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LOST IN THE JUNGLE Copyright © 2010 by Trung Trung Dinh All Rights Reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means-electric, mechanical, photocopy, recording, scanning, or other-except for brief quotations in critical review or articles, without the prior written permission of the Publisher. Published in Viet Nam by Phuong Nam Book Co., Ltd (PNB), a member of Phuong Nam Culture Corp. (PNC) 940 Ba thang Hai Street, Ward 15, Dist.11, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Introduction   Picture a northern Vietnamese teen-age soldier imprisoned in a jungle cave watching frogs and rats being roasted on an open fire and you are immediately drawn into what can only be described as a very special if not unique story. What makes this tale such a gripping and at the same time significant one? There are at least two subjects to consider for the purpose of grasping its importance. The first is the process around which this novel was written and something of its illustrious history. The second is coming to know and appreciate the Vietnamese author Pham Trung Dinh (pen-name Trung Trung Dinh) himself.  “Lost in the Jungle” has won a prestigious State Prize in Vietnam, one of two which its author Trung Trung Dinh has been awarded over the years.  For the western reader this may constitute an appealing, but, on the other hand dubious, distinction.  We don’t really quite yet ‘get’ the post-war “Socialist Republic of Viet Nam”. What does a lost in the junge  5 State Prize from a “Communist” government signify?  At a minimum we know there is recognition that the story is well told and has cultural, historical or social value.  The current government of Viet Nam is big on rewarding personal ethics and contributions to one’s community or the common good. So let’s leave the reasons for the choice of a State Prize by a government so different from our own–is it really?–and concentrate instead on what we in the West might learn from this jungle tale and how its English version came about. Most of us are in the dark when it comes to appreciating the arduous and creative tasks that go into the telling and translating of a chronicle of this kind. This is not a longish novel. Perhaps that is a good thing when you think of the effort that must go into translating lively Vietnamese prose into English. These are two very diverse languages, the first based so fundamentally on tonal qualities and perhaps closer to Chinese or even ancient Hebrew for its earthiness and concreteness. English is every bit as creative and versatile but much more linear and certainly much more forgiving or limited when it comes to number of tones in speech or as demonstrated in writing.  The Vietnamese version of this book has been out for almost a decade and the decision to bring it to a Western (English-speaking) audience was only reached a few months ago. But translating fiction is not an easy task. Legal documents and verbal explanations, in a court room for example, call for accuracy.  “Just tell me exactly what the person has said and don’t give me any interpretation of 6  Trung Trung Đỉnh the words or your opinions.” I’ve often had to say that to my own translators as I worked and traveled in Viet Nam. Translating story is quite different. One must labour both with the words but also with the creative ideas and neither one of these must be sacrificed to the other. It takes a Dr. Gary Donovan, a specialist in both linguistics and the pedagogy of linguistics to patiently struggle with the rough English translation to bring out both a faithful rendering of the author’s words plus a meaningful expression of ideas in a totally dissimilar language-type. This is a different level or constituency of creative expression. It also takes the quiet genius of cultural appreciation plus a full knowledge of the Vietnamese language of celebrated short story writer McAmmond Nguyen Thi Tu to provide a level of insight into meaning both of words and ideas, culturally shaped as they inevitably are. Consider something as simple as the title of this book “Lost in the Jungle”.  Around a dinner table in Calgary, Canada with the author, Dr. Gary, Tu and husband David; or in the Volga Hotel in downtown Ha Noi, again with author Dinh, plus a distinguished professor–friend–writer–and army comrade, and myself: we all weigh the pros and cons of changing the title to properly reach a Western audience. Some of us argue that “Lost in the Jungle” sounds too much to our Western ears like an old Tarzan movie. Back in Canada, those working day and night on an accurate yet appealing translation hold tightly to a faithful rendering of the original. And what does “lost” signify? I, myself, listened while Dinh and his faithful colleague and professor of literature Nguyen Van Loi reiterated the importance of lost in the junge  7 allowing the reader the right of determining what might be meant by that word and that title. And in the end simplicity and verity won the day.  Now, you gentle reader, are left to supply your own interpretation of events, which is as it should be in any great literature and is certainly in keeping with Trung Trung Dinh’s intent.  One final comment on the substance of this story and its process serves as a convenient bridge to some words about Pham Trung Dinh, the man.  This is a story which centres on very young soldiers.  Perhaps the real strength and contribution of this narrative is that it is told innocently, candidly, sometimes confusedly, through the eyes and ears, ideas and fears, feelings and tears, of a very young and sensitive man. That man is as in all good fiction a compilation of real figures not the least of which is Trung Trung Dinh himself. If we take nothing else from this story I hope it will be a deep appreciation of the author’s capacity for re-imagining those days in his own life and the perceptive nature which enables and enhances the recall. In addition there is the determination (nine years of work) to tell this–his?–story to others.  Today Pham Trung Dinh is the personification of generosity and social conscience. His dearest friends, most of them writers, editors, translators, educators and poets, know him as a leader not only in the publishing field (he is now both writer and publisher) but as something of a moral guide or beacon. Picture, if you will, a little man, somewhat scruffy black and graying hair, a ruddy complexion, usually a painfully serious expression on his face. He takes you, his 8  Trung Trung Đỉnh new friend, out for dinner. You know you make more money in a few hours than he may make in several weeks but he absolutely refuses to have you pay for anything. He meets you at your hotel after arriving on his motorcycle. He holds firmly to your hand or arm and guides you safely across the motorbike-infested streets of Ha Noi to a specially chosen restaurant where he believes you will be comfortable. He ensures that you have abundant food and drink–he himself prefers his iced Ha Noi Bia. Now he guides you home late at night after a delightful evening with his colleagues many of whom know at first-hand–may they even have been characters in?–this story.  Safely returned to your hotel, Dinh must drive his bike across town to his own home. Yet, 5:00 a.m. the next morning he is at your hotel door to walk you safely to the train station where you will board a coach for other enchanting cities in Viet Nam.  And when you walk the streets, often hand in hand, with this gentle, attentive former “Vietcong” you observe his disappointed, almost disgusted critical glances and grunts at crass commercialism, pollution and waste, greed and pumped-up glamour–“Viet Nam– ergh!” What was that war all about?  Here is the profoundest lesson of all–that you hold such a close and valued friendship beyond language differences, and in spite of cultural diversity–just this deep sense of shared friendship, of a shared humanity.  This is what this story is able to do for us. It is after-all, an encapsulation of the incompleteness and uncertainty of a teen-age Vietnamese soldier–a school boy. It is a walk lost in the junge  9 through the bewildering realities of war. It cannot by its age and nature come to any startling conclusions. That you would have to receive from the mature adult Trung Trung Dinh as he walks the streets of Ha Noi still yearning but so disenchanted with what Viet Nam has become, or is becoming. Larry J. Fisk Canada, November 2009 10  Trung Trung Đỉnh I escaped from the cave in the half-light of dusk. At that moment, my only thought was to get away from the ethnic people who frightened me to death. If I didn’t get away, they could hurt me or even shoot me. At first, I had pretended to sleep while they sat round the fire roasting rats and frogs. Then they drank their traditional wine, called cần wine, ate their partially burnt meat and whispered to each other. I tried to sit still, pretending to keep my eyes closed and watched them. I was sure they were deciding how to kill me. My blood turned to ice every time one of them spoke aloud or stood up. I finally felt a little safer when they all lay down, half-drunk, and fell asleep. I waited for a while then ran out of the cave. If they were men who had run away after an enemy raid, they would not take kindly to a new, young northern soldier who had managed to lose his regiment after the first battle. But I didn’t get far away. They caught me quite soon when I crept into the open on a little plot of cultivated ground on one of the terraced hills in search of manioc. All of a sudden, three rifles were pointing my way while I was busy digging with my army knife. Afraid they would shoot me, I fell down on my back. They used their rifle butts to keep me there. I was overcome with a sense of hopelessness. They lost in the junge  11 used parachute cord to tie up my elbows then they pushed me into the cave. Terrified and having no hope of being set free, I broke into tears. They ignored me, taciturn and cold. Each one of them carried a bush hook; two or three carried crossbows that brought trembling to my heart. An indescribable fear. Then a young man, possibly my age, came into the cave. He untied me while the others were busy talking. I was convinced they were talking about me but understood nothing. Their language, habits and style of life were new to me. The young man showed no hostility as he looked me up and down. I returned his gaze, hoping to gain his sympathy. He was nearly naked, wearing only a loincloth; his face was young and gentle and at the same time he seemed experienced and strong-willed. I was exhausted, so as soon as he untied me, I sat with my back against the stone wall. He smiled grimly and spoke to me in Vietnamese, “You tụt tạt. You want to go over to the enemy, right?” I trembled, not knowing for sure what was meant by ‘tụt tạt’, But through the way he spoke, I thought it meant bad so I quickly answered: “No, I’m not “tụt tạt”. I lost my unit.” I barely finished saying that when something flashed in front of me and, at the same moment, I heard a sharp snap. I scrunched up. An arrow had snapped into a manioc bulb just behind my neck. The others burst out laughing but I was trembling. “Which unit are you in?” the young man asked as he pulled me back into a sitting position. 12  Trung Trung Đỉnh I quickly answered. “I am in... the 95th.” “That’s a lie!” he snapped, reaching down to scratch his ankle. A fat leech fell to the ground. He picked it up, threw it into the fire then looked at me: “You’re lying!” “I really am in the 95th,” I insisted. “Soldiers in the 95th never desert,” he declared matter-of-factly as he sat down in front of me. I was still trembling like a leaf. I had no papers, nothing. He held the manioc bulb with the arrow stuck in it, turned to say something to the others then said to me, “We’ll see.” He roasted the manioc on the charcoal fire then bent down one of the slender bamboo straws sticking out of their cần wine jar to take a drink. I lay down. “It’s not easy to bring about a revolution,” he grumbled, glancing at me. I said nothing. They all started to sing loudly without stopping. Although each of them sang in his own way, they all seemed to say similar things. I pretended to doze off, hoping they would keep on singing. Finally, I fell asleep.  I was left back in a dark corner of the cave for several days. The young man and the others, one after the other, went lost in the junge  13 out in the daytime and came back in the evening bringing in packsacks filled with manioc and wild vegetables. The women hung about all day standing near the fire tending a bubbling pot filled with soup. They ate manioc and with it, that pungent soup. I tried to eat it too but vomited as soon as the musty soup hit my throat. I finally decided to eat only some grilled manioc with salt. Every time they came back into the cave, the men stood around the cần wine jar. They would drink for a while, then sway back and forth and sing sad, monotonous songs without stopping. From time to time somebody would remember me in his drunken haze. They didn’t shoot at me or threaten me, but danced around me as if I was a sacrifice to their gods. Outside, American planes came and went all day in the sky. Machine guns fired all night. At other times, bombs exploded or we could hear the whistle of artillery shells in the air. In the cave, all was quiet and peaceful. I lived through each day, dull-witted and melancholy but at the same time worried. In reality, I wasn’t either a prisoner of war or a guest. The women paid almost no attention to me. They gave me food but quickly forgot me as soon as I lay down. I spent most of the time waiting for the young man to come back. At least when he was there, I felt less tense. The cave on that high slope was narrow and winding but fairly roomy. Water dripped out of a narrow crevasse. 14  Trung Trung Đỉnh The men had made an ingenious bamboo spout to collect it. There was enough water for cooking and making cần wine. The lives of these men and women were simple, like their need for water. In the cave, my whole body started to itch. I craved for sunlight, for a bath and for the open air. I no longer cared what might happen later. I got up and went out, pressing my body against the rocks on the path between two sharp cliffs. I was just going to slide down off the path into a coulee when I heard a shout. Not loud but sharp. “Stop! You want to get away and join the enemy, don’t you?” I stopped breathing when I felt the tip of a gun pressing against my back. I fell forward onto my chest, rigid with fear. Three or four men surrounded me and tied me up. They spoke harshly. The young man who had stopped me said nothing but forced me to go back into the cave. He watched in silence as I lay down, facing the wall, crying. It was my miserable destiny that made me cry. Before going south to fight, I couldn’t have imagined anything so terrible. I also cried in fear. The more I tried to stop, the louder my sobs seemed to get. Panic-stricken, I hid my face between my knees. In all my life, I had never felt so lonely or so filled with self-pity. During my training, and also when I was going to the south, I dreamt of terrible battles and of shouts as we attacked, pictured myself as a brave soldier wiping out the American enemy. I could not have imagined that things could ever get this bad. lost in the junge  15  As in a nightmare, I didn’t know when I wet my pants. I almost choked in gun smoke before pulling the trigger. A moment later, I stumbled and fell while trying desperately to follow Tự and Hùng, the two soldiers assigned to train me, the new recruit. I cried out in fear when they threw me into the bushes without a gun, without anything. There was only smoke and silence. A terrible silence. I couldn’t tell where I was so I couldn’t do anything. Then came the hysterical fright, and worry. I ran towards the mountain, climbed up a slope and crawled into a deserted shack. I was filled with panic and shock. Thinking of Tự and Hùng, my breath stopped. I couldn’t imagine that the battle had been real. We had set an ambush but they had ambushed us. Nothing happened like we expected. After the fear and worry came hunger and thirst. I could only think of food and drink. Nothing else. I followed a narrow path, hoping to meet someone but afraid to do so. The deep-cut path zigzagged from coulee to coulee through the jungle. I was completely focused on digging out a cassava root when they caught me. In silence.  “What’s your name?” the young man asked as he untied me. Looking at his face, I knew he felt pity for me. I wiped the tears from my eyes and tried to sit up. “I’m Bình. And you?” I asked bravely. “My name’s Bin.” 16  Trung Trung Đỉnh He laughed out loud, called me Bìn, like his own name, except that he pronounced it using a low falling tone, and said: “We have the same name. According to mountain customs, you and I are brothers.” Filled with a sense of joy, I grabbed his arm. At the same time, I wanted very much to keep the name of ‘brother’ even though I didn’t know what the custom really was. I finally felt that it was a good omen after those days of fright and terror. Bin took me to the cần wine jar then spoke to the others; then he kept on fussing over his gear. One of the men was over-excited, dancing and singing. Somebody slid a long, hollow bamboo straw into my hand and told me to take a drink. Nervous, I looked over at Bin asking him for help with my eyes. He simply said: “We’ll each drink one can.” I didn’t know how much a can was, but didn’t dare refuse his offer. I was afraid of upsetting him and the others, so I drank until he let the bamboo straw go. At first, I felt only the bitter taste of the cần wine, but it quickly went to my head. I had no food in my stomach and had never drunk beer or wine in my life. Bin put a blanket over my shoulders, and told me to lie down beside the fire. A moment later, I was asleep and didn’t wake up for a day and a half. “Are you a good shot?” Bin asked as he saw me using a banana leaf to eat baked manioc mixed with the usual thick, bitter soup. It wasn’t really ‘eating’ since I swallowed the mixture in big chunks to avoid the sharp and bitter taste. lost in the junge  17 “Yes, I can shoot okay.” It seemed best not to boast. “Do you want to stay here and be a guerrilla like us, or try to run away?” Bin asked, bracing the butt of his CKC rifle on the ground by his ragged boot. I plucked up my courage and reached out to touch his hand. “I prefer fighting our enemy.” Bin slung his gun over his shoulder and gestured for me to follow him. Worried, I tried to see what his eyes were saying, but I got up and followed him out of the cave. What was he going to do to me? I was prepared to stand on one of the sharp cliffs, and risk my life in a jump if Bin tried to shoot me. There was no other way. I deliberately kept a short distance behind him. When he wasn’t looking, I picked up a stone that I could hide in my hand. If I had to, I would throw that in his face to give me time to get away. We toiled up a hill, working our way through red and white crape myrtles. Their crinkled flowers fell around us making a gentle murmur like summer rain. Majestic tree trunks were covered with a tangle of creepers. A waterfall rumbled from somewhere above us. Bin said: “Daksut waterfall is over there.” I looked upwards to where he was pointing. In my heart, I wanted to go and see that waterfall for the first time. Bin handed me his gun and asked me to wait while he tried to see what he could find in the tangled creepers. 18  Trung Trung Đỉnh Suddenly two squirrels appeared chasing each other. Both of them ran onto the creeper in front of me. Bin waved to me and said in a low voice: “Try shooting a squirrel!” One of the squirrels stopped and looked at me, perfectly still. I raised the gun and pulled the trigger. The green creeper parted. As the dead squirrel hit the ground, Bin gave his approval. “Nice shot!” That was an unexpected piece of good luck; it would help me gain approval from Bin and the others. Bin climbed down into the deep coulee and brought back the dead squirrel. I had hit it just at the back of its head. My mind flashed back to the ten days’ leave they gave me in the regiment for getting the highest score in the third shooting practice. And that was the time, I remembered, when I kissed my girlfriend at the foot of the dike. I followed Bin back to the cave, overwhelmed by a new sense of joy. I felt ashamed that I had suspected his motives. I had made sure he didn’t see me drop the precautionary stone when he handed me his gun. After he told the others about my ‘heroic deed’, they gave me a friendlier look. I felt as if I had been let out of prison. They insisted that I drink cần wine with them and I had no wish to refuse. lost in the junge  19  I still intended to run away from them, but I didn’t feel as lonely as before. My worry and desperation had decreased, but I absolutely couldn’t live like that any more. There was almost no space between them and me. I would wait for the right moment to get away for good. The women started to smile at me. There were four women and three children. They stayed near the fire and the pot of bitter soup all day. I’m not sure why, but the fire always seemed brightest when seen from the darkest corner of the cave. Every so often, two of the women would pick up a small axe and go out to cut firewood. They held their axes and swung them smoothly, like dancers. Even though the wood they brought back was green, it caught fire right away. The four men who seemed to be their husbands went into the jungle all day to look for food and keep track of the enemy. Bin told me that enemy commandos had been airdropped everywhere. The bombing raids never stopped. Artillery guns, placed on every high point, fired on every leaf that moved. Where we were in our cave, the terrain was steep and inhospitable. It was hard to imagine that anybody could live there at all. I really wanted and needed a bath. They gave me two gourds of water so I could wash myself behind a huge rock. I still wasn’t allowed to leave the cave. One evening, I woke up and I saw Bin and the other men sitting very quietly at the front of the cave. I went over and saw an old man sitting on a huge rock slowly drinking cần wine from a small jar. Never had I seen such an old man. He sat half-naked on a small blanket. His skin was terribly 20  Trung Trung Đỉnh
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