Vietnam’s languishing literature
Literary critic Lai Nguyen An addresses a literature seminar.

Lai Nguyen An, a distinguished literary researcher, critic and translator says he’s concerned about a huge gap between Vietnam and other countries when it comes to literary criticism and library science.

Further, the noted researcher says book collection and compilation in Vietnam remains arbitrary and inadequate.

For example, a massive section of Vietnamese literary works were composed and compiled in Han (ancient Chinese) characters and Nom characters – the Vietnamese adaptation of the Chinese script created sometime during the 10th century.

According to An, however, that portion was not inventoried until the 1990s when Di san Han-Nom Viet Nam-Thu muc de yeu (Vietnam’s Han-Nom Heritage-Catalogue of Books in Chinese and Nom Characters) was released in 1993.

The set lists more than 5,000 books by Vietnamese authors which are now kept in Vietnamese libraries and other countries.

Quoc ngu (the script of the national language), which is based on the Latin alphabet and serves as the current writing system for the Vietnamese language, has been employed in Vietnamese literature since the latter half of the 19th century.

However, no serious effort to inventory these publications has been made to date, says An.

“The scarcity of materials from the late 19th century through the first 30 years of the 20th century presents a major difficulty in researching and teaching Vietnamese literature of that period,” he said.

Other weaknesses

Vietnam is also lagging far behind other countries in terms of its library science, says An.

Microfilming, which commonly involves reducing a document to about 25 times its original size and transferring the micro reproductions to film for transmission, storage, reading and printing has been standard in Western countries’ libraries since the 1980s.

The technique of reformatting both books and newspapers has seen only limited use in Vietnam, however.

Even the county’s largest libraries and archives have been slow in applying other advanced digital technologies while lacking entire sets of old books and newspapers and storing very few publications released before 1945.

An notes also that it is common for Vietnamese to memorialize their predecessors and past events through death anniversaries, tombstones and votive tablets rather than preserving written documents and scripts.

Families usually do not keep memoirs and keepsakes and there are few private museums that honor the bygone past.

Unlike other countries, the Vietnamese have not acquired the habit of keeping diaries, which often serve later as valuable historical documents, An adds.

In addition, he says, most literary researchers in Vietnam lack professional training about preserving documentation.

Encouraging signs

An, who himself has published over 30 books of literary criticism, research, compilation and translation, says he has received enthusiastic support for his work from many of his colleagues and members of the public.

He received considerable assistance in 2000from Japan’s Toyota Fund in gathering works by Phan Khoi, a notable journalist and literary critic of the 20th century.

With the exception of two books, thousands of Khoi’s writings and articles are scattered in newspapers released from 1928 through the early 1950s.

An has spent countless hours collecting, compiling and publishing the writings into two books, which comprise 4,000 pages in total.

The works have been titled: Phan Khoi, tac pham dang bao 1929 and Phan Khoi, tac pham dang bao 1930 (Phan Khoi’s newspaper articles in 1929 and 1930).

An is also looking to release an additional 1,000 pages titled Phan Khoi-Tac pham dang bao 1932.

He plans to work with other local researchers and foreign experts in Vietnamese studies on a project to compile all the books and newspapers in quoc ngu released from 1865 onwards and post them on the Internet.

“We should do it now, as research on our canonical literature is often not based on their original scripts,” said An.

Born in 1945 in northern Ha Nam Province, An now works for the Writers’ Association Publishing House.

An’s works include Van hoc va Phe binh (Literature and Criticism), Mot thoi dai moi trong van hoc (A New Era in Literature), Dictionary of Vietnamese Literature, So phan lich su cua chu nghia hien thuc (The Historical Fate of Realism), Tho moi 1932-1945, tac gia va tac pham (New Poetry in 1932-1945, authors and works) and Tu lieu thao luan 1955 ve tap tho Viet Bac (1955 Debates on Viet Bac anthology of poems).

Reported by Ngo Thi Kim Cuc