Ho Chi Minh in Love
- The Zenith by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Stephen Young and Hoa Pham Young
Viking US, 509 pp, £25.00, August 2012, ISBN 978 0 670 02375 2
A few weeks after leaving university many years ago, I was lunched by a publisher. ‘What book would you most like to write?’ he asked. The war in Indochina was beginning to escalate, with more and more US ‘advisers’ arriving after the defeat of their local stand-ins at the battle of Ap Bac in January 1963. I had sabotaged my finals by bringing Vietnam into every answer. I had responded to one economics question that asked us to detail the cheapest form of subsidised transport in the world by noting that US helicopters carrying soldiers into the jungle did not charge at all. There was a slight drawback: they often returned without their passengers. My answer to the publisher’s question, therefore, maintained a certain continuity: ‘A biography of Ho Chi Minh.’ Did I read French? No. Vietnamese? No. ‘Well,’ Anthony Blond said thoughtfully, ‘you better start a crash course in French straight away and now let’s go back to my office and send Ho a telegram.’ We did. A month later there was an excited call from Blond. ‘Come to the office immediately. A fascinating telegram from Ho.’ That he bothered to reply at all had created excitement in the office. The message was unequivocal: ‘Thank you for your interest. The thought of you writing my biography never occurred to me. Ho Chi Minh.’
Just as well. It would have been impossible to discover anything new, though I would have liked to know where Ho had lodged in Crouch End while working as a waiter in a local greasy spoon. Was it near my bedsit? But what the Vietnamese leader wanted the world to know about him was already in the public domain. Born in 1890 to a middle-ranking mandarin family, Nguyen Tat Thanh – the name he took at the age of ten – grew up in the village of Kim Lien in Nghe An province, a couple of hundred miles south of Hanoi. His father was a Confucian scholar who worked as an administrator till he lost his job for ordering the flogging of a landlord – the misdemeanour has not been specified. His mother did the hard work in the fields and on the loom to help earn money to feed and educate the children. The Frenchman who taught Ho history, an ardent Jacobin, was pleased to observe his pupil’s radicalisation. Ho became a nationalist who, like many of his generation, wanted to free his country from French domination, if necessary, by the Robespierrean combination of virtue and terror.
In 1911 he left for Marseille, leaving behind a landlord’s daughter with whom he had fallen in love. His aim was to broaden his mind and, most important, to meet other Vietnamese nationalist students already in France. He did not linger in the south, moving rapidly to Paris and later London. ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you are,’ he told an American journalist in 1946, ‘the important thing is to know where you’re going.’ He had no doubts: he was going to liberate his country by recruiting others to the noble cause. He got involved with the French Socialist Party, some of whose leaders were staunch opponents of French colonialism. One of them, Marcel Cachin, advised him to go to Versailles, where the peace conference was taking place, and argue the case for Vietnamese self-rule. One of Woodrow Wilson’s aides met him briefly, but self-determination was a privilege restricted to Europeans (though not Germans). He looks awkward in the photograph taken at Versailles, a sleek, well-dressed young man who found it difficult to manage the obligatory smile.
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