In the summer of 1973 I had a dream in which, to my great distress, I died. I was alone in a friend’s house at the time and, not knowing what to do, I hid the body in her deep freeze. When everyone returned, I explained to them what had taken place: ‘Something terrible happened when you were out. I – I died.’
My friends were very sympathetic. ‘But what did you do with the body?’ they asked.
I was ashamed to tell them. ‘I don’t know where it is,’ I said, and we all set out to search the house for my corpse. Upstairs and downstairs we looked, until finally, unable to bear the deception any longer, I took my hostess aside and confessed. ‘There wasn’t anything else in the compartment,’ I said, ‘and I just didn’t know what to do.’ We went to the deep freeze and opened it. As the curled and frozen shape was revealed, I woke up.
I was glad to be going off on a journey. I had been awarded a bursary for the purpose of travelling and writing poetry; I intended to stay out of England a long time. Looking at what the world had to offer, I thought either Africa or Indochina would be the place to go. I chose Indochina partly on a whim, and partly because, after the Paris Peace Accords in January of that same year, it looked as if it was in for some very big changes. The essence of the agreement was that it removed American military personnel from Indochina and stopped the B-52 bombing raids. The question was how long could the American-backed regime last without that accustomed support. I wanted to see Vietnam for myself. I wanted to see a war, and I wanted to see a communist victory, which I presumed to be inevitable. I wanted to see the fall of a city.
I wanted to see a communist victory because, in common with many people, I believed that the Americans had not the slightest justification for their interference in Indochina. I admired the Vietcong and, by extension, the Khmer Rouge, but I subscribed to a philosophy that prided itself on taking a cool, critical look at the liberation movements of the Third World. I, and many others like me, supported these movements against the ambitions of American foreign policy. We supported them as nationalist movements. We did not support their political character, which we perceived as Stalinist in the case of the Vietnamese, and in the case of the Cambodians . . . I don’t know. The theory was, and is, that when a genuine movement of national liberation was fighting against imperialism it received our unconditional support. When such a movement had won, then it might well take its place among the governments we execrated – those who ruled by sophisticated tyranny in the name of socialism.
There was also an argument that Stalinism was not a simple equivalent of Fascism, that it contained what was called a partial negation of capitalism. Further, under certain conditions it might even lay down the foundations of a socialist organisation of society. In the Third World, Stalinism might do the job which the bourgeois revolutions had done in Europe. Even Stalinism had its progressive features.
Our attitudes may have looked cynical in the extreme. In fact they were the formulation of a dilemma. After all, we had not invented the Indochina War, and it was not for us to conjure out of thin air a movement that would match up to our own aspirations for Britain. To remain neutral over Vietnam was to support the Americans. To argue for an end to all US involvement, and leave the matter at that, was to ignore the consequences of one’s own argument. If there was a conflict on which one had to choose sides, then it was only right to choose sides honestly, and say: ‘Stalinists they may be, but we support them.’ The slogans of the Vietnam movement were crude stuff indeed – ‘One side right, one side wrong, victory to . . . Vi-et-cong!’ – but the justice of the cause was deeply felt.
This feeling was shared by many people who were not socialists or communists by any stretch of the imagination, and who did not have any other political axe to grind. Such people had merely to look at what was being done to Vietnam in the name of the Free World to know that the Free World was in the wrong. The broadest support for the anti-war movement was engendered by a disgust at what the Americans were doing. In Britain, the Communist Party made precious few gains in this period. The tradition to which the students looked was broadly or narrowly Trotskyist, a fact that no doubt intrigued the Vietnamese communists, who had taken care to bump off their own Trotskyists a long time before. But the Trotskyist emphasis, like the general emphasis, was again in opposition to American imperialism. Very few people idolised the Vietcong, or the North Vietnamese, or Uncle Ho, in quite the same way that, for instance, the French Left did. Indeed, it might be fairly said that the Left in Britain was not terribly curious about or enamoured of the Vietnamese movement it was supporting.
By the time I was about to go to Indochina, the issue had fallen from prominence. When the Indochina Solidarity Conference was held in London that year, my own group, the International Socialists, did not bother to send a delegation. There were other, more important campaigns: against the Tories, against the Industrial Relations Act, against racism. Our movement had grown up: it was to be working class in character; it had graduated from what it thought of as student issues. It had not abandoned Vietnam, but it had other fish to fry. At the conference itself, I remember two speeches of interest. One was by I.F. Stone, who was hissed by the audience (which included an unusually large number of Maoists) when he attacked Chairman Mao for shaking hands with a murderer like Nixon. The other was by Noam Chomsky, who warned against the assumption that the war was over, and that direct US intervention in Vietnam would cease. Chomsky argued that the Left were wrong to dismiss the ‘Domino Theory’ out of hand. As stated by the Cold Warriors it might not measure up to the facts, but there was another formulation which did indeed make sense; it was US foreign policy, rather than Russian expansionism, which knocked over the dominoes: countries might be forced into positions where the only alternative to accepting American domination was to go over to the opposite camp and would thus be drawn into the power struggle whether they liked it or not.
I mention such arguments because I do not wish to give the impression that I was completely wide-eyed about the Vietnamese communists when I set out. I considered myself a revolutionary socialist, of the kind who believes in no Fatherland of the Revolution, and has no cult hero. My political beliefs were fairly broadly based and instinctively grasped, but they were not, I hope, religiously held.
But I wanted very much to see a communist victory. Although I had a few journalist commissions, I was not going primarily as a journalist. I wanted to see a war and the fall of a city because – because I wanted to see what such things were like. I had once seen a man dying, from natural causes, and my first reaction, as I realised what was taking place, was that I was glad to be there. This is what happens, I thought, so watch it carefully, don’t miss a detail. The first time I saw a surgical operation (it was in Cambodia) I experienced the same sensation, and no doubt when I see a child born it will be even more powerful. The point is simply in being there and seeing it. The experience has no essential value beyond itself.
I spent a long time on my preparations and, as my dream of dying might indicate, I had developed some fairly morbid apprehensions. The journey itself was to be utterly selfish. I was going to do exactly as I pleased. As far as political beliefs were concerned, they were going to remain ‘on the table’. Everything was negotiable. But the fear of death, which had begun for the first time to enter my calculations, followed me on my journey. As I went through the passport check at Heathrow, I glanced at the Sunday papers and saw that the poet I most admired, W.H. Auden, had just died in Vienna. People were talking about him in the passenger lounge, or rather they weren’t talking about him, they were talking about his face.
I kept seeing the face, on the plane, in the transit lounges, on the empty seat next to mine, and I kept remembering Auden. From the start he had willed himself into old age, and it was not surprising that he had not lived longer. He had courted death, cultivated first eccentricity and then what looked to the world very much like senility. It was not senility, but it was a useful cover for his despair of living, the deep unhappiness which he kept concealed. He had held the world very much at arm’s length, and had paid a heavy price for doing so.
Between sleeping and reading, I found myself passing through a depression compounded of one part loneliness, one part uneager anticipation, one part fright and two parts obscure self-pity. In Bombay the depression began to lift: I slept all morning at the Sea Palace Hotel, then, surrendering to the good offices of a driver and guide, set off to see the sights. The evening light was first a muddy yellow; next it turned green. On the Malabar Hill, I paid my respects to the spectacular view, the vultures picking the bones on the Parsee tower, the lights along the waterfront (‘Queen Victoria’s Necklace’) and the couples sitting on the lawns of the Hanging Gardens, in attitudes reminiscent of a Mogul miniature. The most impressive sight was a vast open-air laundry, a yard full of boiling vats between which, through the dark and steam, one could scarcely make out the moving figures of the workers. There was a steamy warmth everywhere, which I liked immediately. Waking the next morning, I looked down on a wide meandering river, either the Salween or the Irrawaddy, whose muddy waters spread out for miles into the sea. Seen from the plane, the landscape of the Far East was dazzling, silver and blue. You could tell you had arrived in Indochina when you saw the rows and rows of yellow circles, where muddy water had filled the bomb craters.
Fear of Madness: November 1973
‘I know not whether others share my feelings on this point,’ wrote De Quincey, ‘but I have often thought that if I were compelled to forego England, and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad.’ I read this sentence the other day, for the first time, and as I came to the last clause I was struck once again with the full nausea of my first trip to Vietnam. ‘The causes of my horror lie deep,’ De Quincey went on. But he set them forth beautifully:
No man can pretend that the wild, barbarous, and capricious superstitions of Africa, or of savage tribes elsewhere, affect him in the way that he is affected by the ancient, monumental, cruel, and elaborate religions of Indostan, etc. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c. is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to me an antediluvian renewed . . . Man is a weed in those regions.
I was impressed, overawed, by the scale and age of the subject: a war that had been going on for longer than I had been alive, a people about whose history and traditions I knew so little. I had read some books in preparation, but the effect of doing so was only to make the country recede further. So much had been written about Vietnam. I hadn’t even had the application to finish Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake. The purpose of the book seemed to be to warn you off the subject.
I could well have believed that somebody was trying to tell me something when I came out of my room on the first morning in Saigon and stepped over the decapitated corpse of a rat. I was staying, as most British journalists did, in the Hotel Royale, but even there I felt something of an intruder. I had to find work, I had to sell some stories, but I was afraid of trespassing on somebody else’s patch. There was an epidemic of infectious neurosis at the time: as soon as one journalist had shaken it off, another would succumb. It would attack without warning – in the middle of an otherwise amiable meal, in the bars, in your room. And it could be recurrent, like malaria.
The reason for the neurosis was not far to seek; indeed it sought you out, and pursued you throughout the day: Saigon was an addicted city, and we were the drug; the corruption of children, the mutilation of young men, the prostitution of women, the humiliation of the old, the division of the family, the division of the country – it had all been done in our name. People looked back to the French Saigon with a sentimental warmth, as if the problem had begun with the Americans. But the French city, the ‘Saigon of the piastre’ as Lucien Bodard called it, had represented the opium stage of the addiction. With the Americans had begun the heroin phase, and what I was seeing now was the first symptoms of withdrawal. There was a desperate edge to life. It was impossible to relax for a moment. The last of the American troops had left at the end of March, six months before I arrived, and what I saw now was what they left behind: a vast service industry clamouring for the attention of a dwindling number of customers: Hey, you! American! Change money, buy Time magazine, give me back Time magazine I sell you yesterday, buy Stars and Stripes, give me back Stars and Stripes, you number one, you number ten, you number ten thousand Yankee, you want number one fuck, you want Quiet American, you want Ugly American, you give me money I shine shoes, number one, no sweat . . . on and on, the passionate pursuit of money.
The bar at the Royale was half-open to the street. The coffee at breakfast tasted of diarrhoea. You washed it down with Bireley’s orangeade (‘Refreshing . . . and no carbonation!’). Through the windows peered the shoeshine boys – Hey! You! It was starting up again. One morning I was ignoring a particularly revolting specimen when he picked up a handful of sand which he pretended to eat: ‘You! You no give me money, you want I eat shit!’ His expression, as he brought the dirt to his mouth, was most horrible. It was impossible to imagine how a boy of that age had acquired such features: he was about ten, but his face contained at least thirty years of degeneration and misery. A few days later I did give him my boots to clean. He sat down in the corner of the bar and set to work, first with a matchstick and a little water, meticulously removing all the mud and dust from the welt, then with the polish. The whole process took about half an hour, and the barman and I watched him throughout, in fascination. He was determined to show his superiority to all other contestants in the trade. I was amused, and gave him a large sum. He was furious; it wasn’t nearly enough. We haggled for a while, but I finally gave in. I gave him about a pound. The next day, at the same time, he came into the bar; his eyes were rolling back in their sockets and he staggered helplessly around the tables and chairs. I do not know what he had taken, but I knew how he had bought it.
Of all the ingenious and desperate forms of raising money, the practice of drugging your baby and laying the thing on the pavement in front of the visitor seemed to me the most repulsive. It did not take long to see that none of these children was ever awake during the day, or that, if asleep, something was amiss. Among the foreigners, stories circulated about the same baby being seen in the arms of five different mothers in one week, but the beggar who regularly sat outside the Royale always had the same child, a girl of eighteen months or so. I never gave any money either to the girl and her ‘mother’, or to any of the other teams.
‘No,’ she replied.
‘But the child is sick.’
‘If baby go to hospital or doctor’ – and here she imitated an injection – ‘then baby die.’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘if baby don’t go to hospital maybe baby die.’
I took the girl out into the street, where the scene had become grotesque. All the beggars I had ever seen in Saigon seemed to have gathered, and from their filthy garments they were producing pins and sticking them under the child’s toenails. ‘You see,’ I said to the girl, ‘no good, number ten. Baby need number one hospital.’
‘No, my grandmother had same-same thing. She need this – number one.’ And the receptionist produced a small phial of eucalyptus oil.
‘That’s not number one,’ I said, ‘that’s number ten. Number ten thousand,’ I added for emphasis. But it was no good insisting or appealing to other members of the crowd. Everybody was adamant that if the child was taken to hospital, the doctor would kill it with an injection. While I correspondingly became convinced that a moment’s delay would cost the child’s life.
Finally, after a long eucalyptus massage and repeated pricking of the fingers and toes had produced no visible results, I seemed to win. If I would pay for taxi and hospital, the woman would come. I pushed my way through the crowd and dragged her towards the taxi – a battered old Renault tied together with string. The baby was wrapped in tarpaulin and her face covered with a red handkerchief. Every time I tried to remove the handkerchief, from which came the most ominous dry gaspings, the woman replaced it. I directed the taxi-man to take us to number one hospital and we set off.
From the start everything went wrong. Within a hundred yards we had to stop for petrol. Then a van stalled in front of us, trapping the taxi. Next, to my amazement, we came to what must have been, I thought, the only level crossing in Saigon, where as it happened a train was expected in the near future. And around here we were hit by the side effects of Typhoon Sarah, which at the time was causing havoc in the northern provinces. We also split a tyre, though this was not noticed till later. Driving on through the cloudburst, the taxi-man seemed strangely unwilling to hurry. So I sat in the back seat keeping one hand on the horn and with the other attempting to ease the baby’s breathing by loosening the tarpaulin around her neck. I also recall from time to time producing a third arm with which to comfort the old woman, and I remember that her shoulder, when my hand rested on it, was very small and very hard. Everything, I said, was going to be number one, OK: number one hospital, number one doctor, baby-san OK. We were travelling through Cholon, the Chinese quarter, on an errand of Western mercy.
All things considered, it took a long time for it to dawn on me that we were not going to a hospital at all. We even passed a first-aid post without the taxi-man giving it a glance. In my mind there was an image of the sort of thing required: a large cool building dating from French times, recently refurbished by American aid and charity, with some of the best equipment in the East. I could even imagine the sententious plaques on the walls. Perhaps there would be a ward named after the former US Ambassador. It would be called the Bunker Ward.
It was when the old woman began giving directions that I saw I had been duped. We were threading our way through some modern slums, which looked like the Chinese equivalent of the Isle of Dogs. ‘Where is the hospital? This is no hospital,’ I said.
‘Yes, yes,’ the taxi-man replied, ‘we are going to hospital, number one doctor.’
We stopped by a row of shops and the taxi-man got out. I jumped from the car and seized him by the arm, shouting: ‘I said number one hospital. You lie. You cheap charlie. You number ten thousand Saigon.’ We were surrounded by children, in the pouring rain, the taxi-man tugging himself free, and me gripping him by the arm. It was left to the woman, carrying the little bundle of tarpaulin, to find out exactly where the doctor lived. Finally I gave in, and followed her up some steps, then along an open corridor lined with tailors and merchants. At least, I thought, when the baby dies I can’t be blamed. And once I had had that thought, it turned into a wish: a little cough would have done it, a pathetic gurgle, then silence, and my point about Western medicine would have been proved to my own satisfaction. I should have behaved very well, and would have paid for the funeral.
In retrospect it was easy to see how the establishment would command confidence: the dark main room with its traditional furnishings, the walls lined with photographs of ancestors in traditional Vietnamese robes, a framed jigsaw of the Italian lakes. And in the back room (it would, of course, have to be a back room) a plump, middle-aged lady was massaging the back of another plump, middle-aged lady. They paid hardly any attention when we came in. There was not the slightest element of drama. Indeed, I began to see that I was now the only person who was panicking. When she had finished the massage, the doctor turned her attention to the baby. First she took some ointment from a dirty bowl at her elbow, and rubbed it all over the little grey body. Then from another bowl she produced some pink substance resembling Euthymol toothpaste, with which she proceeded to line the mouth. In a matter of minutes, the child was slightly sick, began to cry, and recovered. I had never been more furious in my life. To complete my humiliation, the doctor refused any payment. She provided the old woman with a prescription wrapped in newspaper, and we left.
We drove to the miserable shelter in which the old woman lived.
‘Sit down,’ she said, indicating the wooden bed which was the only feature of her home apart from the roof (there were no walls).
In any other mood I might have been moved by the fact that the only English she knew beyond the terrible pidgin currency of the beggars was a phrase of hospitality. But I so deeply hated her at that moment that I could only give her a couple of pounds, plus some useless advice about keeping the baby warm and off the pavements, and go.
I left the taxi-man at a garage not far from the Royale, where I also gave him some money towards repairing the split tyre.
‘You number one, Saigon,’ he said, with a slight note of terror in his voice.
The weather had cleared up, and I left him, strolling along past the market stalls. Here, you could buy US Army foot powder in bulk, K-rations, lurp-rations (for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols), souvenir Zippo lighters (engraved yea though i walk through the valley of the shadow of death i shall fear no evil, for i am the evilest sonofabitch in the valley), khaki toothbrushes and flannels, and model helicopters constructed out of used hypodermics. You could also buy jackets brightly embroidered with the words when i die i shall go to heaven, for i have spent my time in hell – saigon, and a collection of GI cartoons and jokes called Sorry ’bout that, Vietnam. Five years ago, there had been over 500,000 American GIs. Now there were none.
As I approached the hotel people began asking how the baby was, and smiling when I replied, ‘OK.’ I began to think: Supposing they were all in it together? Suppose the old woman, the taxi driver, the man whose van stalled, the engine driver – suppose they were all now dividing the proceeds and having a good laugh at my expense, congratulating the child on the way it had played its role? That evening I would be telling the story to some old Saigon hand when a strange pitying smile would come over his face. ‘You went to Cholon, did you? Describe the doctor . . . uh-huh . . . Was there a jigsaw puzzle of the Italian Lakes? Well, well, well. So they even used the toothpaste trick. Funny how the oldest gags are still the best . . .’
Indeed I did have rather that conversation a few days later, with an American girl, a weaver. It began: ‘You realise, of course, first of all that the taxi driver was the husband of the old woman . . .’ But I do not think there was a conspiracy. Worse, I should rather conclude that the principals involved were quite right not to trust the hospital doctors with a beggar’s child. It was for this reason that the hotel receptionist had countermanded my orders to the taxi-man, I learned afterwards, and many people agreed with her.
When the old woman came back on the streets, I hardly recognised either her or the child, who for the first time looked conscious and well. ‘Baby-san OK now, no sick,’ she said, gazing at me with an awful adoring expression, though the hand was not stretched out for money. And when I didn’t reply she turned to the child and told it something in the same unctuous tones. This performance went on for the rest of my stay: whenever I was around the child would be made to look at the kind foreigner who had saved its life. I had indeed wanted to save the child’s life, but not in that way, not on the old woman’s terms.
I was disgusted, not just at what I saw around me, but at what I saw in myself. I saw how perilously thin was the line between the charitable and the murderous impulse, how strong the force of righteous indignation. I could well imagine that most of those who came to Vietnam to fight were not the evilest sons-of-bitches in the valley. It was just that, beyond the bright circle illuminated by their intelligence, in which everything was under their control and every person a compliant object, they came across a second person – a being or a nation with a will of its own, with its own medicine, whether Fishing Pills or pink toothpaste, and its own ideas for the future. And in the ensuing encounter everything had turned to justifiable ashes. It was impossible in Saigon to be the passive observer. Saigon cast you, inevitably, into the role of the American.
Elsewhere it was possible to breathe more freely, but I was conscious always of following in somebody else’s footsteps. On a trip to Quang Tri, the northernmost city in South Vietnam, I asked my driver how far away was the town. ‘This is the main street,’ he said, indicating the overgrown rubble. We stopped and walked to the edge of the river, looking across to the liberated zone and the still figures of the soldiers on the Other Side. I had heard endless stories of people’s exploits in Quang Tri, but it meant nothing to me. There was no point in my being there. I was more at ease in Hué. I walked around the Imperial City in the rain, through the beautiful, shabby grounds that looked like the vegetable gardens of an English country house. But I was nothing more than a tourist. Once, I thought I was actually going to meet someone important when a Vietnamese took me to see a woman. But the woman was his girlfriend, whom he was hoping to marry. She worked in a chemist’s shop, and when we arrived the drill was simply that I should go in, buy some aspirin or something, look at her, and tell her boyfriend what I thought. He waited outside for my opinion. I gave the girl a warm recommendation.
I am a fairy from the moon.
You are my happiness. When the sun sets
The river will be without water
And the rocks will scrape.
Our promises will be forever.
There was a war going on, but the nearest I got to it was in Gia Nghia, a former American base in the Quang Duc region. It had been a great feat of engineering: the wide roads of red earth cut through the jungle, the vast clearing. There were little signs of America everywhere, the half-caste children, even the dogs of the area were mongrels from the American trackers. There was a dog’s footprint on a concrete floor, with the words ‘Our Mascot (MACV)’ scratched beside it. There were drunken Montagnards wandering round, and in the marketplace, which sported two billiard saloons, a soldier was smoking marijuana through a waterpipe made out of an anti-tank shell. There was music and the sound of motorbikes from the Wall of Death, but when we went in the evening and asked them to open it up we found the family asleep on the track.
The USAID compound had a commanding view of the town. A Montagnard soldier, with huge stretched earlobes, stood on guard outside. Inside, leaning over a short-wave radio, was Ed Sprague, the local USAID official and the only American I ever met in the field. He was marking positions on a map. There was a rifle propped against the wall and a neatly polished revolver on the table. The rest of the room was magnificently equipped, with photos, souvenirs, stereo tape-recorder, cocktail bar, Montagnard girl, soft furnishings. Above the bar, engraved on copper and nicely framed, were the sayings of Sprague himself:
The Special Forces have done so much for nothing for so long that now we are expected to do everything for nothing for ever.
If you kick me once in the back when I’m not looking I’ll kick you twice in the face when you are looking.
– Sprague ’71
He was very polite, but the USAID compound had no room to put us up, so we went to the local hotel in town. The South Vietnamese helicopter pilots were billeted there, and I spent the evening playing Co Tuong (‘Kill the General’), the Chinese and Vietnamese version of chess. The round wooden pieces were engraved with Chinese characters, and the board was made of paper. A river flowed down the middle of the board, separating the two rows of GIs, who had to move forward, one square at a time, until they crossed the river, after which they might move in any direction. Just behind the GIs lay the two artillery pieces, which might fire in straight lines at any of the pieces, as long as there was some single obstruction in between. The horses made knights’ moves, and could cross the river, as could the tanks, which were the equivalent of rooks. But the elephants, which always moved two squares at a time, diagonally, were unable to cross the river and were reserved for the defence. The general was protected by his officer escort. He lived in a compound of four squares. The red general must never ‘see’ the black general – that is, there must always be something in between.
‘This is the black general,’ said my teacher. ‘He is Ho Chi Minh. This is the red general. He is Thieu.’
‘But Ho Chi Minh is dead.’
‘I know. I killed him in the last game.’
I also spent some time in the billiard saloons, collecting Vietnamese jokes from the pilots. The jokes were different in character from Cambodian jokes, which were all about sex. Here is a typical Cambodian joke. A mosquito is caught in a storm and takes shelter in an elephant’s cunt. (Roars of laughter.) After the storm, the mosquito meets a friend.
‘Did you know what that was you were sheltering in just then?’ says the second mosquito.
‘It was an elephant’s cunt.’ (Further roars of laughter, particularly from the women.)
‘Oh,’ says the first mosquito, flexing his muscles, ‘a pity I didn’t know that. If I’d realized it was an elephant’s cunt I might have done something about it!’ (Hysterical laughter, old men clutch their sides, tears course down the faces of the women, food and wine are produced and the teller of the joke is asked for more.)
Vietnamese jokes were all about tactics. This is one: during the Tet Offensive in 1968, the Vietcong blew up the central span of the main bridge over the Perfume River, and for some time afterwards planks were put across, and the bridge was very dangerous. A young and beautiful girl was walking home from the school in which she taught (nods of interest, audience leans forward and is very quiet) when she fell into the water (smiles), which was most unfortunate because she could not swim (smiles disappear). So she started calling out, ‘Help me, help me,’ and a large crowd gathered on the river bank, but none of the young men wanted to help her (expressions completely disappear). So the girl called out: ‘If anybody jumps in and saves me, I will marry him.’ (Smiles.) At this point all the young men rushed forward, but every time one of them reached the edge of the water (smiles) another man pulled him back, because every one wanted to marry the young girl (smiles disappear, anxiety expressed on faces of young men). And so the girl was very near to drowning, when an old man succeeded in getting into the water and saving the girl.
At the wedding, he was asked by the press: ‘How come a weak and ugly old man like you managed to win the girl, when all the young men were trying?’
And the old man replied: ‘Every time a young man tried to get in, he was pulled back by another. But when an old and ugly man like me appeared on the scene, they didn’t bother to pull me back. In fact they pushed me in.’ (End of joke. Heads nod. There is a little laughter.)
Later when I was in the city Hué, I tried this joke out, and the effect at the end of the story was striking. First, there was a silence. Then I was asked to repeat the punchline. Then all hell broke loose, and I thought for a moment that I might be chucked into the Perfume River myself. After several minutes of animated conversation the company turned back to me. They had two comments: Primo, the young men were right in the first place not to jump in – after all, they might have been killed. Secundo, the story was not true.
While not collecting jokes or playing Chinese chess I was trying to find out about the war. This was difficult. Some of the small outposts that now represented the division between North and South and that were dotted around the mountains – they had names like Bu Prang and Bu Bong – were under attack. The helicopter squadron with which I was staying was here to give support to these outposts. There was a low-level campaign on the part of the Vietcong to wipe out these little impediments, which were used by the South Vietnamese as listening posts along the region of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and which had been set up largely by the Special Forces in which Sprague had served. Now the campaign was under the aegis of Saigon, and these outposts were beginning to fall. At one point my chess-master produced a hand-drawn map and started to show me what was happening, but he didn’t get far before somebody came into the room, and he shoved the map quickly into his pocket.
We slept seven or eight to a room, and in the middle of the night I awoke to the sound of rifle fire. There was an extraordinary noise going on, and I suddenly thought – Good God! They’re attacking Gia Nghia. They’re coming into the camp and blowing whistles. Why are they all blowing whistles? They’re blowing whistles in order to tell each other where they are, perhaps to create a panic in the camp . . . Panic!
I got up and went to the window. One of the soldiers burst out laughing. There was no gunfire any more: a soldier had shot at a shadow, perhaps. The noise of whistles, though it continued, was nothing more than the noise of the jungle. Go back to bed, you idiot.
During this period, moving from one outpost to another, I often suffered from nightmares. It was as if some great spade was digging through my mind, turning over deep clods of loam. If Saigon was a nightmare by day, it was to Phnom Penh that my thoughts returned at night. In Saigon, I was shown some photographs that had come in from Cambodia, which Associated Press had decided were too horrible to use. In one, a smiling soldier was shown eating the liver of a Khmer Rouge, whom he had just killed; from the expression on his face, he could have been eating anything – the liver was obviously delicious. In the next photograph, a human head was being lowered by the hair into a pot of boiling water – but it was not going to be eaten. In the third photograph, decapitated corpses were being dragged along the road behind an armoured patrol carrier.
My nightmares were about war and torture and death. I remember one particularly vividly. We were standing, myself and a friend who was a poet, at the edge of a battle. The landscape was hilly, but belonged neither to Cambodia nor to Vietnam; it seemed to be northern European. The soldiers had taken several prisoners, and there were wounded and dead lying all around. Their features were Cambodian. As the prisoners were brought in, it became obvious that they were about to be beaten up and killed. The soldiers gathered round them. The poet began to shout out: ‘No, no, this isn’t happening. I’m not here, I’m not here.’ When the beatings began, all the bodies of the dead and wounded rose into the air, and began to travel around the sky above the hill.
‘Look,’ I said, pointing to the hill, ‘isn’t that interesting? Those figures. They look just like the shepherds in that van der Goes altarpiece in the Uffizi.’
‘I say,’ said a journalist at my elbow, ‘that’s a rather good image. But I suppose you’ll be using it in your story.’
‘Oh no,’ I replied, ‘have it by all means. I’m not filing on this one.’ Here the dream ended.
After a month, I returned to Saigon. I was due to go to Laos, and my visa was coming to an end. I paid up at my hotel, and by the time I was through immigration at the airport I had no currency left. I was badly in need of a coffee, and I was absolutely terrified that the plane would not come. Suppose I had to stay in Saigon any longer? The neurosis came back alarmingly. I got talking to a Chinese businessman, whom I had helped with his luggage. He bought me a coffee and began a lengthy chat about the virtues of South Vietnam as a source of raw materials. Raw materials were very much needed in Hong Kong. He dealt in anything he could find – here was his card – in timber, scrap iron, swatches . . .
‘What are swatches?’ I asked.
‘Rags,’ he said, ‘like these,’ and indicated my clothes. Then he left for Hong Kong.
I just did not believe that my plane would go. As it taxied along the runway, a cockroach scuttled along the floor in front of me. I thought, This plane is hopeless, it’ll never make the journey. We flew for some way along the Mekong, and the neurosis subsided. Then suddenly I looked out and – what! We were flying over the sea! Something’s gone wrong, I thought, the pilot’s got lost, he’s going to turn back and go to Saigon. It’s all going to happen over again. But then I looked down and saw that the sea effect was a mirage. We were indeed flying over Laos, and we were beginning to lose height.