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.
The rebuff radicalised him further. At the Socialist Party Congress in Tours in 1920, he backed the pro-Bolshevik faction that created the French Communist Party, thus becoming a founder member. Officially, he first visited Moscow in 1923, not long before Lenin died, but a photograph with Trotsky published in the 2003 biography by Pierre Brocheux suggests he was there in 1921. In London, he learned English and worked as a waiter, first in the greasy spoon, then in a posh West End restaurant. A plaque in Piccadilly suggests that he was apprenticed as a sous-chef to Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel. In State and Revolution Lenin had written that the final goal of communism was the ‘withering away’ of all oppressive structures, a time when any cook could run the state. Perhaps Ho had that in mind. At the end of his life Lenin said that Stalin should be removed as general secretary: ‘this cook,’ he said, ‘will prepare only peppery dishes.’ (Of course, the more peppery a dish, the more popular it would be in Indochina. A young waitress at the Reunification Hotel in Hanoi giggled with pleasure as I ate all the chilies from a decorative plant on the dining table in 1966. Despite this display of Punjabi manhood I wasn’t allowed to accompany her to the rooftop later on to fire a few salvoes from the anti-aircraft guns at the long-distance bombers. The guests were firmly told to stay in the air-raid shelter.)
The young Ho Chi Minh soon gave up his culinary endeavours and became a full-time revolutionary working for the Communist International. He was dispatched to China to link up with Vietnamese exiles there and organise the Indochinese Communist Party, a task he performed well. His travels through China in the late 1920s, as the civil war began, and the friendships he established with Chinese communist leaders would have made a fascinating memoir. No such luck: only photographs survive. Hong Kong was a crucial base of operations for Vietnamese and Chinese revolutionaries and here Ho fell in love again and, in October 1926, married Tang Tuyet Minh, a Chinese communist from a Catholic family. He was condemned to death in absentia by a colonial Vietnamese court in 1930 and went underground. The following year he was arrested by the British in Hong Kong and deported two years later. He never saw Minh again: after the Vietnamese revolution in 1945 he was portrayed as the father of the nation who had given up all personal involvement for the sake of the revolution and all their attempts to contact each other were rebuffed by the Politburos of both countries. Minh died in 1991.
Most biographies of Ho mention his personal life only in passing. This might seem refreshing, but in Ho’s case the personal is tied to the political. The Vietnamese novelist Duong Thu Huong has spent 15 years researching one story in particular, and a gruesome tale it turns out to be.
The Zenith interweaves four related stories, but the heart of the novel is a fictionalised account of Ho Chi Minh’s tragic and hidden affair with a much younger woman in the 1950s. Duong portrays Ho as a good man surrounded by evil subordinates. There is a riveting account of a Politburo attempt to kill him when he is returning from a visit to China, but instead of crashing the plane into a lake the pilot lands it safely. Duong describes the leader looking sadly at the pilots and his guards, knowing full well that they won’t have much longer to live.
Duong’s own political credentials are impeccable: she fought in the war against the United States (her father was a veteran of the anti-French resistance), and chronicled Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 war on her country (fought largely to demonstrate China’s willingness to kowtow to Washington and to punish Hanoi for having removed Pol Pot from power). She was expelled from the Communist Party for writing a set of devastating novels depicting life from below during the war and giving a scornful account of postwar disillusion, and later imprisoned. A few years ago she went into exile in Paris. She wrote about the struggles of ordinary people, and her work was hugely popular. (The original of The Zenith has been downloaded more than 25 million times.) She evoked lives unknown to historians but only too real for the mass of the population. Novel without a Name (1991), an account of the last phase of the war against the US, is rightly regarded as a masterpiece in Vietnam. In it Duong, dispensing with official notions of heroism, writes instead of a generation that had no option but to resist the occupation, young men and women physically toughened by the experience, who sacrificed a great deal and hoped for a better life after the war. But their hopes were betrayed and disillusion soon set in. In Beyond Illusions (1987), we see how bureaucracy takes over everyday life. An intelligent and independent journalist is sucked into the machine. His wife leaves him in disgust. She has an affair with a composer, then realises that he, too, has been compromised by the system. Many communist veterans began to despise a life that had seemed necessary during the war but after the victory was more alienating than anything else. People couldn’t decide anything for themselves. Petty bureaucrats made life difficult in villages and murderous at a higher political level. Vietnam had won the war, but lost the peace.
The episode described in The Zenith takes place just before the Viet Minh victory over the French. In 1945 the Vietnamese resistance, led by the communists and with Ho at its head, declared the country an independent republic. The French, backed by the British and Americans, refused to surrender the colony. The Viet Minh retreated to the countryside and waged an effective guerrilla war culminating in the siege and defeat of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It was during this period that Ho met Miss Xuan, a young woman from the Tay ethnic minority in the mountains. He was in his early sixties; she was 19. They quickly had two children, a boy and a girl, and he promised to marry her, but his status meant that Politburo permission had to be sought. The men who had fought under him for years, many of them openly polygamous, told him that the revolution came before all personal considerations. His comrades ordered him not to marry.
Immediately Sau [party general secretary Le Duan] turned around and retorted strongly: ‘We need not be shy; we don’t need to weigh our words. We face the life and death of the revolution … we must protect its interests at all costs … The elderly father of the nation is the roof that shelters the people. For years now, people have absorbed this metaphor. The president needs to remind Miss Xuan about this point, if she continues to demand to be officially recognised.’ Thuan [Prime Minister Pham van Dong] intervened, lifting his arm and continuing in a firm manner as if to have the last word: ‘I believe that all of us are of one mind: the matter of recognising Miss Xuan cannot be done. We cannot even think about it. I hope that, in a spirit of high responsibility before the whole nation, the president accepts this decision.’
Of course Ho accepted the unanimous decision. Isn’t the Party always right? In return, he was promised that Miss Xuan and the children would be ‘treated properly, just as long as they willingly live out of sight, behind the revolution’. Duong imagines her hero’s response as he watches the Politburo, their ‘plastic faces all puffed up, twisted’ and ‘a high wall just collapsed inside his heart. His soul emptied; his brain paralysed … a sentence of death … a realisation of his powerlessness.’
In the months that followed someone decided that separation was not enough. All traces must be removed. Miss Xuan and her two children were living in modest government quarters in Hanoi while Ho was recuperating from various ailments elsewhere. The thuggish minister of the interior, Tran Quoc Hoan, a rootless former criminal and protégé of Le Duan, whom he had first met in a Southern prison, and the most despised and feared member of the Politburo, decided (or was he instructed?) to kill Miss Xuan and her sister. Duong writes that Tran would regularly go to Miss Xuan’s apartment and rape her, pressing her to marry him and leave the ‘old man’ alone. What is beyond dispute is that Tran murdered the two women. In the novel Xuan’s brother-in-law receives the news of the murders while serving at the front. His friend writes:
There is something you have surely guessed but didn’t know for certain. Miss Xuan and Miss Dong were both killed in the year of the rooster (1957), their skulls smashed with a wooden mallet. The body of Miss Xuan was thrown on the side of a road outside Hanoi, making it appear that a car had hit her, pretending it was a traffic accident; and Miss Dong was thrown under the bridge across Khe Lan, on the road to That Khe.
Ho died in 1969, a broken-hearted old man. Duong portrays him grappling in his head with the contradictions of his life. Some of her reconstructions work better than others. She idealises him far too much – he was after all a hardened veteran of the Comintern.
After the war, Miss Xuan’s brother-in-law, a decorated military officer, wrote to the then party leader, Le Duc Tho, to demand an investigation, threatening to sue the Party for killing his wife and sister-in-law. There was no response. The children were not harmed. The boy was adopted by Vu Ky, Ho’s old friend and personal secretary when he became president in 1954. The girl was farmed out to a family in the countryside. The first job the son, Tung, was given was as doorman of the Ho Chi Minh museum in Hanoi. I wonder which joker on the Politburo thought that one up. There he remained till his half-brother, Nong Duc Manh, the son Ho had with his housekeeper, helped him join the army. Nong, who led the party from 2001 to 2011, has publicly denied that Ho is his father, but all the circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise. Tung’s sister works at the public broadcasting system.
Duong is a gifted storyteller and her earlier novels were well translated by Nina McPherson with Vietnamese help. The Zenith suffers by comparison. McPherson has been replaced with three translators (which of them thought it sensible to describe a Vietnamese woman as having a ‘peaches and cream complexion’?). The finished work doesn’t appear to have been properly edited, which is a pity given that the story itself is so powerful. Just as good is Paradise of the Blind (1988), a savage account of the 1950s land reform during which ‘rich peasants’ were tried and often executed largely at the behest of the Chinese party leaders, in particular Liu Shaoqi. Tens of thousands died. When stories of the excesses reached Ho an immediate halt to the ‘reform’ was ordered. But the failures of the Communist Party were not to be discussed more generally, even thirty years later, and it was this novel that led to a ban on Duong’s work.
It’s hard for a translator to damage Duong’s descriptions of food. In Novel without a Name the starved soldiers can’t believe their luck when in the depths of the jungle they are served ‘sautéed papayas and wild chilies marinated in shrimp sauce on warm rice’. Less enticing, on paper at least, is a pig’s vagina stuffed with chilies, dipped in egg powder and fried. In Beyond Illusions, the journalist who has sold his soul tries to win his wife back via her stomach. Instead of writing a hack piece, ‘Nguyen went to Dong Xuan Market and bought a crab to make fried nem spring rolls and sautéed crab with vermicelli.’ The attempt is unsuccessful. His wife visits a soup vendor in Ly Quoc Su Street whose hot snail soup is the best in town: ‘the rice noodles were always pearly white and the snails deliciously plump. Their famous chilies fried in oil and vinegar drew Hanoi women like a magnet.’ A painter in the same book is fed up but will not leave for Canada because he enjoys ‘snake liqueur and grilled cobra’ far too much. And in The Zenith, Ho remembers a Vietnamese New Year’s Day in a war zone near the Chinese border when there was a cooking competition. A dish of ‘congealed duck’s blood with pig intestines’ was the winner. Perhaps the soldier cooks and their comrades should have been allowed to run the state.
The short-lived experiment in Doi Moi, the political and economic reforms that followed the Party Congress in 1986, suggests they couldn’t have been any worse than the incumbents. Delegates (many of them war veterans) stood up one after the other and denounced the corrupt generals who had looted the South and built their own fortunes. Three generals were removed from the Politburo. The citizens of Hanoi rejoiced, hoping that this might lead to the democratisation of the country. But the security forces denounced ‘excessive democracy’ and brought the process to an end. The Chinese road to state-sponsored capitalism was the alternative they chose: corruption enveloped the entire country and the dollar became a parallel currency. Many asked why the war had been fought, given what followed. And Ho? In his three testaments (stolen and kept in the private safe of the man who had killed his lover) Ho had insisted that his body be cremated and his ashes scattered. He did not want to be mummified. The party he had led for forty years ignored his wishes. His testament is still censored, so the Vietnamese people cannot read about his hostility to the idea of the grotesque mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square where his embalmed remains are now on display.