DISTORTIONS AND ELISIONS
Revolutionary prison memoirs function not only through the experiences they repeatedly convey but also by those they continually suppress.
Compounding their neglect of common-law prisoners, revolutionary prison memoirs never mention that the punitive regime applied to ordinary lawbreakers was considerably more onerous and brutal than the one to which political prisoners were subjected. Transported to an inhospitable frontier region, fed an insufficient diet, and forced to perform dangerous corve´e labor from which political prisoners were normally exempt, commonlaw inmates had few opportunities to embark on the ambitious program of self-improvement and personal cultivation compulsively described in revolutionary prison memoirs. For most uneducated and impoverished petty lawbreakers, it is likely that a stay in a colonial prison was less like a semester in school and more like a night-marish term in a concentration camp.
Exemplary is the tragic experience of Con Dao prisoner Nguyen Van Vien, whose case was brought to the attention of a colonial inspector in 1932. Caught stealing a buffalo in 1898 at the age of twenty-three, Vien was exiled to Con Dao by an indigenous provincial tribunal. As a result of a series of bureaucratic mishaps, Vien remained confined on Con Dao for the same theft almost thirty-five years later. That Vien is rescued from historical oblivion by virtue of an apparently sympathetic passage culled from a French inspector's report and not from the voluminous writings of fellow political prisoners is symptomatic of the limited field of vision exhibited by revolutionary prison memoirs.
While “revolutionary prison memoirs” typically ignore the existence of common-law prisoners, several are instructive in the open contempt they display toward criminals. Such an attitude is evident in one of the genre's progenitors, Huynh Thuc Khang's Thi Tu Tung Thoai [Prison Verse], first published in Hue in 1939:
In prison there are gangs of scoundrels so violent-tempered that a dirty look or a small comment will provoke them to fight. For prisoners to be murdered in their sleep is unexceptional. During the initial months of our captivity with the common prisoners, we felt miserable. During the day we would rest and at night we'd discuss literature and talk politics—we didn't dare to interact with the common-law prisoners.
To further explain the absence or denigration of nonpolitical pris-oners in revolutionary prison memoirs, it is important to recognize how strictly the VWP's cultural authorities policed the content of published material in general and prison narratives in particular after coming to power in 1954. A pertinent example is the party's heavy-handed response in 1955 to Phung Quan's loosely fictionalized adventure novel, Vuot Con Dao (Escape from Con Dao). In a disapproving review article published in Van Nghe (Literary Arts), critic Vu Tu Nam chided Phung Quan for subordinating the heroism of imprisoned Communists to the courage and savvy of common-law prisoners:
Phung Quan's book depicts party leaders on Con Dao as excessively simple-minded and naı¨ve. In reality, the ward of solitary-confinement cells, where our best and brightest cadres were concentrated, was the nervecenter of the island. According to Phung Quan's description, inmates in this ward were demoralized and broken in spirit. Phung Quan deliberately glorifies common soldiers and ordinary prisoners while ignoring the mighty political strength of cadres and party members.
Vu Tu Nam's critique was buttressed and elaborated in attacks launched by powerful cultural officials such as To Huu and Tran Do, who, unfortunately for Phung Quan, were also former political prisoners. As Phung Quan was besieged by the ideological assaults and prison credentials of his critics, Escape from Con Dao fell into disrepute, and he was forced to undergo public self-criticism. Apparently, Phung Quan's reprimand was not lost on future authors of fictional and putatively nonfictional prison narratives, virtually all of whom made sure to relegate common-law prisoners to the distant margins of their accounts.
Like common-law offenders, non-Communist political prisoners are also underrepresented in the accounts of revolutionary prison memoirs. From the 1920s through the 1940s, the colonial state imprisoned anticolonialists of different political persuasions, including various kinds of anarchists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, nationalists, and radical Buddhists, as well as members of syncretic religious sects, secret societies, and underworld gangs. During the late 1930s, French-language newspapers in Saigon
In the rare cases when non-Communist political prisoners are mentioned, it is only to compare their feebleness in captivity with the strength of the Communists. Le Duan's recollections are typical in this regard:
Among the political prisoners, there were also non-communists, such as members of the Nationalist Party, adherents of the “national revolution” tendency such as Mr. Nguyen An Ninh, and Trotskyists such as Phan Van Hum and Ta Thu Thau. But none of them could equal the communists in endurance, dauntlessness and self-sacrifice. The more difficulties and hardships they met, the more the communists were steeled and tempered. They survived the most atrocious ordeals while others did not.
An irony of Le Duan's comments is that Trotskyists Phan Van Hum and Ta Thu Thau did in fact survive the “atrocious ordeal” of colonial imprisonment, but upon release in 1945 they were executed by Le Duan's Viet Minh during sporadic roundups of prominent figures from rival nationalist groups.
The tendency of revolutionary prison memoirs to focus solely on Communist prisoners further distorts the historical record by conflating the eighty-year history of imprisonment in Indochina with developments after 1930, the year the Communist Party was founded. While the highly organized defiance of Communist inmates after 1930 represented a qualitative change in the nature of colonial prison resistance, it is important to recognize that the colonial penal system had been generating significant levels of collective violence since its foundation in 1862. In fact, it is arguable that the sporadic and largely uncoordinated resistance to the penal system spearheaded by prisoners during World War I actually surpassed the level of violent opposition attained under Communist leadership in the 1930s. Moreover, enduring features of the colonial penal system that promoted successful Communist activity in prison (i.e., architectural shortcomings, administrative instability, discontented guards, confused and neglected systems of classification, inadequate supervision for forced labor) were equally responsible for facilitating
Also missing from revolutionary prison memoirs are vivid depictions of the texture of colonial prison life or evidence of the development of distinct subcultural formations behind bars. Descriptions of food, labor, discipline, hygiene, and the complex triangular relations obtaining between guards, prisoners, and French penal officials, for example, seem schematic and vague as compared with the meticulously detailed accounts of political education, self-improvement, and collective resistance. Moreover, revolutionary prison memoirs pay little or no attention to the prurient obsessions of French prison writing; there are few tales of betrayal, corruption, or rivalry among inmates and virtually none about suppressed desire, rape, or homosexuality.
In 1991, following the first significant relaxation of state censorship in northern Vietnam since the mid-1950s, the Institute of History posthumously released a brief prison memoir by Tran Huy Lieu, an important revolutionary from the 1930s and the DRV's most prolific historian. Originally written in 1950 and entitled Tinh trong Nguc Toi (Love in the Dark Prison), the account detailed Lieu's own loneliness and unrequited longings while incarcerated on Con Dao during the early 1930s. In one unusually frank passage, Lieu admitted to a temporary fascination with “brother T,” a fellow prisoner who had performed in drag in a play staged within the ward:
After viewing the play performed during Tet in Bagne II, I sent a letter over ten pages long to brother T, who, on that day, had played the role of a female courtesan. As the prison regime suppressed family sentiments and petty bourgeois romantic sentiments, we were often forced to seek other outlets.
The meaning of the passage is arguably ambiguous, but it is instructive that while many of Lieu's prison accounts were published during the 1960s, the memoir containing this passage was not released until after the Renovation (Doi Moi) policy of 1986. It is tempting to conclude that the decision to suppress its publication during the late 1950s and early 1960s was driven by a perception that the memoir alluded to