakes with fish mixed with hot chili.
It occurred to Khiem that the crowd boiling around him on the beach was like an instant nation whose laws and rules of behavior were determined only by the whims and needs of the moment. There must have been five or six thousand people gathered here now, all squeezed onto this narrow strip of sand, all intent on swimming, eating, enjoying themselves. The teenagers played football wherever they could. People sat, ran, jumped, shouted, or screamed, as they pleased. Nature was for everyone, wasn't it? People had the right to do whatever pleased them, didn't they? Khiem could still remember a time when husbands had to persuade their wives to put on bathing suits instead of standing and contemplating the sea in full black trousers and white blouses. If the husbands nagged too much, the wives would just say they were menstruating and beg off. Only the boldest would wear bathing suits under their clothes, which they wouldn't remove until they reached the water.
Now women displayed their bodies in their bathing suits as soon as they opened the doors of their hotel rooms and strode proudly to the beach. That exhibition had become another part of the show: who had the fanciest, most colorful swimming costume, who would expose the most flesh to the sunlight? Men followed, taking photographs. After all, hadn't the female body always been the subject of art? The beach served up anything anyone could desire. For five thousand dong, one could be a Tanzanian riding a zebra. The deputy director of an accounting department could transform himself into a gallant chevalier in a plumed, wide-brimmed hat and black tights, while his wife, a girl from the village, could magically become a Spanish duchess sitting in her carriage, regal in a flowing white gown, half her face veiled, black velvet gloves on her hands. Compared to the magic of karaoke that could turn an itinerant locksmith into a famous singer, it was nothing to paint a few black zebra stripes on an old nag, or to fashion the baroque European costumes the photographers would rent to their customers. Or, if someone really wanted to feel like a king, he could always rent the services of a "hugging swimming partner": fifty thousand dong for a young woman who would take care of his needs and make sure he enjoyed himself underwater with her. What more could anyone ask?
All around Khiem, people, most of them domestic tourists, were jammed together on the sand like a living representation of the country's economic recovery. The beach was no larger than it had ever beenit hadn't been stretched to accommodate the onrushand the sea in front of Khiem was black with bobbing human heads. Four girls clinging to a rubber tube, a poor gray-haired old husband pushing an inflated rubber mattress that displayed his plump and attractive young wife, desperately trying to chase away a gang of young bastards making fun of her. Everything and everyone together, tumultuous, noisy, taking over a whole corner of the sky and sea.
Khiem moved along the edges of the anonymous crowd, the gathering horde of autonomous individuals drawn here casually, temporarily, from everywhere, unified by a kind of mass hilarity, as if all its discrete joys and expectations had wrapped themselves into a communal soul, a common face, a single noise. He sensed the potential of it, a compacted, seductive energy that could mesmerize him, overcome him, absorb him until he became it, became the crowd, felt his uniqueness drip away and disappear like a discarded shell.
And what else?
He remembered talking to his closest friend, Thinh, a doctor now working in a fashionable private hospital, about how the gap between rich and poor was growing more flagrant in their society. "Do you know how much a construction workeryou've seen them around the city, digging foundations for new buildings, mixing cementdo you know how much workers like that earn a day?"
"Eight thousand dong. The cost of a can of beer."
Thinh had shaken his head in disbelief. "I've seen people drink twenty cans, one after the other, pile the empties up as high as a wardrobe. Yes, it's terrible, but what can you do? You have to look out for yourself."
Thinh. He was an excellent doctor and an intelligent man, could speak four foreign languages, had a rich knowledge of history. When he was a young man, his passion had been literature; he'd loved it dearly. If a man forgets poetry, he'd say, a man has forgotten himself. He once published an eight-sentence poem. But instead of gaining a place for him in the firmament of letters, those eight sentences had broken his wings and cast him down. The poem was attacked by the Province Department of Culture and Ideology. Thinh's poem, it was decided and declared, was antipolitical and didn't present a clear ideological message. Poor Thinh. In reality, Khiem had thought the poem rather mediocre, except for its last line, which read: No one wonders about the coldness in the foot of the pillar. It was the poem's best line, and it was exactly that line which got Thinh into trouble because of its beingin the view of the Department of Culture and Ideology"unclear, equivocal, and tricky."
That was during the sixties. Thinh's punishment was to be immediately drafted and sent to the front. Since that time, he had bidden farewell to what he called the "Poetic Disease." Before he left for the battlefield, Thinh and Khiem had a long conversation about life, science, and literature. The latter, Thinh said, was shaped and evaluated too much by the fashions and exigencies of the times in which it was written, by what was permitted and what was forbidden. No, Khiem had said: he wrote as if he were simply tossing a stone from his hand, letting it fall where it might. Maybe, but medicine was a simpler, more clear-cut profession, Thinh replied. All a doctor saw in front of his eyes were human bodies, differing only in age or sex. They got sick or they healed according to the laws of science, no matter how much any district politician might want to interfere. But literature was like a vegetable garden where anybody could plant whatever fatuous things he wanted. Anyway, Thinh had laughed, Tout cherche tout, sans but, sans reposeverything searches for everything, without aim, without rest. Khiem's talent was just ripeningthey'd see where it went.