TÁC GIẢ
TÁC PHẨM



ĐÀM XUÂN CẬN

. Sinh năm 1939 tại Bắc Việt
. Tốt nghiệp Đại Học .
. Vào thập niên 70 sang Úc dạy tại RAAF School (Trường Không Quân Hoàng Gia Úc).
. Về nước dạy Anh Văn tại các trường Trung học Gia Long, Trường Sơn.
. Làm Thơ, viết Văn.
. Đã chuyển dịch 10 tác phẩm của nhà văn Thế Phong sang Anh ngữ trước 75 ở Sài Gòn.

TÁC PHẨM XUẤT BẢN :

. Ngưỡng Cửa Chiêm Bao - Thi Tập (Sài Gòn 1967)
. Đưá Con của Bố Già - Truyện (dịch The Fortunate Pilgrim của Mario Puzo (Sài Gòn 1974) - tái bản năm 2000 NXB Thanh Niên với tựa đề Qua Cơn Ác Mộng )

. Hiện sống tại Cabramatta Sydney Australia.





TRUYỆN DỊCH


THE RUBBISH TIP OUTSIDE THE CITY AND OTHER STORIES
chuyển dịch từ tập truyện ngắn
KHU RÁC NGOẠI THÀNH
của
THẾ PHONG


THE SECRET LIFE OF A BOOKMAN










 
















THE SECRET LIFE OF A BOOKMAN



The work has been revised, with some minor corrections made,
but its contents and details are absolutely unchanged.

ĐÀM XUÂN CẬN







Walking down the street I suddenly found myself stopping in front of a Chinese eating shop. Well, it was Christmas Eve, so I made up my mind to come in for a feed; this place was particularly for its tasty sausages. It had been a long time since my last treat here. Since the day I got married, street roaming and shop eating had been out of the question as far as entertainment was concerned. To my wife it was a sort of money consuming, prestige eroding and very sad business. I felt quite agreeable to her idea, but I did not believe it was true generally. By the same token I did not ask her for further elaboration because I took it as just one of her innumerable trivial thoughts. I knew I had changed quite a bit myself. I was like a bore to my friends; I seldom met them; just a few encounters in a year’s time would do. A couple of friends said ironically,
"That old man starts to be good now!"
As I walked in I saw the old Chinese waiter, a long time acquaintance. He greeted me with a quiet smile then rushed to set the table. Looking at him my mind was at rest. After a short while I pondered why I was able to come here. Today my wife gave me more than half the amount she got for The Water Buffalo a novel by Trần Tiêu(1). My wife and I were rather busy in the festival season. In the remainder of the year I hang around all the book loaning shops in Saigon. When I came across a good title I would pay a deposit of twenty piasters and take it home (without ever returning it). Towards the end of the year my wife and I would display the stock on a pavement in downtown for sale. My wife was quite popular with the book hunters who came to Bonard St., for she could always find for them the titles they were after. A few kept away because she charged exorbitant prices.
Today was a good day; she gave me one hundred piasters and permisssion to go window shopping after the sale of the above novel. I could not be sufficiently grateful for that. My joy was somewhat clouded by the pity I felt for the customers my loud -mouthed wife chastised. She said to me,
"Look, I have sold it. A man had a long look at it then asked me," How much do you want for this?" "Do you mind if I ask for a discount?". I said 200 and told him to go ahead with the bargaining. He picked up the book and said 30. I answered, "With all due respect, Sir, when I put the price at 200, I can sell it for 180, but certainly not 30". He seemed to like the book very much. After some hesistation he asked me if the book got any missing pages. I said no. He pulled out his wallet, gave me 180, then went away. He did not even ask me to wrap the book. I reckoned he was a very keen book lover.
I answered her, using my usual sentence,
"You are very good at selling old books and I am very good at picking titles of good commercial value. You see, we earn our living working only in the festival season of the year in these hard times. My love, do you know that we also contribute to cultural life by putting the right books in the right hands".
Then I continued,
"I want to tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a man who paid one hundred gold coins for a horse’s skeleton…."
But she stopped me, telling me to wait until the night because at the moment business was brisk.
And she sent me away after handing me one hundred piasters. This provided the reason for, and means of, coming down to this eating shop. My order had been carried out: a dish of boiled chicken and bowls of first quality rice prepared with chicken soup. The shop was crowded with customers as it was Saturday evening. Street lamps had been lighted. The old Chinese waiter said to me,
"Where have you been these days? How are things going with you? Getting rich?"
I just nodded and said thanks. When I lay my hands on the tea pot to pour myself a cup before eating I caught sight of a young fellow I knew, although not quite as an old acquaintance. One Sunday morning long ago he pilfered the book of poetry Spectacles of us. My reader, the chain of events leading to this would make a long story. In due time I would tell you about my marriages. My friendship with the Chinese book dealer, what I did in the old days, where I came from and how I engaged myself in this sort of business. It was always a bit awkward to talk about myself. We just got to wait until the right moment.
The story of my life is a secret even my wife has not a clue about. But as a reader of mine you are fully entitled to hear it. I am prepared to tell you everything. To start with, let us deal first with the young fellow whom I nicknamed Spectacles or Prévert(2). From now on we will stick to the second one, all right?
Prévert was enjoying his meal very much. His gestures were a sure indication. He was still young about 25 or 26 years old age at most. What sort of man was he? My guess, and I can assure you it was a good one, was that he was an artist, a lover of arts and literature; in short, a beauty conscious person. To be more precise, I would affirm he was no exception. He got unruly, long hair and he dressed shabbily, like myself in my younger days. Prévert did not order rice served in bowls but ate from a big round table, food and condiment, using fork and spoon. He was unaware of my watching although I was seperated from him by an empty chair only. In a Chinese shop customers eat sitting at a big round table; so, it is not unusual for you not to know your neighbour. The meal almost over, he used toothpicks to clean his teeth, pullet out a badly bruised cigarette from his pocket, lighted it; then, ordered a small cup of black coffee. He counted his money over again, picked up his book laid on the chair next to him as if to be about to go. I studied him copiously. Suddenly, he called the waiter and ordered more. Started, I looked at the big wall calendar hung over the counter and established beyond any reasonable doubt it was Christmas Eve. I wondered whether he would like to give himself a real treat because of the same reason as mine. I remembered in the last two Christmases my wife also gave me money awards. I did not know her motive: Was it because she was a Catholic or because she appreciated my going to church despite the fact I had never been baptized?
I admitted my joy upon hearing the soothing sounds of the ringing bells at dawn and dusk. Truly, they were a source of consolation and encouragement for me. Because I was once the sort of fellow struck by Beauty in all its manifestations, having a passionate soul. Had he lived, Oscar Wilde would have classified me as a bien- commissaire-priseur.
Prévert started eating again. He had ordered two bowls of rice and a dish of sweet Chinese sausages. Then he ordered an additional bowl as there were still sausages left. As for me, I asked for a glass of local wine along with a dish of meat so that I could enjoy myself further. Today was a very special occasion for me, it gave me an opportunity to know more about that Prévert. I knew he was a poor fellow who seldom had a good time as this. Now he was munching Chinese sausages only because there was no rice left. An idea crossed my mind. I wanted him to have another bowl of rice which would surely suit him wonderfully. This was not easy because we were not acquaintance yet; so, he would be offended by any act of charity on my part. He was not hungry in the strict sense of the word; even if he was, he would not be interested in receiving charity. It was no doubt a very hard problem, but I was equally determined to tackle it. I would not back out this time and I was sure of success.
I also ordered a new bowl of rice, because there was still some food left. I then turned my eyes in his direction and asked softy ,
"Would you mind lending me an empty bowl?
I must explain an empty bowl was not an used one, but simply one the rice of which had been discharged into the serving bowl. Smiling happily he complied with my request. I gained more confidence. I poured some chilly sauce into the bowl. This was not necessary because the waiter had given a smaller bowl suitable for containing chilly sauce. But he did not see anything irregular about it. When I asked for another bowl he raised a question,
" Are you not afraid of using a wet bowl?"
I answered,
"That will do me, because I do not want to wait too long, and the waiter is always slow, as you can see. Is it all right with you?"
He nodded. And while I was busy eating he counted his money again, looking at the few pieces of sausages still left in the plate. He should be still hungry as he ordered two more bowls of rice. This thrilled me. I tried to eat quickly so that I could finish before him and the waiter would charge these two bowls of rice on my bill. I was sure my friend would be in very awkward position if he did not have enough money with him. Finishing, he turned to me, asking,
"This shop is very good. Do you come here very often?"
I answered,
"Only occasionally now. But before, I was a regular customer".
He continued,
"I hope you would excuse me for my curiosity, but how come? Do you live very far from here?"
I replied,
"Not because of that, but I have got a family. When I was still single I ate on credit here. The Chinese shopowner knew me very well indeed".
I spoke to show that I sympathized with his occasional extravagant spending, like this time. He smile broadly, replying ,
"I am still single so I understand you perfectly".
Casting a quick glance at the clock he paid hurriedly as if having some appointment to fulfil. My heart thudded as it was a suspenseful moment. Eventually, I succeeded in helping him without his apparent knowledge. But could it be that I only fooled myself? I was happier because of this curiously enough.

***

I got out of the shop. I smiled quietly. Very proud of myself. I had been a writer, or rather a journalist since the pre-war era. It seemed in those days most writers were opium smokers. Like them I must live in some sort of euphoria in order to write. All the beginning I could not bring myself to believe opium smoking would deprive us of the will to live decently. I thought as the cream of society we were entitled to this sort of inspiration-seeking activity. I belonged to a family of notables at the villages level. I was sent to Hanoi for studies. Squandering money in debauchery I ruined my chances of getting education. And I started writing. Through the help of my classmate, the son of the editor of a magazine, my works got into print easily. I thought myself as poet, writer and contributor to a long list of dailies and magazines. I said to mysel,
" Hồng Trọng, now you have a name".
I idled my time away smoking, drinking, going out with girls and it was just like a lot of youths living under the French domination. Later on, I realized I got no genuine talent at all, but I could not get rid of the sort of megalomania which almost ruined my life. My so-called works just dealt with rambling thoughts mostly generated by opium. I thought I was a disciple of Jean Cocteau, the French poet, I also wrote romances à la Lamartine and essays à la J.J. Rousseau. I remembered writing something like this on the search of happiness of mankind:
"… Often times I thought urban life caused man to be mean and petty. He worried too much about financial security. His spiritual life would be much richer if he lead a sort of life among nature. Two frugal meals every day will do and he will be able to spend much time drinking, comtemplating, exploring nature. His life will then be most happy. Talking about pleasant life I cannot help looking at Nguyễn Tuân. I admire him very much through his writings and his real life. I want to relate here some pertinent traits of this magnificent writer. He had a wife but it was years before he came home, preferably after the birth of a new child. If she was sick, he could not be bothered either. But he always managed to buy flowers for his sweethearts. Only his beloved counted to him because they gave him the urge to create. So much for his philosophy of writing, now we talk about his philosophy of happiness. He tried to get the most out of life. He was always seen at railway stations, with his suit case with the names of destinations stamped all over it. A vagabond lady killer he became father of many children, all conceived in his image. He often said these enfants terrible would one day carry out his grand design.."
I also admired Paul Morand, the master writer who boldly asserted happiness could only be founded at railway stations and whose only wish was that upon his death people would make a suitcase out of his skin.
These were my heroes. But I dared not live their beliefs like them, all I got were some after sensations. My works were largely motivated by plagiarism as I got neither thoughts nor feelings of my own mark. I knew it was shameful to plagiarize but I was always willing to defend myself with the utmost arrogance. At first all I sought to achieve was to fool a few colleagues and unthinking persons, but by din of doing so I came to believe I had real talent and that would be that. I took others as morons, I even thought I had a noble soul. As a matter of fact I was never capable of generosity in real life. My student life came to an abrupt end when my parents asked me to come back to get married. The magazine of my classmate ‘s father closed down so I had to submit manuscripts to others magazines and most of them were rejected. Fortunately for my parents found my names signed under some articles dealing with big problems of the times. Soon people whispered to one another I was an intellectual who committed himself to the sacred war being waged against the colonizers. I was flattered and happy, but there was one unfortunate thing about it. The French police arrrested me to investigate my activities. At first these policemen thought I was a patriot and they respected me in spite of my alleged anti-French activities, they soon found out I simply had the complexe cornévienne(3). After my release I won the admiration of many people, including my parents. That was why I was condemned to live behind a mask undoubtedly glorious but unsuitable to me. When the French recaptured Hanoi in 1946, I came to live under their protection, through the persuasion of a friend. I took myself a new wife and lived agreeably in the occupied zone. Still opium smoker I only found some meaning for life in this sort of artificial paradise. My son with the first wife had grown to manhood. He loved his mother well but hated me like hell. He took part in the resistance movement and comdemned me as a traitor, a hireling of the French invaders, although I did nothing to deserve that. I came to the South prior to the partition of the country.
One of the reason I did so was my fear of meeting him. At least I became quite frank now.
I decided to give up all pretences. I earned my living translating Chinese books into Vietnammese for a Doctor of Literature. I met a woman in her forties, the owner of a café. I tried my best to impress her as she was quite attractive.
As for her, she developed quite a strong liking for me. One day, she said to me,
"Please stay, I have something to tell you".
And she gave me a most tender smile.
I agreed and since that day I became the honorary boss of this cosy place. My new life did not endure. She was too light fisted and my pride was big. I felt compelled to quit.
It was in this hamlet. I met the Chinese book dealer.

***

I have never told anyone of my tangled past. My wife only knew I was formely a journalist and for some time, a confident to a Chinese dealer. Before I met her I belonged to the staff of a newspaper with a woman managing editor. I was commissioned to translate into Vietnamese erotic Chinese stories in the vein of Chin Binh Mai. The job was not difficult, the main thing being to give details which could excite the readers. I must disclose the woman was the wife of an ambitious politician. He did not care for her and she was a voluptuous woman. She was about the same age of my former wife, the café owner. I was happier with her because she was not a penny wise. A few times we came to have a chat in a tea house she was always happy to pay. Our love was wrecked due to our indiscreetness. I was out of a job; my serial translated novel was discontinued. I could not care less about the novel, but I lost my means to support. I said to myself,
" No worry, I will be right".
On New Years’s Eve that year, I came to see a Chinese man and asked him whether he would buy the books I got. He did and I was grateful for it. His wife liked me a lot. To my surprise she invited me to have a meal with her husband. In the course of it, the Chinese man asked me,
"My wife has great respect to you. Have you ever been in China?"
I had been never out of the country, but I told him I stayed in Kun Ming for some time before 1944 to arrange the smuggling of opium to get money for the rifles of the Resistance fighters. The ensuing imaginary adventures thrilled her far beyond my expectation. This was only natural as any exile like to hear stories about his or her country. She then promised to introduce me to a charming girl, also coming from the North like myself, under thirty, and looking for a husband. I though she was joking and did not pay much attention. The meal over, the man invited me to come to his book warehouse. I found quite a lot of old, hard-to- procure books, including a sizeable number written in French. But the set prices of many of them were very low, just a few piasters. I then proceeded to teach him how to classify books according to their respective values, and also, the pyschology of books buyers. Some time after that he came to see me in my place and warmly praised me as my advice had earned him a handsome profit. He gave me some money for cigarettes and the position of confident. When I came down to his selling place in Bonard St., I met the girl who was my present wife.
She also sold old books. She had only an average beauty, but this was no of importance to me now. We got married, and in the last two years, we earned our living quite easily. We had plenty of time as we got no children.
The day I saw subartist Prévert pilfering the book of poetry Spectacles on display on the pavement I did not stop him. I saw him standing for a long time, unaware of my watchful looks. He mights mistake me as a passer-by because my wife handled all the selling. When she was busy wrapping a big parcel of books he grabbed a book and mingled with the crowd, I was on the point of shouting out when I suddenly felt an overpowering sympathy for him. My only reaction was a close mouthed smile.
I saw him again today in the Chinese eating shop. My only wish was that he would not be condemned to a barren life. I also hoped that my well-wishing bowls of rice, among other things, would be something for him to write about. I would certainly be a very reader of him.
Gee! My wife shoud have been home at this late hour and I still owed her a story. I would stick to the one I promised her,
"Once upon a time there was a man who paid one hundred gold coins for a horse’s skeleton the right price of which amounted to only a few cents. He was willing to pay such a high price simply because he wanted to encourage brave men to go to faraway places, high valleys, and isolated villages to discover good breeds of horses, to do good to the people."
I hope my wife would not be bored…


____________________________________________________________


(1) Con Trâu by Trần Tiêu.
(2) Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) the French poet.
(3) In French in the original text (TR).





ĐÀM XUÂN CẬN


THE RUBBISH TIP OUTSIDE THE CITY AND OTHER STORIES
translated from the Vietnamese by ĐÀM XUÂN CẬN
THANH NIÊN PUBLISHING HOUSE 2006- HOCHIMINH VILLE VIETNAM


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