Chronicles of a Village

Nguyễn Thanh Hiện (trans. Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng)

March 28, 2024 
The following is from Nguyễn Thanh Hiện's Chronicles of a Village. Hiện (b. 1940), one of the most important writers in Vietnam, is the author of numerous novels, poems, and short stories. Chronicles of a Village is his first work to be translated into English. He lives in Qui Nhơn, Vietnam. Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng is a widely published writer, translator, and art curator, and is winner of a Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation. She lives in Saigon, Vietnam.

while some details might be left out, the khuốc bird must at all costs be mentioned in the history of our village, i am currently writing a history of the village, never would my father have imagined that i could write a history of the village, ‘there are dreams and fantasies that allow humans to nurture a profound love of life, and one day, son, the birds will return to the Mun Mountain,’ my father said to me, his voice brimming with sincerity and confidence, during the days when i used to follow him into the Mun Mountain to learn how to be a forester, there was nothing there yet, except for dreams, on my way to the Mun Mountain i usually passed by a hillside named after some man called Mr Thà before getting to the Ràng stream, the khuốc birds preferred to drink only from Ràng stream, they often perched on the elm groves on either bank, then flew off in search of food and then in the evening flew back to the elm groves, my father would tell me stories about these birds whenever i followed him into the Mun Mountain to learn how to be a forester, my memories seem to be turning into words on the page now, ‘but why would the khuốc birds drink only from the Ràng stream and not any other stream,’ i kept asking my father this question, ‘well, drinking from the Ràng stream makes the birds sing with a voice as pure as the stream water, so that you can hear it everywhere, son,’ my father spoke in the manner of a learned ornithologist, ‘father, have you ever heard the khuốc birds sing?’ ‘no, never, i’ve only heard the story from your grandfather who heard it from your great-grandfather,’ conversations between me and my father often sounded like a fairy tale . . . hundreds of years ago, the khuốc birds had sung to my ancestors, my ancestors being the ploughmen in the Hóc fields who felled trees and picked fruits in the Mun Mountain, for them, taking a break from the Hóc fields meant going to the Mun Mountain, they often went to the mountain in the morning and returned to the village in the afternoon, but sometimes they would spend the night in the mountain forest, for them the forest was home, the various movements in the struggle for fabric and rice oftentimes looked like a fairy tale, my brother and i worked in the fields and the forest in the same way that my father had worked in the fields and the forest, this way of being was rooted in the thoughts of my father and my fellow villagers, i followed my father to the Hóc fields to learn how to plough, then i followed him into the Mun Mountain to learn the workings of the forest, those mornings in the forest were filled with the sound of singing birds and flowing streams, as it turned out, as a child, i had no idea that my father was taking me back to the era of hunter-gatherers, an era shimmering with sunshine and wind, as it turned out, i had no idea that the birds were a species endowed with a deep love of life, they sang whenever the sun was out, the song of the khuốc birds is what eases our journey up the Mr Thà hillside, son,’ my father was telling me stories about the khuốc birds again, he told me a great many things as we sculpted the main body and chisel of the plough, ‘the khuốc birds will one day return, son, and once the khuốc birds return, every single bird in the Mun Mountain will be singing all day long,’ my father was talking about the khuốc birds yet again, the migration of the khuốc birds in my father’s thoughts was as misty as the story of prehistoric man’s search for new frontiers, i went to the Mun Mountain and passed the hillside named after Mr Thà to arrive at the Ràng stream, i went in the fall so that i could listen to the stirrings of the mountains and forests, the wilting leaves were a trace of sadness, and the yellowing foliage a trace of gloom, as the forest shed visions of decay and recovery onto my mind, the fallen leaves were turning into a poetry of the fall, while i was busy pondering the complexity of cyclicality, there must have been others, perhaps many, who were also living on this planet with their dreams, going to the Mun Mountain was my way of following my ancestral legacy of dreams, back in the day, one had nothing but dreams, in the fall, along the Ràng stream, one could hear the crabs and fish brushing against each other in the stream, after thousands of years, these crabs and fish were still living together among the withering weeds of the stream, a cloud passed, or was it a shadow of a bird flying over the stream, or was it a wandering dream of the fish and crabs, who could know, even the rocks, without ever speaking, could be hiding their secret sentiments, suddenly i see something flash through my memory, something languishing and desolate, like a silhouette of a bird, and then a sound begins to stir in my head, a thrilling and irresistible sound, the song of the khuốc birds: Mun forest . . . Mun forest.


it was thirty, not forty as commonly believed, thirty people who created that magnificent legend, isn’t it magnificent to be able to move mountains and rivers? there is no argument here, only description, one generation passed the description to another generation, who then passed the description to another generation, and so on, as the genealogy of the village kept shifting with the description of each new generation, the body of mountains and rivers became the accumulated thoughts of all the villagers who ever lived there, this is a story about the Upper Forest, thirty people entered the Upper Forest on dates and months not recorded in any official historical record, i am simply following the village genealogy, one day, the elephants, deer, bears and tigers were fighting over the tares and weeds in the Hóc fields, it was an era when soil, water, mountains and rivers were still taking shape, an era recorded not by the common-era dates of the western calendar but by the behaviours of the species, the vast universe was made up of soil, water, plants and animals, whose behaviours and communications generated a rhythm much more poetic than linear chronologies, thirty people entered the Upper Forest while the elephants, deer, bears and tigers were eating the tares and weeds in the Hóc fields, this earthly realm was a realm both non-pluralistic and pluralistic, a realm understood as it was, a diachronic poem, it was from the cradle of humanity in Africa, if that tale were true somehow, that human beings had dispersed to give shape to mountains and rivers, using the same method of those thirty people in the Upper Forest back then, the migration shouldn’t be seen as a single historical event, it must instead be observed diachronically by a succession of generations, i am simply transcribing the village genealogy, human beings often encountered each other in this vast life and together decided to go in a certain direction, likely a direction of precarity that hid many breakable calculations and aspirations, it was a fateful wave of migration, the marine vapour of the afternoon condensed with the humans’ worries and fears, a life-and-death battle against worries and fears was unfolding with each of their staggering footsteps, in an effort to appear calm and fearless, the humans pretended to speak with the thorns of the mountains and laugh with the venomous air of the forest, they also pretended to speak and laugh with the wild beasts as if they’d known them since the beginning of time: ‘hey there, my friends, would you mind making a little space?’ one summer morning, the sun was scorching the ground as the elephants, deer, bears and tigers were fighting over the tares and weeds in the Hóc fields, the vagrant brothers came and whispered to the wild beasts, and because the love of one’s homeland always fuelled their effort to break open new lands, one early morning in those hard days, the vagrant brothers realized that the forest had receded into the horizon, and the wild beasts had spared the Hóc fields for the growth of rice and legumes, the joyous brothers all joined hands and went to the forest where they danced with the birds, i learnt from reading the village genealogy that my ancestors loved in the fields and kissed in the forest, that we are the descendants of a marvellous love affair, and that the Upper Forest was later renamed Lâm Thượng, a more formal designation also meaning ‘upper forest’, this is the oldest recorded name of my village.


From Chronicles of a Village by Nguyễn Thanh Hiện, translated from the Vietnamese by Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng. Used with permission of the publisher, Yale University Press. Copyright © 2024.

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