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Crossing the River

By Nguyen Huy Thiep

Edited by Nguyen Nguyet Cam and Dana Sachs

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Review by Allison Martin

Crossing the River is the largest collection of Nguyen Huy Thiep's literature available in an English translation. This has been a difficult book to review, as I find Nguyen Huy Thiep's writing too complex to characterize. Apparently I am not alone in this, as his writing has resulted in a great body of literary and political discussion in Vietnam these past 20 years. Nguyen Huy Thiep has been praised for his precise and poetical prose style and humanitarian approach, and deplored for being gloomy, mocking of heroes and tradition, and denying the existence of traditional values of family and society. One word I would personally use to describe his work is lyrical, and yet another word would be stark. In fact he evokes a contradictory experience, which defies characterization. The stories seem simple, often depressing, and yet they have a grace and underlying imagery that is captivating.

This collection presents a group of stories in different formats and writing styles. They include reworking of folk tales, oral traditions of Thai and Muong minority communities, and short stories. A recurring theme explores the inadequacy of heroes and traditional beliefs. However, much of the imagery, surroundings, and events are steeped in Buddhist and Vietnamese moral philosophy and Vietnamese myth and history. Most of his characters strive for success and happiness, yet they seem sadly lost without guiding values and vision. But, I would not describe this as an overwhelmingly depressing book. In many ways, this juxtaposition of aware struggle and darkly humorous acceptance seems like a quintessential feature of Vietnamese culture.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in literature or who wishes a glimpse inside modern Vietnamese imagery. Nguyen Huy Thiep's work has had a deep impact on today's Vietnamese literature. In addition, his stories have been translated in French, German, Chinese, Japanese and English, and three have been made into films. Nguyen Nguyet Cam and Dana Sachs are to be complemented for gathering the works of this unique author into one book, so its depths can be explored to our enrichment.

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