“The General Retires”, a Story by Nguyen Huy Thiep and the Problem of the Socialist Realism Hero

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The article discusses “The General Retires” (1987), a story by Nguyen Huy Thiep, one of the most well-known Vietnamese writers of the last quarter of the 20th century. His prose marked the break with the literature of socialist realism, dominated in the DRV from the mid-20th century. The center of the story is a hero of socialist realism characterized with a set of certain traits which let him serve a role model to educate a builder of a new socialist society.The theme relevance is determined with the insufficient study of the Vietnamese type of socialist realism, as well as its fading in the Post-Renovation period.The analysis of the story has shown that among its characters only the General possesses some traits of the socialist realism hero. He is a fighter for high ideals. The rest are common people with their merits and defects. Thus, the writer fixes the change of the ages: the heroic age is fading being changed with the ordinary age. The socialist realism hero is transformed into an individual with his individual interests. The new hero has been taken out of the context of struggle for a better future, obligatory for the literature of socialist realism. So, the General's death is symbolic; it may be interpreted as the farewell with socialist realism and with the hero typical of it.

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In memory of Nguyen Huy Thiep (1950-2021), whom the author was lucky to meet many times Introduction Nguyễn Huy Thiệp (29.04.1950 - 20.03.2021), the author of stories, novels, plays, screenplays, essays, is, with no doubt, a symbol of Vietnamese literature of the last quarter of the 20th century, after the Communist Party of Vietnam had proclaimed (1986) the Renovation policy (Đổi mới), which in a short time radically transformed the country. The Renovation policy was followed with the renovation of Vietnamese literature. And its landscape was entirely transformed in a short time. Nguyen Huy Thiep’s works, first and foremost his stories, are well-known not only in Vietnam, but also abroad. Some of his works are translated into foreign languages (French, English, Swedish etc.). In Vietnam the first publications of his prose immediately gave rise to a squall of comments in articles, sometimes precisely opposite and very emotional, which appeared both separately and simultaneously with his works. It attracted attention of foreign researchers, such as G. Lockhart [Lockhart 1989] from Australia or P. Zinoman [Zinoman 1994] form the US, as well as the author of this article [Filimonova 1993, 1996, 2017, 2018]. With his appearance Nguyen Huy Thiep contributed a lot into the renovation of Vietnamese literature, which at that time was the literature of socialist realism. His contribution must be studied for a long time. This article discusses one of the most well-known works of the writer, his story “The General Retired” (Tướng về hưu) in its relation to socialist realism, namely, in the light of the problem of the hero of socialist realism, which, it seems, has not been done yet. It is known that before the Renovation, nearly for half a century, the literature of Northern Vietnam developed in the frameworks of the same artistic method, i.e., of socialist realism. The course towards socialist realism was proclaimed in the famous “Theses on Culture” (Đề cương văn hóa, 1943). This document determined the Party’s cultural policy and the principles of its relationships with creative intellectuals. It proclaimed the course towards the national revolution for independence under the Communist Party leadership. Part of this revolution was to be the cultural revolution, socialist in its essence. The theses determined the principles of the Party’s cultural policy, such as national, folk and scientific character, as well as both the nearest and long-term goals and tasks. In particular, the theses proclaimed the break with the former cultural tradition. In the field of ideology, it meant the obligatory struggle against “erroneous” and “harmful” teachings of Confucius and Mencius, as well as against philosophical teachings of Descartes, Bergson, Kant, Nietzsche etc. As far as art movements are concerned, it was obligatary to struggle against Classicism, Romanticism, Naturalism and Symbolism for the sake of socialist realism victory (italics is author's. - T.F.) [Về sự lãnh đạo của Đảng 1960: 187]. The very concept of socialist realism method having appeared in the USSR in 1934 was borrowed and transferred to the Vietnamese soil by the Communist Party of Indochina to address its own political and ideological tasks like those emerging in the Soviet Union during the construction of socialism. “The Theses” stated openly: “The new Vietnamese culture led and directed by the Communist Party of Indochina must be socialist, or Soviet, culture (like, for example, culture in the USSR)” (italics is author's. - T.F.) [Về sự lãnh đạo của Đảng 1960: 186). Henceforth the Party always held meetings and adopted documents on the activities in the field of culture and in the work with the creative intellectuals, emphasizing its exclusive attention to these issues, because it justly considered literature and art to be a powerful tool for the education of masses in the spirit of socialist ideals. Vietnam imported from the USSR not only the theory of socialist realism, but also its literary practice. In the first decades after the August Revolution many literary works of “classic” Soviet socialist realism were translated into Vietnamese, such as “Mother” by M. Gorky, “The Iron Flood” by A. Serafimovich, “How the Steel Was Tempered” by N. Ostrovsky, “Virgin Soil Upturned” by M. Sholokhov, “The Young Guard” by A. Fadeyev, “Story about a True Man” by B. Polevoy and some others. Gradually in Vietnam there emerged its own literature of socialist realism. Its samples are “The Carbon Land” (Vùng mỏ, 1951) by Võ Huy Tâm, “The Couple A Phu” (Vợ chồng A Phủ, 1954) by Tô Hoài, “The Country Is Rising” (Đất nước đứng lên, 1956) by Nguyên Ngọc, “The Small Paved Yard” (Сái sân gạch) and “The Spring Crop” (Vụ lúa chiêm, 1961) by Đào Vũ, “The Confrontation” (Xung đột, 1959) and “The Peanut Harvest Season” (Mùa lạc, 1960) by Nguyễn Khải, “The Banks Are Crashing Down” (Vỡ bờ, 1962) by Nguyễn Đình Thi, “The Morning” (Buổi sáng, 1976 ) by Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Tú, “The Tram Island” (Cù lao Tràm, 1985) by Nguyễn Mạnh Tuấn and many others. Unfortunately, the features of the Vietnamese type of socialist realism, which seems to have been mostly realized in the literary practice of the USSR, have not been investigated. However, some noteworthy attempts in this direction were made by some well-known Vietnamese literary critics, such as Hoang Ngoc Hien (1979) and Tran Đinh Su (2002). Both the process of the method coming-into-being in Vietnam and its “quiet” disappearance after the Renovation policy had been proclaimed are of interest, but it has not yet been comprehended. The official socialist realism definition adopted by the First Soviet Writers’ Congress (Moscow, 1934) says: “Socialist realism required the true, historically concrete image of the reality in its revolutionary development. Truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic image of the reality must combine with the task of ideological recast and socialist education of the working people” [Slovar’ 1974: 365]. It is the obligatory component of socialist realism, the positive hero, that answered the purpose of ideological recast and socialist education of the working people. The hero was either the conscious builder of a new life or a fighter for it, or the person on the way to become an active builder or a fighter, who could be a role model, like Pavel Vlasov and his mother, like Pavel Korchagin and other characters very well known in Vietnam; like Communist Khak in “The Banks Are Crashing Down”, like peasant Am in “The Small Paved Yard” and “The Spring Crop” dilogy, like Nup, a representative of small peoples, in “The Country Is Rising”, or like characters in “The Peanut Harvest Season”, full of expectation of the happy future. After the August Revolution, to answer this purpose, in the Vietnamese literature of socialist realism originated a new type of the hero adequate to the new time. To answer the Marxist-Leninist class theory the hero ought to be a representative of the working masses: a worker, a peasant, an offspring of working intellectuals, a soldier of the Peoples' Army etc. Thus, the Letter of the CC of the Workers’ Party of Vietnam to the Second National Congress of literature and art figures of Vietnam from February 20, 1957 says: “Our people are waiting for their truthful literary and art images, typical representatives of the new man, new heroes of the epoch, for positive aspects of our current life. New people and new heroes are simple modest workers. Every day they selflessly work and resolutely struggle for a new life. They are workers at plants and mines, building-sites and collective farms, busy to restore and develop the economy. They are peasants who went through the land reform and now enthusiastically follow the road of cooperation and mutual assistance. They are soldiers of the People’s Army, who day and night defend our boundaries, who temper themselves and participate actively in political, military and cultural education to defend our Fatherland, to defend peaceful labor of our people. They are intellectuals who enthusiastically contribute into the economic and cultural construction of our country. In a word, they are active people, respected people of our society. And you, artists, must sing of them and extoll them” [Về sự lãnh đạo của Đảng 1960: 12). Such were the heroes of the Vietnamese literature of that period, fighters for the construction of a new socialist life in town and in the country under the leadership of the Communist Party. Hence in the Vietnamese literature there are characters of unbending Communists, wise political leaders, secretaries of Party organizations at various levels along with workers, peasants, soldiers and commanders of the People’s Army, representatives of small peoples, and intellectuals. At the background of such literature, the literature of socialist realism in the proper sense, there appeared Nguyen Huy Thiep. In 1987 the “Van Nghe” (“Literature and Art”), the newspaper of the Union of Vietnamese Writers, published his story “The General Retires”. It resonated widely in society and attracted attention of readers and literary critics. The story stunned with its content and distinctive vision of the Vietnamese urban reality of the mid-1980s, as well as with its unusual style. The analysis of the content and characters of “The General Retires” story The subject matter of the story is simple enough. Its hero, a combat general, lived lifelong away from home. Having been retired he came to his only son’s family, who lived in Hanoi. The General cannot find his place in this life. He returns to the Army and is perished like a hero in a new war. The action of the story takes place a decade after the unification of the country and comprehends the events of approximately one year, from the General’s arrival to his son’s house till his funeral. The story is written on behalf of the son after his father’s death. The form of the story is a narration making clear that its author is not a writer, but a common man. The story tells little of the General and his life before his arrival to his son: “My father’s name was Thuan. He was the eldest son in the Hguyen familiy. <…> My paternal Grandpa once learned Chinese and later taught. He had two wives. The first wife, having given birth to my father, died several days later, and the grandpa had to marry once again. His second wife dealt with dying cloth. I do not remember her face, but they say, she was a very stern woman. It is clear, that with his step-mother my father had been through in his childhood. At the age of twelve he left his home. He joined the army and since then he had hardly ever appeared in his homeland. About 19… my father came to the village to marry. For sure, he did not marry for love. He had but ten days’ leave and a whole bunch of stuff. But love demands for conditions, the time among them” . At the age of 70 the General decided to retire and appeared in the house with the words: “That’s enough. I have finished with big deeds in my life”. However, the image of the hero takes shape of limited details in the story. He was of peasant origin and had a hard childhood, though his family was not very poor. He joined the army professing the ideals of national independence and social justice. He struggled against French colonizers, built a military career and became a man of merit and respect. In a word, he was a typical representative of that generation, which at first made the August Revolution, defended the independence of the young country, taking the road of building a new socialist life, and then fought for the liberation of South, while far from him the common “rear” urban and country life was going on, the life with different style and orders, having begun to transform speedily after the unification of the country in 1975. In other words, he dealt with “big deeds” lifelong. The General’s arrival to the family changed radically the life of all its members, the more so as they knew him little or not at all. When the General returned, his son was thirty-seven years old. He worked as an engineer-physicist at a Hanoi research institute, went abroad sometimes, was financially secure; he even had a house of his own, built on the project of a military architect, a friend of his father. His wife Thuy was an obstetrician in a maternity home. Thus, both his son and his wife were representatives of current urban intellectuals. They had two daughters who, as it is emphasized in the story, learned a foreign language and music. The General’s wife suffered from senile dementia and lived separately from the family, in the out-house. She and the whole housekeeping (they had a kitchen-garden, chickens, pigs and sheep-dogs for sale) were cared for by servants, sixty-year Co and his mentally diseased daughter Lai. They were fire victims from a province and lived in Hanoi with no ration cards on money paid them by Thuy. Besides, the story mentions the General’s younger brother, uncle Bong, a former rickshaw, and his son Tuan, a buffalo driver, uncle Bong’s daughter-in-law Kim Chi and Khong, a poet-amateur. All these characters represent a cut of that Hanoi society, where the General returned, i.e., the society with its marked social inequality and material stratification. The General struggled against them lifelong, and we will see that in the story all these characters are unlike him for different purposes. The customs in his son’s family provoke frank quandary and bitterness in the General, who is a man having grown up in a traditional society and lately apprehended socialist ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood. He does not understand why his daughter-in law is the leader at home, and his son does not take part in anything and says now and then: “I must ask Thuy”; why his son closes his eyes to his mother, who lives separately in a small out-house, and neither his wife nor the two daughters, fourteen and twelve years old, do not take any care for her, having left her to the care of servants, very kind, but in essence strange people; why he endures his wife’s infidelity with their neighbor Khong; why he lets his wife breed sheep-dogs for sale and feed them with human embryos she brings from the clinic in a thermos every day. Showing his son the broth for the dogs, the General, who saw a lot and being tempered in battles, says with tears: “I don’t need such a wealth”. The General himself, despite his high social status, is modest, kind and unselfish. His ideal is the equality of all people. He comes to his son’s house “with a small luggage”. On the day of his arrival, he gives equal pieces of army cloth to every member of the household, including the servants, old Co and his daughter. And his son is laughing: “But, Father, you are an egalitarian”. And his father responds: “Equality is the primary law of life”. When the family council addresses the question what the retired General must do (he refuses to write memoires) Thuy suggests that he should breed parrots while at that time many people do this. But when the General asks her: “For sale?”, she is silent. At first, the General wants to live in a separate room in the out-house with his wife, but Thuy is against it. When he sees that Co and Lai are dropping from tiredness, he wants to help them, but Thuy does not allow saying: “Daddy, you are a retired General. You are a commander. Soldiers’ work is not the business of the army commander”. The General feels his responsibility for everything and his duty to help everybody. At home he is frequented by many people with requests, and he readily writes various applications. When his younger brother Bong, a scoundrel, wants him to be the toast-master at the wedding of his son-hooligan, the General cannot refuse, though his brother frankly says that he needs him for prestige: “Kim Chi’s father is Deputy Head of Division, and you are a general, the best man for this. It will be a great honor for the children, while I am just a rickshaw. What do they need me for?” At the wedding the General feels at a loss. “Nobody needed his speech prepared so carefully. <…> Father jumped from one paragraph to another and was trembling. This strange crowd of occasional people, indifferent, like the life itself, even nefarious, terrified him”. When some days later Kim Chi gives birth to a daughter and uncle Bong gets her out of the house in disgrace, the General takes her to his son’s house for a time. When old Co asks the General to accompany him and Lai to their native place, to another province to re-bury his wife traditionally, he agrees, though they are but strangers to him, and gives them money. When there is a question, whose life is easier, women’s of men’s he says: “If a man has a soul, his life is hard. The larger the soul, the harder the life”. Trustfulness for the General is one of the main dignities of a person: “My girl, don’t you understand that it is trustfulness that is the main force of life”, he says to Lai. The General’s wife’s death and her burial in civil life with traditional rituals, superstitions etc. make a great impression on him, who had seen thousands of deaths and burial, as if he saw the human death for the first time. Trying to attract his son’s attention to the relations between his wife and Khong, the poet, the General sees that his son does not want to react and calls him “a weakling”. But his son says that one should concern many things in life like jokes, like something frivolous, but his father does not understand him and exclaims: “Why am I like a black sheep?” In other words, in this society, new to him, he is a stranger, a representative of a different clan, with his own views, ideals and ideas of reality. That is why he accepts the offer to return to the army. Before leaving, the General bids farewell to the neighbors, went to his wife’s tomb, gives Co some money and getting in the car, having been sent for him, he gives a simple exercise-book with his notes to his son. In the end of the story, after the General had perished, his son says: “When I have time, I open this exercise-book and read father’s notes. Now I understand him better”. Such is the General, the true hero, the man of “big deeds”. His life and death can serve a role model. As such, he is the hero nearest to the ideal of socialist realism. In this quality he is unlike other characters of the story. They are not heroes, but common people with their “small deeds”, positive traits and imperfections, even errors. The General’s son Thuan is supposed to have achieved much thanks to his honored father. He is a conscientious man, but his father calls him “a weakling”. Unlike his wife he is not practical, is easy to deceive, but is rather self-critical: “As for myself, I am rather conservative, unpredictable and brutish”, he says. But when his father left for another province with Co and Lai, and his mother is in the bad condition, he cares for her: “For two days Mother has not had any meal and she could not use the toilet. I washed and changed the sheets, sometimes twelve times a day. I knew that Thuy and the girls like tidiness, that is why I did not wash at home, but went to the ditch”. Thus, while his father is the man of “big deeds”, he does not belong to this human type and he does not want to. The General’s daughter-in-law Thuy is disciplined, non-sentimental and calculating. The General’s son speaks so: “Thuy is an educated and very modern woman. <…> She is excellent in housekeeping and she takes care of the girls’ education”. At first sight, she cares only for money and for the wealth and prestige connected with it. Virtually, very practical Thuy transforms everything in money, calculates everything and wishes to profit from everything. “The main thing is our daily bread, but not a soul”, she says. She characterizes uncle Bong so: “He is a good man, but poor”. It means that he is of no interest to her. When she lends him money, she takes a receipt for money received. Even going to the burial of her father-in-law, who perished executing his military duty, she remembers to take a camera, to take a photo of her family there, while her father-in-law is a general and a hero, after all. At the same time, when she let the General go with Co and Lai to their native land, she does not allow Co to take money of the General, but gives him a large sum herself. Also, she gives money to Kim Chi. In the end, she asks pardon of her husband and children for her relations with Co, and on the return from the burial she asks the driver to drive slowly, so that uncle Bong who is on such a long journey for the first time, could enjoy the way’s beauty. In other words, she may be ready to “big deeds” with her human qualities, but she is too mercenary. From the very beginning uncle Bong is depicted as an unpleasant and rude man: “At heart we disliked uncle Bong and his son, but so to say, they were “kindred blood”, after all. We met at wakes and at feasts, but not every day. Uncle Bong used to say: “Damned intellectuals! They scorn us, hard workers. If he was not my brother, I would never set foot to you!” However, when he visited the General’s wife before her death and saw her condition, he was greatly upset and asked her, who he is, she answered: “The man”. He cried: “Sister, you love me most. Everybody in the village in our family call me a dog. My wife calls me but the beast. And the son calls me the scoundrel. Only you have called me the man”. It is the uncle who participates actively in traditional burial of the General’s wife and even cares for her future life, at the same time not forgetting his own interest and bemoans his dead sister. His son, a buffalo driver, beat his first wife and in the court, while divorcing he lied that she was not faithful to him. After his second wife, a girl from a decent family, gave birth to a child some days later after the wedding and uncle Bong got her out of the house, he fell upon his father with a knife, but missed, and later did not maintain any relations with his young wife and his daughter. Thus, neither uncle Bong, nor his son are enrolled in the positive hero’s canon of socialist realism, which must sing of a simple working man. Also, this is as true for the amateur-poet Khong; he worked at a soy sauce factory. The General’s son disliked him: “…I thought he visited us not only with his poems, but also for something else, not very good”. He was right, but in the end his wife got the poet out herself. The situation is different for old Co and his daughter Lai. They are miserable; having lost everything they work hard and submissively for their urban masters, ensuring their quiet life. Even before the fire and their move to Hanoi the father and daughter were not wealthy. The story tells: “My wife taught her to prepare pigs skin, mushrooms and a stewed chicken. Lai said: “I have never eaten this before”. And really she had never eaten this meal”. Lai cares for the General’s wife, as if she were a relation of hers. When she dies, Lai being tired out with the wake, bemoaned her bitterly at the alter: “Granny, forgive me that I could not attend your funeral. … When you wanted the crab broth, I did not prepare it, fearing that you would not eat it… Whom will I bring presents from the market now?” Hearing these words, the General’s son thinks that “for about thirty years he had never bought either a pie or sweets for his mother”. And when his wife orders Lai to be silent, he said to her angrily: “Let her cry. They must cry at the funeral. In our family nobody bemoans Mother so bitterly”. It turns out that these modest, kind hard workers are not heroes either, though they deserve our sympathy. Conclusion You can see, that there is only one positive (in terms of socialist realism) hero, the General himself, but as the type with his ideals he cannot match the new Vietnamese reality. The writer fixes the change of epochs: the heroic epoch is fading to be changed with the epoch of ordinariness. The hero of socialist realism with the priority of publicity over privity is changed with the individual with his individual interests. This new hero is as if taken out of the context of struggle for the better future, obligatory for socialist realism. For this hero the publicity does not suppress the privity, and the individual is not identified with the publicity. In this sense the General’s death becomes the symbol of the change of historical, artistic and esthetic epochs. It means the death of the hero of socialist realism and at the same time the transition of all the Vietnamese literature in a new channel. It should be said that the General is the only hero of socialist realism not only in “The General Retires” story, he is the only one in all the stories by Nguyen Huy Thiep of the current life. That is why we can, so to say, consider this and other stories by the author to be a kind of farewell to socialist realism, adequate with the political and ideological situation in Vietnam in the periods of the August Revolution, of the Resistance War with France, socialist transformations in town and in the country, the war for the unification of the country, but incongruous with the situation of the mid-1980s and further.

About the authors

T. N Filimonova

Lomonosov Moscow State University

Email: glasha.48@mail.ru
Ph.D. (Philology), Assoc.Professor, Institute of Asian and African Studies, Lomonosov Moscow State University. ORCID: 0000-0001-7136-3173


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