AND THE CULT OF INCARCERATION
Just as the early cultural czars of the DRV were exposed to images of confinement from an older Vietnamese literary tradition, they were also familiar with a wealth of prison narratives found in nineteenth-century French romantic literature. During the early twentieth century, Vietnamese students studied Michelet's famed account of the storming of the Bastille and Pascal's depiction of spiritual redemption in a solitary cell. In the 1920s, Ho Bieu Chanh became Indochina's first broadly popular prose novelist by rather shamelessly adapting plots from Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. His first blockbuster, The Ship Master of Kim Quy Island (Chua Tau Kim Quy), lifted completely the narrative structure of The Count of Monte Cristo, including a melodramatic version of the spiritual rebirth in confinement of the hero Nguyen Van Anh (Dantes in the Dumas novel). Chanh's second commercial success, Ngon Co Gio Dua (Blades of Grass in the Wind), a Vietnamese reworking of Les Mise´rables, followed the tribulations of Le Van Do, a petty thief whose fortunes take a dramatic turn after he, like Jean Valjean, escapes from prison. The aquatic prison escape in Nguyen Hong's classical colonial novel Cua Bien (The Ocean's Mouth) is also frequently compared to Jean Valjean's.
Victor Hugo, whose “lifelong obsession” with the death penalty and images of crime and punishment is well documented, was perhaps the most beloved writer in the colony. First translated into Vietnamese in 1913, his novels were serialized repeatedly in newspapers and magazines, and his poetry became a staple of the elite Franco-Vietnamese educational curriculum. By 1925, Hugo had developed such a reputation among the budding southern middle classes that the Saigonese bureaucratic functionaries who founded the syncretic Cao Dai religion in 1925 placed him alongside Jesus, Confucius, and Buddha as a patron saint of the faith. His portrait still graces the entranceway of the Holy See in Tay Ninh.
In a revealing interview conducted in 1991, party General Secretary
I started reading Les Mise´rables and the image of Jean Valjean was very striking to me—a poor man, so poor he had to beg for his daily bread. … It touched the strings of my heart directly—I was very moved. I decided, I could not be satisfied with a society where there is an enormous gap between the rich and the poor.
Linh's affection for Hugo's tales of crime, punishment, and redemption may also be connected to the fact that he spent over ten years in colonial prison prior to 1945.
Evidence suggests that French romantic carceral images exerted a powerful influence over the welleducated Vietnamese youth who entered radical politics in the 1920s and 1930s. Such influence is apparent in the widespread use of the Bastille as a potent symbol within leftwing anticolonial rhetoric. In 1925, the fiery radical journalist Nguyen An Ninh published a provocative account of the storming of the Bastille in his Saigon newspaper, La Cloche Feˆle´e (The Cracked Bell), and questioned why Vietnamese history had never witnessed an equivalent event. During the 1930s, revolutionaries intensified their employment of Bastille imagery in the legal oppositional press and in underground publications. Consider the following Vietnamese-language leaflet seized by the Security Police (Suˆrete´) at a Bastille Day parade in Qui Nhon in 1931:
Brothers and sisters. Each year in Indochina, as in France and her other colonies, the imperialists spend hundreds of thousands of piasters to commemorate the 14th of July. As spectators, our compatriots unconsciously assist in the celebrations. Here is the origin of this observance, which we mistakenly call French Tet. On July 14, 1789, the Republican Party revolted in Paris. An armed mob demolished the monarchy's great prison, the Bastille, released the political prisoners who demonstrated in the streets. The French decided to celebrate annually, July 14, in order to commemorate their great victory and the triumph of liberty over the absolutist regime. Brothers and sisters, in celebrating July 14, French imperialism extols its love of liberty but conceals its ferocious and barbarous sentiments evidenced here by the prisons of Hanoi, Saigon, Quang Ngai, and all the provinces and in which suffer a considerable number of our compatriots. Brothers and sisters, rise up. Unite with one heart and protest against these arrests and imprisonments, overthrow French Imperialism, and in the spirit of the Parisian revolutionaries on July 14, 1789, destroy the prisons of Hanoi, Saigon, and the provinces and deliver our brothers and sisters who are condemned there.
Other evidence exists of the popularity of French romantic prison imagery among radical Vietnamese youth. In 1928, the Suˆrete´ seized a Vietnamese-language copy of Silvio Pellico's My Prisons from an illegal publishing house in Saigon. This account by the Milanese liberal who spent a decade in Metternich's political prison, the Speilberg, had enjoyed a stunning success in nineteenth-century France, where five separate translations had been completed following its publication in the 1830s. Dang Thai Mai, the dean of party literary critics, claims to have read Pellico's memoir while a student in Hue in the late 1920s.
Still, the sensational prison narratives of Dumas and Hugo, replete with dramatic escape attempts and feats of great personal courage, appear to have exerted the widest impact among Indochinese youth. In his 1929 memoir Sitting in the Big Jail, Trotskyist Phan Van Hum compared his own predicament to that of the protagonist of Hugo's The Last Days of a Condemned Man. Hugo and Dumas also figure in Pham Hung's 1960 prison memoir, In the Death Cell.
In the Central Prison there was a library for the French. I borrowed some books and after reading them, summarized the stories for the other prisoners. To their delight, we read Les Mise´rables by Hugo and Les Trois Mousque-taires by Dumas.