Who Controls the Unfamiliar Past(s)? Orwell in Vietnam, 2013

This is not a spin-off of the “Orwell in the Soviet Union” saga. For one thing, Orwell criticism was practically non-existent before 2000 in Vietnam, or at least in the cultural “Vietnam” perceived as a continuous tradition from the North of Vietnam during the 1954-1975 partition to the present unified country (and its diaspora). The apparent reason is of course the Vietnamese literary authority’s frowning upon “anti-socialist reactionaries”, but a better explanation may simply be the lack of interest both public and academic in British literature and culture, in a country which has mostly been responding to, or against, Chinese, French, Russian, and now American influences; as for “reactionaries”, there was abundant supply of them from both sides of the partition line, enough to fuel cultural civil wars still bitterly going on today. There are hearsay suggestions that Orwell has appeared in both the North and the South of Vietnam before, but since the evidence is so scant and at any rate is not brought into the current discourse, for the time being it is quite safe to say Vietnamese readers discovered Orwell anew in the 21st century. It is too recent a story, and still unfolding, so there is no indication yet if Orwell will come to a triumph in Vietnam similar to his success in later-day Soviet Russia, being indeed “instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union” as Jay Bergman boldly asserts (189).

Vietnam, however, is very different from the considered epitomes of socialism (communism?) that is the USSR, or, indeed, China; and the short-lived but intense reactions to the publication of Orwell’s Animal Farm in March 2013, which is the focus of this essay, provide a golden opportunity for insights on how a small, Asian, postcolonial, ex-socialist (?) country both responds to and reshapes a cult figure of the West. The debris is still settling down after the impact, and no doubt there will emerge more sustained, thoughtful responses that are currently hidden or being formed, but I believe the seeds have been planted for the main threads that will grow in subsequent conversations or debates in Vietnam.

As would be clear in this essay, Orwell’s reception in Vietnam follows the tried-and-true pattern of revealing more about those who are talking than those who are talked about. And a study about that reception would certainly be tinted with the writer’s own agenda, or at the very least sympathies. Without trying to vainly assume an “objective” pose, but wishing to limit subjective interference into a field ridden with such explosives as “Orwell”, “Vietnam”, “communism” and the likes, I would try to present all the facts before providing an overall evaluation. It is going to be a “Catalonia” with unfamiliar names and sordid bickerings, but I hope patient readers would be able to follow it and verify my own assertions for themselves.

All the sources quoted below were publicly available at the time, without reference to private conversations, privilege information and informed speculations which are inevitably abundant in events of this nature.

A storm in the literary teacup

The day was February 22nd 2013, barely a week after the long holiday of Lunar New Year. The site was Nhã Nam, a privately-owned publishing company very popular in the Vietnamese reading circles. To be more exact, the site was Nhã Nam’s Facebook fan page, where several readers had posted a book cover featuring the title “Chuyện ở nông trại” (literally “Story on a Farm”) and the same question: “Fahasa says this book was published in 7 February. Is it real?” [1]  The advertisements on bookshop websites were immediately taken down, causing another trickle of readers’ enquiries. Nhã Nam did not reply to any of those questions.

On February 28th, which was a Thursday, the book was out on shelves of Nhã Nam’s own shop and several other bookshops in Hanoi. On March 2nd, the first book notice appeared on Quân đội nhân dân, the online version of the Ministry of Defense newspaper, but after a few hours the article was taken down. Over the next three days, book notices were seen on Tuyên giáo, Gia đình Việt Nam, Dân Việt, Hà Nội Mới Online, Phụ Nữ Online, VOV5, Sinh viên Việt Nam, Công an thành phố Đà Nẵng, and the official website of the Communist Party of Vietnam. All of them were pulled by the end of March 5th, but screen captures remained elsewhere on the web.

News of the book travelled quickly in social media. The Quân đội nhân dân article was mentioned by dissident blogs Đông A’s (the entry deleted since then) and Dân Luận (People’s Opinion) on the same day it went online, with the latter running the title “Peaceful Evolution right on the People’s Army Newspaper”. Readers’ comments doubted if this was a deliberate gesture or an oversight from the authority. Another blogger, Phạm Vũ Lửa Hạ, on March 3rd posted two short pieces announcing the book’s publication, comparing Minimus’s ode to Napoleon in the book to a Vietnamese eulogy to Stalin, and the Seven Commandments to the Vietnamese Constitution. These blog entries were widely linked and reposted on different dissident or overseas blogs. On March 4th and 5th, Nhị Linh, a researcher and leading translator among the younger generation, also posted on his personal blog a book review and a compiled list of Animal Farm translations in China. Nhị Linh’s review was the only one based on Nhã Nam’s new Vietnamese translation; all others used an older version by Phạm Nguyên Trường in 2004.

On social networking sites such as Facebook and in popular Internet forums, webtretho.com, vozforums.com or tnxm.net, the news also attracted discussion. People wondered about the “purpose” of this publication and whether the translation was modified to pass the radar. One of the discussion threads dedicated to the book on vozforums.com was deleted. On March 4th, a member said on webtretho.com: “My friend in the Writers’ Association Publishing House [Nhã Nam’s partner] said they’ve passed a resolution to seize the book.” This “news” was quickly duplicated on other forums, causing a new influx of enquiries on Nhã Nam’s Facebook page, to which Nhã Nam simply answered that they were not aware of such resolution. The official print run was 2000 copies, however, and brick-and-mortar shops quickly ran out of stock, further fuelling assertions that the book was already being confiscated. Readers made haste to buy the book, sometimes in bulk. Two other translations were also circulated on the Internet together with Nineteen Eighty-Four. By the end of the following week, blogs and websites were established where the book can be read or downloaded, and the Vietnamese-subbed versions of the 1954 animated film and 1999 Hallmark movies can be watched, in addition to the usual hosting services such as YouTube or MediaFire. On March 15th US-based Radio Free Asia ran an inflammatory show condemning “communist censorship”.

By the middle of the month, when those interested had either procured their paperback or limited hardback copy, or finished reading the translations found online, news and speculations were replaced by attempts of evaluation. Noted dissident author Phạm Thị Hoài started a “Special series on George Orwell and Animal Farm” from March 9th to 24th on her personal blog, pro&contra. Phạm Vũ Lửa Hạ’s translation of the 2010 Guardian piece “Christopher Hitchens Re-reads Animal Farm” went online on March 13th and was reproduced on numerous blogs. General introductions on Orwell were made separately by Đoàn Tử Huyến, experienced translator and director of The East-West Culture and Language Center, on his Facebook (March 11th), by An Lý, translator of the new Nhã Nam translation, on Nhị Linh’s blog (March 19th), and by Hoàng Oanh on An ninh thế giới cuối tháng, the popular cultural supplement of the Police’s newspaper (March 22nd, also pulled since then). This last article was mentioned in another Radio Free Asia broadcast on May 4th as “a counterattack on Animal farm”. Nhị Linh’s blog further posted an essay on Animal Farm by An Lý, a summary of Orwell studies in China, and a translation by An Lý of the latter half of Homage to Catalonia, chapter 11, about partisan labelling against POUM.

 Apart from the odd remarks on personal blogs or Facebook accounts, the hype quieted down from then, save for a June 4th follow-up on Thông tấn xã Vàng Anh (Vang Anh’s News Agency) blog on how the Writers’ Association intended to “punish” its publishing house for partnering with Nhã Nam in publishing the book. In late July 2013, Homage to Catalonia, translated by Phạm Nguyên Trường, was published by another private publishing company, but save for a review by Trần Quốc Tân on the prestigious Sài Gòn tiếp thị, there was not much publicity.

By August 2013, Animal Farm is still carried in Nhã Nam bookshop as well as several online stores. The fallout is certainly still being felt by those concerned, and the influence is still working its way through those whose encounter with the book (and Orwell) was the first time. But later, more comprehensive studies about those as yet hidden effects will surely come in due time. In the next section, I will just examine the interpretive manoeuvres around this first introduction of Orwell to the Vietnamese reading public.

The short history of Orwell in post-1975 Vietnam

This sudden and intense interest in Animal Farm, of course, did not spring out from the void. Without the institutionalization of Orwell’s books as in English-speaking countries, without the academic interests of higher education, Orwell to the Vietnamese public has been a familiar stranger.

The earliest known translation of Orwell in Vietnam was in 1952, published in a Hanoi under the French-controlled government, but not much information is currently available about this edition. (There is also rumor about a 1980s edition among the Vietnamese in Czechoslovakia.) Orwell is said to be received enthusiastically in the South of Vietnam before 1975, but the name was generally unknown in post-unification discourse.

Not until the new century was there a systematic attempt to introduce George Orwell in talawas, operating from 2001-2010, one of the most influential ezines among overseas Vietnamese intellectuals and a certain section living within the country. Founded by 1990s dissident writer Phạm Thị Hoài, now living in Germany, talawas was credited for introducing or making available the works of authors such as Koestler, Solzhenitsyn, Kundera and many political and cultural essayists writing in different languages to a Vietnamese-speaking audience, as well as documents from notorious historical events in Vietnam such as the Nhan van – Giai pham incident. talawas was also the first forum for global Vietnamese to discuss Marxism, orthodox ideology and national history. The magazine was often firewalled in the early year of broadband Internet in Vietnam, but its reach was constant and extensive.

Orwell arrived on talawas in the centennial of his birth, at first in other people’s words: Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed, Thomas Pynchon’s “The Road to 1984”, Margaret Atwood’s “Orwell and Me”. Trần Doãn Nho’s “Revisiting Orwell” on August 4th 2003 summarizes his life, the two political novels and the interpretations around his works. The name Orwell then began to sprinkle various articles, either translated essays by Solzhenitsyn, Oe, Chomsky and Russian critics, or by Vietnamese authors mostly living and working in English-speaking countries.

Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, together with “Literature and Totalitarianism”, were translated and serialized in 2004, causing a surge of Orwell quotes in following contributions. In 2008, there were another batch of translated essays: “The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda”, “Writers and Leviathan”, “The Prevention of Literature”. All of those are translated by “Phạm Minh Ngọc”, a pseudonym of Phạm Nguyên Trường, who also translated Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, György Dalos’s 1985 and many Russian-language pieces critical of the Soviet Union and totalitarianism. Animal Farm includes a translator’s note and the Ukrainian preface, said to be addressed to “the Ukrainians who ran away from the Soviet regime and lived in temporary camps established by the British and American armies in Germany” (Phạm M.N., Introduction to Animal Farm). The note and preface always accompany this translation in its multiplication elsewhere on the web. On Nineteen Eighty-Four, the translator’s note emphasizes the use of past tense in the book: “Those trampling upon human dignity, whether in the past, the present or the future, belong only to the past, being the remnants of a dark instinct from prehistorical times. They must belong to the past, because sooner or later they will be swept away by the process of history, taking humanity to a world ever freer and more humane.” (Phạm M.N., Introduction to 1984) The essays went without commentary.

After talawas transformed into a blog in 2009 and finally closed down in November 2010, Phạm Nguyên Trường – now a respected translator, winning the prestigious Phan Chu Trinh Prize in 2013, and having published translations of Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom among others in the Classic Collection of Tri Thuc Publishing House – uploaded all of his translations to his personal blog in 2011. After the Nhã Nam edition of Animal Farm was published, he added “The Freedom of the Press” on March 19th and a complete translation of Homage to Catalonia in April, published in July. Those are so far the only works of Orwell fully available in Vietnamese.

In 2010, the unlicensed “Giấy Vụn (Waste Paper) Publications” of the dissident poets’ group Mở Miệng (Open Mouth) printed/photocopied and distributed Phạm Nguyên Trường’s Animal Farm translation in book form. The text on the cover describes Orwell as “deeply believed in and devoted his life to Socialism, and struggled against colonialism, imperialism and totalitarianism under every guise, in the Capitalist world as well as the world which claims to be Communist. Animal Farm is a manifestation of the declining from a revolutionary to a classed society, illuminating the tragedy of 20th century humanity.” Mở Miệng had already gained much popularity/notoriety with their activism, so this particular book did not attract much recognition, save for Liêu Thái’s “A ‘strange’ discussion about Animal Farm on Da Nang beach” on talawas blog.

The name George Orwell thus was already long familiar at least to the readership of talawas, many will be or still are notable figures in the current Vietnamese cultural scene, which owed tremendously to the translations of Phạm Nguyên Trường. About Orwell’s reception in talawas, there are three remarkable things.

Firstly, right from the start, Orwell was fully claimed and embraced by the anti-government, mostly anti-communist section of the magazine’s readership. On the extremest, there is a lengthy piece by Trần Văn Tích on 2008, “The Wisdom of Intellectuals”, hailing Orwell among André Gide, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Breton, Marguerite Duras, Arthur Koestler, György Lukács, André Malraux, Henry Miller. Preceding summarized biographies of intellectuals who realized their mistakes and “reached the truth” is an attack on Communism:

Communism, spreading its devilish wings for decades long, has been and currently is committing a plethora of crimes. But with power in its hands, with brutality on its side, with cunning propaganda, with distorted information, communism once created around it a false aura, luring the trust of so many deluded souls. … In reality, to cling to survival, communism had to reject, or even betray its own self. … In 2005, the Japanese Communist Party underwent a substantial modification of its rules, abandoning Marxism-Leninism.

Portraying Orwell as once sympathized with communism and believed in socialism, but gained insight after working at the BBC and The Observer, Trần Văn Tích concludes: “Orwell had the opportunity and the means to revise his stance towards communist doctrines, and became the bitterest enemy of socialism and the Soviet Union.”

As demonstrated by this quotation, it was (and still is) a habit to many polemicists in Vietnam to lump together “Marxism”/”Leninism”, “communism”, “socialism” (and “the Soviet Union” or “the Vietnamese government”, as convenience dictates); the words, and often the concepts, are used interchangeably. Another such word is “totalitarianism”: Quốc Việt and Phạm Xuân Lâm quoting the translated “Literature and Totalitarianism”, and Linh Vũ citing the Two Minutes of Hate in “Kitsch and Totalitarianism”, all either imply or assert that Vietnam before and today is a totalitarian society as well[2]. Phạm Thị Hoài describes the freedom of translation in the past as “you are free to translate Jin Rong [a famous Chinese wuxia author], but not free to translate George Orwell” (“Nhà văn”). Thế Uyên writes of Dương Thu Hương, another famous dissent author, being unable to publish: “she suffers from a ban which G. Orwell in the important 1984 calls ‘vaporization’, which means the Communist Party still lets her live in Hanoi, but she can’t write, go to literary events or be mentioned in the press.” Similar comparisons and evocations of Orwell’s works are found in the comment sections of the talawas blog. The only essay that did not attack the Vietnamese government wholesale was Nguyễn Hoàng Văn’s “The Politics of Language”, criticizing duckspeak by both the “communist” and “anti-communist” camps.

It is likely that pro-government elements also read Orwell, especially after the two books were translated, but as far as I know there was no significant evocation in public forums. There was no Soviet-style official denouncement or demonization, or appropriation, in the press[3]. The academia and the reading public were mostly silent about him, save for the occasional review on some lone book blog, which may or may not register the supposedly anti-Soviet message of the book.

The second noticeable thing is that there was little effort to engage with Orwell critically. The longer essays by Pynchon, Atwood or the short paragraphs in Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed are all translations. Trần Doãn Nho’s “Revisiting George Orwell”, written before both novels were translated, is a summary of what Anglo-American newspapers said about Orwell in 2003. Liêu Thái’s report, “A ‘strange’ discussion on Animal Farm on Da Nang beach”, purportedly of a real-life, casual group discussion, at first promises to deal with “the linear development of the story from sociology to political studies to psychoanalysis to arrive at a philosophical emphasis”, but then meanders into criticizing the Vietnamese government’s intransparency in financial matters, the lack of opportunity for young intellectuals, and a collective bashing of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. Most other evocations of Orwell’s name assumes an air of familiarity with his established reputation and presupposes a similar, specialist-level familiarity from the readers, even in trivialities such as “vaporizing” equals “silencing publicly”.

Finally, from the very beginning, the Internet has played a crucial part in introducing and disseminating Orwell in Vietnam. It will not be exaggerating to say it is the new technology and media which allowed Orwell, among many other foreign and “new” lines of thought, to come into the intellectual life of post-1975 Vietnam, which was the very intention of the founders of talawas and similar independent ezines. But the ezines were still not well-known and difficult to approach, both technically and intellectually, to the wider reading public. Orwell’s novels, with the advantages of being shorter, (seemingly) more accessible, and fictional, were quickly reproduced on neutral, non-political book-sharing websites. Laxed copyright and Internet policies in Vietnam allows for the proliferation of these websites and the small communities that grow around them; the books are typed or later scanned and OCR’ed, then circulated either in HTML or ebook formats, and the popularity of smart phones and ebook readers in recent years increase the need for ebooks, legally or not. These hubs of the economically-minded readers have early on become the refuge for banned books in Vietnam, either for political or moral or other reasons. From these sites, the books find their ways into countless personal computers and mobile phones, and are printed out for the benefit of the technologically-challenged enthusiasts. This is samizdat with a technological edge, and without most of the consequences.

So coming 2013, Orwell had already had a definite reputation in some cliques, and a latent apprehension in a wider, younger circle. It is hard to say whether he is more “important” or “better” a writer than Solzhenitsyn or Koestler or similar vocal “anti-communist” authors, but he certainly is positioned at a very esteemed rank. He is the author of two world-famous anti-Soviet books, and this pre-conception is what played into the expectation of the reading community, when the news of the book came all of a sudden to Vietnam.

Old battle renewed

The Nhã Nam edition features Joy Batchelor and John Halas’s 1954 illustrations on its cover, under the unassuming title “Chuyện ở nông trại”,instead of the old translation “Trại Súc Vật” (Farm of Brutes) which had become iconic[4]. The blurb on the cover gives only generic praises and a quotation from “The Freedom of the Press”: “If I had to choose a text to justify myself, I should choose the line from Milton: ‘By the known rules of ancient liberty’.” The Press Release characterizes the book as:

a classic social fable of the twentieth century, but also a simple story about how good intentions can easily be perverted. More than half a century since its publication, Story on a Farm was sold in millions of copies worldwide in over 70 languages with constant reprint. The book was listed among the 100 greatest English novels by the Times, and ranked as the 31st Best Novel of the 20th century. … Orwell’s genius has created a humorous fable appealing even to children.

The claim of Animal Farm’s worldwide fame is staple translated books’ advertisement, and similar to Phạm Nguyên Trường’s translator’s note (from which it actually lifts), but though the book summary is quite faithful, there is no indication of its author’s politics.

Nhã Nam did not advertise the book on their own website or very active Facebook fan page, but this press release was sent to and used by official newspapers in various length. The only original piece is Lê Tâm’s “Lessons from ‘Story on a Farm’ ” on Dân Việt: “Any revolution or reformation will sooner or later come back to its starting point, if each individual cannot get over his inert, stupid self. … Happiness depends only on the choice of the animals; whatever choice it is, it must depend on hard labour and dedication, but how to distribute the fruit of that labour must depend on a real democracy and equality, not false ‘commandments’.” The article went online at 3:50pm March 4th; by the evening, the analytical passages were cut, leaving only the summary of the book, before the article was taken down together with those on other newspapers. With this concerted silence from the official press, the news and interpretation of the book was abandoned to the overseas press and social media.

The intellectual situation in 2013 Vietnam was already much different from when Orwell made his renewed debut in talawas in 2003. The combination of changing political atmosphere, relaxed governmental control and popularization of technology had cultivated a new crop of independent or dissident blogs and non-aligned bloggers from all over the political spectrum, which was actually cited by the talawas editors as one of the reasons for their closing down (“talawas”). These blogs, attracting large numbers of followers, have soon become platforms for heated debates on issues of national importance, such as bauxite mining in the Vietnamese Highlands, conflicts over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, anti-Chinese demonstrations, and the bloggers’ claim for freedom of speech, effectively creating alternative sources of news and opinions to the official press. Also, from January 2nd to March 31st 2013, the Vietnamese citizens were invited to discuss the proposed amendments to the 1992 Constitution either by contributing to the press or filling the opinion forms issued by local government. Numerous websites by intellectuals both within and without the country were established in response to the invitation, but the talk on these websites were often narrowed down to a few hotly contended issues: the country’s official name (“Socialist Republic of Vietnam” or “Democratic Republic of Vietnam”), Article 4 Chapter One (about the leadership of the Communist Party), the role of the army and the likes.

One of the earliest responses to the news of Animal Farm’s official publication, by Phạm Vũ Lửa Hạ on his personal blog lên đông xuống đoài, was titled “On the Amendment of the Constitution in Animal farm” on March 4th. The short summary of the changes to the Seven Commandments in the book is followed by the comment:

When power is all in their hands, the brutes no longer needs the so-called constitution. The seven commandments were reduced to the one more than enough to control the whole life in Animal farm. And constantly reminded themselves that abandoning this only meaningful commandment means “suicide”.

Reposted in the blogs Dân Luận on March 4th, pro&contra on March 23rd, and Thông tấn xã Vàng Anh on March 24th, the short polemic quickly travelled through the Vietnamese forums and blogs. As of 13 August 2013, a search for the title resulted in 20.100 Google hits, either linked in news feeds or copy-pasted the whole content. On March 24th, pro&contra posted a response by Thế Thanh, “On the Amendment of the Brutes’ Constitution in Animal Farm: ‘I Agree’ ” (18.200 hits) professing similar sentiments:

The Brutes’ Constitution at first seemed so attractive, civilized and democratic. But those ideals would later have to be amended to match reality, to match the slaves’ fate of the brutes, and – in today’s legal jargon – to constitutionalize those privileges, special interests, corruption, enjoyment… of the Pig Party. (emphasis in original)

Another short piece by Phạm Vũ Lửa Hạ, “Did Tố Hữu Plagiarize from George Orwell?” (10.700 hits) comments on the similarities between “Comrade Napoleon” and a poem of Tố Hữu (considered the leading poet of Vietnamese revolutionary literature and also former Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam) mourning Stalin’s death in 1953 (later dropped from his poetry collections), but gives a negative answer: “If anything, George Orwell was brilliant enough to predict and parody the hagiographic style of communist ‘artists’.” This blogger also translated “Christopher Hitchens re-reads Animal Farm” (March 13th, 16.100 hits), in which Hitchens offers a better approach to the novel “under three different headings: its historical context; the struggle over its publication and its subsequent adoption as an important cultural weapon in the cold war; and its enduring relevance today.” Written in 2010, Hitchens’s essay frames Animal Farm exclusively within the Soviet situation (going so far as giving parallel real-world archetypes of the animals), briefly touches upon Orwell’s refutations to the American right wing’s use of his works, then lamenting the book’s legal absence in “China, Burma or the moral wilderness of North Korea” and “the Islamic world”. All of Phạm Vũ Lửa Hạ’s posts were reposted on other blogs and went viral.

Those are about all critical readings of Animal Farm in the independent/dissident blogs that go further than a simple (or politically-charged) summary of the book. Within the non-dissident sphere (for lack of a better word), the only blog that showed a sustained interest in the book was Nhị Linh’s. Professionally affiliated with Nhã Nam, Nhị Linh as early as March 5th posted his rejected review entitled “Aspiration to Rule Requires Much Training”. The blog entry describes the book as “inspired by the USSR revolution, which in Orwell’s opinion was brought to failure due to the role of Stalin”, but the review proper, like Lê Tâm’s piece, omits all mentions of the Soviet Union, only focuses on the “morality” of the book:

The fable can be read for the fate of “the ruled”. … But it is at its most originality when it comes to the building up and maintaining of power of the “ruling class”.

It satirizes power bitterly, but it also offer a concise and very effective blueprint for the power-building process. … It goes to show how aspiration to rule requires merit, but requires even more of arduous training. (“Chuyện ở nông trại bên Việt Nam”)

The review is also linked and reposted by other bloggers, but scored a mere 142 hits.

The latest and longest criticism on Animal Farm was by An Lý, “Story on a Farm, a View from the Ground”, hosted on Nhị Linh’s blog on April 4th. Acknowledging the Russian connection, but warning against seeing the book merely as allegory, this essay rejects the pig-centrism of other critics but focuses on the collective animals on the farm, the utopian future as promised to them, and their own complicity and responsibility on its failure. After analysing the use of racism/nationalism to mask economic tensions, the blind hatred to the monstrous Other, the clamour for perpetual war, and the submission to dead theory instead of lived reality, the essay concludes:

The book shows the development of both events and feelings; it reminds us that nothing is fixed, both the attached label and the contained essence: today’s hero may be tomorrow’s turncoat, and the current opposition with their noble arguments and indignation, may possess only “the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power” and “the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality” (“The Lion and the Unicorn”) – beware when it’s their turn to assume power.

This essay was not reposted anywhere and scored 344 Google hits, all in news feeds.

Consistent with the tradition of Orwell reception anywhere else in the world, the stori(es) that Orwell tells are always read in conjunction with the story about him, and about the circumstances of the writing and publication of his books. In Vietnam, it is supplemented by the story of his presence in the country.

On her blog pro&contra, often considered the personal successor of talawas, Phạm Thị Hoài reposted Phạm Vũ Lửa Hạ’s “Did Tố Hữu Plagiarize from George Orwell?”, judging “This new official publication of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in Vietnamese is obviously the prominent cultural-political event in 2013.” (Introduction to “Tố Hữu”) On Phạm Nguyên Trường’s translation “The Freedom of the Press”, she mused, “Though the circumstances are utterly different, I cannot help but feel this essay of George Orwell was directed to the very Vietnamese readers of today. … [it] teach us that the freedom of thought and knowledge, of the press and publication are valuable enough for freedom-lovers to fight for and defend, whoever their enemies may be” (Introduction to “Tự do”). Trần Mạnh Hảo, a notoriously vocal dissident poet, enthused, “Is this freedom and democracy come knocking at every Vietnamese family’s door? I hope this is a good sign of change for our sorrowful motherland” before copy-pasting the whole Vietnamese Wikipedia entry on Animal Farm in a piece provocatively titled “Bravo for Hữu Thỉnh the Poet and Trung Trung Đỉnh the Author who Go Side by Side with the People against Dictatorship” (the named writers being Chairmen of the Writers’ Association and its Publishing House respectively).

There is, however, no general introduction of Orwell in these blogs (Trần Doãn Nho’s talawas piece on Orwell’s disillusionment from his socialist dreams was not reposted), so the three such introductions available are by domestic authors.

The earliest appeared on March 11th as a Facebook note of Đoàn Tử Huyến, director of the East-West Culture and Language Center: “George Orwell: an Anti-Utopian, Anti-Totalitarian Writer”. This chronological summary of his life and work, however, makes no mention of Orwell’s sympathy to socialism, and contains a number of factual errors such as calling Homage to Catalonia a “novel”, Animal Farm “anti-utopian”, describing Orwell fighting in Spain as “a member of the Independent Workers’ Party in a corps of English volunteers”, and “Wilston Smith” as living in the “World State of Okeania”.

The second by An Lý was hosted on Nhị Linh’s blog on March 19th: “George Orwell: an Introduction”. This essay quotes extensively from Orwell’s essays and letters, contrasting their direct style with the gloominess of the first three “modernist” novels, and putting heavy emphasis on Orwell’s socialism, as well as his love for life and for his country. It also mentions the propagandistic use of his books by the CIA and the US government, and his attempts to refute those efforts. The essay ends by highlighting the controversies around his interpretations, and warning readers of “taking Orwell’s ready-made explanations of a particular time, a particular reality, to interpret another world, in another era”.

The third, and the only mention of George Orwell on the official press, was by Hoàng Oanh on March 22nd: “The English Writer George Orwell: A Lifelong Outsider” (25.100 hits). This article is also relatively short, and presents a not unsympathetic overview of Orwell’s life, stressing his alignment with the poor and downtrodden, though still making mistakes similar to Đoàn Tử Huyến’s. It also makes mention of the MI-5 file labelling Orwell as “communist” and, significantly, the only reference of Orwell’s Information Research Department name list (described as “a highly controversial act of ‘squealing’ ”). On Orwell’s politics though, it says “His social views were so convoluted that both the left and the right drew from him for their own benefits in disputes.” Animal Farm “articulates his subjective and biased assessment on socialism in the USSR”, so it is “banned in socialist countries” and “its publication in such a country as Vietnam, under the title ‘Story on a Farm’, has caused much outrage in the public”.

This last statement may require a new definition of “the public”, since most of the responses were made on unofficial outlets and generally positive. The assertion that the book is banned in socialist countries, however, just goes to show that Hoàng Oanh, like Christopher Hitchens, is not too good at fact-checking, because right in Nhã Nam’s press release it is written that

In China, Story on a Farm was also published early on. There are now nearly 20 Chinese editions (by various translators) published in mainland China, Hongkong, Taiwan. The latest was People’s Literature Publication in 2012. … In 2004, Story on a Farm was included in the series “100 famous novels influencing children” by Henan Education Publications.

A detailed list of the 23 Chinese editions (from 1948 to 2012), involving 25 different translators and 24 publishers, can be found on Nhị Linh’s blog on March 4th. Also on this blog, “The Reality of Orwell in China” (5.860 hits) by NSNB on May 9th summarizes Chen Yong’s 2012 essays “A Review of Orwell Research in China: From the 1950s to the 1990s” and “Orwell Research in China since the New Century”[5], documenting a development similar to that of Russia: from the partisan hatred of the 1950s-1970s, to the gradual overall exploration of his themes and poetics in the 1980s-2000, and finally in the new century, when Orwell was lauded variously as “the last intellectual in Europe”, “a saint”, “the prophet of the era”, “always be true to his common sense”.

In the comment sections of the blogs or in Internet forums in Vietnam, Orwell is also sometimes called a prophet; but there is a more defined tendency to cast him as a victim, or at any rate a would-be victim. The rumors and speculations over the fate of the book culminated on a March 15th broadcast on Radio Free Asia, a “private, non-profit corporation” funded by the US government, entitled: “A Story of Animals and Censorship”: “The famous story of George Orwell, Animal Farm, which satirizes and attacks communist dictatorship, was published in Vietnam, then there was news that it was seized. Is that true? And how does the merciless scissor of communist censorship operate?” After the usual celebrations of Orwell’s “Warning against ‘Socialism’ as early as the 1940s”, the news anchor asks the guest speakers to discuss “a rumor on the Internet that the book was being seized, and there was disciplinary action from above and a ban on a second print”:

Asked about this rumor, Professor Tương Lai said, “I wouln’t be surprised if it is true; not to seize it would be strange indeed.”

Trần Mạnh Hảo said, “Maybe they confiscated it in silence, not wanting to broadcast the indictment, because a public ban would make more people want to read it.”

On the publication itself, Hảo said, “Maybe those at the Writers’ association did not read the book carefully, or else they would not have the guts to publish it.”

Prof. Tương Lai said, “Maybe at first they thought it was just an animal story, which says a lot about the intelligence of those censors, and now they are worried sick over confiscating it, such a farce.”

The transcript of this inflammatory report gets 44.900 hits. On PetroTimes, an article by Trúc Vân in April criticizes “Nhã Nam’s Controversial Books” in general, in which there is a passage about Story on a Farm lifted word-by-word from Hoang Oanh’s “Lifelong Outsider”. Radio Free Asia took this similarity as the basis for a May 4th, 21.400-hit show, “The Counterattack against Animal farm”, speculating that the newspapers were paid to accuse the book:

The book was published in Vietnam last year under the title Story on a farm. … Then in this March there was a rumour that the book was seized. … There was no official news about this. … We asked someone in charge in Nhã Nam and got the answer: “We have presented our case [to the authority], and I wish to say no more.” So this covert censorship is possibly true. … through this Animal farm affair it seems that hard and overt censorship has turned into behind-the-scene censorship. (emphasis in original)

Finally, on June 4th, the blog Thông tấn xã Vàng Anh posted “Vietnamese Writers’ Association TO PUNISH its Publishing house for ANIMAL FARM” (capitalization original). Also based on words from “somebody” which has not been “definitely verified”, the piece still calls for its readers to “put this news around as a gesture supporting our colleagues currently suffering in the Publishing House to overcome this ordeal”. The publishing house, thus, was made into the comrade of the persecuted book and the author as persona non grata. The hype had died down, however, and the call was not answered: it only got 220 hits. There has been no further “verification” nor official news to follow.

Those are about all what was said that was accessible to the Vietnamese general public around the publication of Animal Farm. There are further discussions on social networks and Internet forums, of course, which I would not refer here for privacy reasons. Suffice it to say that for around a month “common” people, especially students, were intrigued by the name “Orwell” and his books. Interest was revived in the old translations, which had been lying around for nearly ten years with only occasional attention, and the themes addressed in the books were talked about, though maybe not publicly. Curious readers are searching for other Orwell books not yet translated into Vietnamese. Not all these readers are “dissidents”, however, so the talk on those forums is often coloured differently: if in March, the webtretho discussion thread witnessed a member being accused “propagandizing agent” for arguing for the universal applicability of the book, then in May, the thread on vozforums had maintained “it is against the Soviet model of socialism, it can’t be used to denounce Marxism”. Hopefully, there will be more translations of Orwell’s other works to follow Homage to Catalonia, as well as more information about his life and time in Vietnamese, so that interested readers may form their own, critical evaluation towards this most interesting and complex writer of the modern world.

Morals of the story

There are several things to be learnt from this early stage of Orwell’s reacquaintance to the Vietnamese readers.

What is most significant is the re-enactment of the tug-of-war traditional to Orwell’s reception. There is, however, no attempt to demonize Orwell as what once happened in the Soviet or Chinese press; Orwell is always seen as good or at least neutral. There is no real critical questioning of his ideas and works, however, which is especially surprising within the dissident circle that displays a constant cynicism towards the Vietnamese government. In this circle, there is even no hint of other possible ways of understanding Orwell, or of the controversy surrounding the interpretations of his life and works. Remarkably, Orwell is at the same time the champion of freedom that once challenged the British government and the whole English intellectual world, and the champion of the values of the Western, civilized world against such “moral wilderness” (to borrow Hitchens’ phrase) as Vietnam. Orwell is promoted to be a moral authority to oppose the oppressive, immoral authority of those in power (power to ban books, at least). Orwell’s analysis and criticism of the Soviet or English world in the middle of the 20th century is accepted as transferable and valid criticism of Vietnam in 2013: this is but a displaced version of the “What would Orwell say?” game so favoured in Anglo-American polemics. In writings such as this one, it is clear that the author is evoking Orwell’s name and his assumed reputation to lend weight to his own argument:

Orwell’s remarks on the English press remind us of the effects of the Northern Vietnamese propaganda machine in the Vietnam War. Many people in America and the world were quick to support North Vietnam in a naïve – I don’t say “stupefied” – way, when Hanoi displayed evidences of American war atrocities. Of course in war, there cannot be any side which commits no atrocities towards its adversary. But information will become distorted and blameworthy when it only shows one side of the truth, or blows it out of proportion, or fabricates a “truth”. Even now, many people in the world are still believing in what the communist authority in Vietnam is telling them in the Communist Party-censored press and information devices. (Thế Thanh)

In the domestic blogs/newspapers, there is less exaltation of Orwell and also less overt comparison to Vietnam; the portrayal of Orwell is more informative and less framed into a definitive label. But both sides employed similar techniques in defending their case: the selective citation of his works, and a subtle identification.

The dissident bloggers, having the advantage of possessing the earliest and most translations of Orwell, rested on their claim to the right to speak about and interpret Orwell. The old translations were recycled, but save for Homage to Catalonia there is no new translation since 2008. On orwell.ru, where Phạm Nguyên Trường got the texts and the Russian translations of the novels and essays, there is a substantial collection of all his books and the most important essays, but the translator opted for the “freedom of speech” essays and either neglected or overlooked the no less famous pieces “The Lion and the Unicorn”, “Looking back on the Spanish War”, “My Country Right or Left”, or “Toward European Unity”. These essays, on the contrary, are quoted repeatedly in An Lý’s two essays. The events of his life are similarly curated, with one side downplaying and the other highlighting his socialist tendencies.

Identification and self-identification is also popular in readings of Orwell away from the contemporary reception of the books. If Christopher Hitchens, according to John Rodden, self-appointed as Orwell’s “guardian” against malicious interpretations as a way to identify with him (“Fellow Contrarians” 149), and if the Soviet dissidents in the 1960s-1970s embraced his values with a similar sentiment (or at least Jay Bergman did this identification in his repeated use of “Orwell and the dissidents” (179, 181, 187, 189, 190)), then in Vietnam, identification had become systematic, so that the Soviet story was turned into an allegory for the Vietnamese story. The Vietnamese government “is” the Soviet government and also is socialism/communism/oppressive dictatorship; the dissident movement “is” Orwell and by proxy the free world where Orwell came from. But even this identification is selective.

To argue for the relevance of Orwell’s criticism to the Vietnamese situation, Phạm Thị Hoài implies a parallel between Orwell’s difficulties in publishing Animal Farm in Britain, and the assumed prohibition of its translation in Vietnam (Introduction to “Tự do”), even mistakenly states “ ‘The Freedom of the Press’ … is Orwell’s sharp criticism of the censorious policies of the English government” (“Vạch trần”). There is, however, never an acknowledgement of the domestic publishers who had made able “the prominent cultural-political event in 2013” (at least until Thông tấn xã Vàng Anh called for solidarity to the reportedly prosecuted Writers’ Association Publishing House), and in pro&contra and other blogs it is always the old name “Farm of Brutes” that is used. The changed attitude to Orwell in Russia is never mentioned as well. So Vietnam “is” Soviet Russia, but a Soviet Russia frozen in time, not capable of changes within itself.

On the contrary, the series on Nhị Linh’s blog focuses not only on Orwell’s socialism, but also on the Chinese official reception of Orwell. Unlike Soviet Russia, which “collapsed”, China remains a world-power and maintains the claim to be a socialist system, so Chinese lively intellectual responses to Orwell (apart from the dissertations and journal articles, Jeffrey Meyers’s Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation was translated into Chinese in 2003, only three years after its publication in English) can be considered a sanctioning of Orwell from the socialist, Asian world, and may be a model for imitation. It is arguably the purpose of Nhã Nam’s incorporation of this information into their press release, and it is received as such in online discussions. Readers shared praises of the book on the company’s Facebook page, which may be read as a gesture of solidarity.

Next to this familiar battle over Orwell’s name, which shows that Cold War mentality still override a quest for objective facts in certain sections in Vietnamese intellectual society, comes the apparatus of knowledge transmission, which can be observed clearly in this nutshell of reception history of Orwell in Vietnam.

Orwell’s arrival in Vietnam is often characterized as “belated”, which one would think is potentially beneficial to his reception and understanding. First of all, the information available about his life and work is much abundant than before, especially when in most countries his works have entered public domain. A Vietnamese with a good command of English can easily find the texts of all Orwell’s books and the most important of his essays, as well as numerous articles and essays writing about him, without having to buy the more “advanced” books. (Phạm Nguyên Trường’s translations, after all, were based on the texts from orwell.ru.) Secondly, the average Vietnamese has not inherited the weight of dogmatic teachings institutionalized in school and the official press, and has the chance to read Orwell’s books with a fresh eye and a critical mind, if he would; or else, if he would, picked his side from eight decades’ worth of Orwell’s critical heritage, with all the arguments already lying on the table. Thirdly, with all the advantages of the information age at his disposal, it is easy to voice his opinion and join the process of moulding Orwell’s shape in Vietnamese discourse. It is the age of democratization of literary criticism, we are told, with thriving communities such as Goodreads and online bookshops offering readers’ reviews.

The reality of this early stage of reception reveals that it is not so. Orwell arrived in Vietnam flattened and greyed out from travelling through space and years, deprived of all his nuances and complexities, which were only possible from rooting into his English soil. With the “anti-communist/socialist/Soviet Union” label on his hat, he attracted huge attention for a while, then was quietly abandoned, by both the friends who misunderstood him, and the potential friends who early on dismissed him due to this label. It seemed that people preferred being seen shaking hands with him to actually listening to what he has to say.

The fact is that, perhaps due to his reputation as an one-dimensional champion of capitalistic liberty, there was far less curiosity about him for his own sake than opportunistic abuse of his name. So far, there have been a handful of authors writing about his one book, with not much dialogue among them, and the dissemination of opinions has mostly been unidirectional. Moreover, the number of search results, though seemingly whimsical and cannot be taken as an absolute indication about real readers’ response, gives a clear relative comparison as for the different exposure between short and quick polemics using Orwell’s name, and more moderate, thoughtful study about his works. Those short, often inaccurate tidbits of information are further broken down, mistaken, or intimated through suggestive and ambiguous hints in Internet and word-of-mouth discussions, creating the same “circumstance that has added half-truth to ignorance and turned Orwell legend into chimera” described by John Rodden (“Politics” 18).

Moreover, partly due to the general low level of English fluency among the older generation, partly because the readership of pro&contra and the dissident blogs are now very different from the readers and contributors of talawas, few people want to evaluate the original sources but most prefer to take their opinions from a recognized authority. The citation of Orwell’s fame in the (Western) world, the high ranking of Animal Farm in the Times plays on this trust in cultural authority. The multiplication of blog entries from Phạm Thị Hoài’s, the once famed founder of talawas, from Radio Free Asia or Dân Luận or Thông tấn xã Vàng Anh, the independent news blogs, both manifests and further entrenches their authoritative status. And then there is the very taking of Orwell’s criticism of the Soviet Union for an authoritative valuation of present-day Vietnam, which easily becomes a rewriting of Vietnamese reality into Orwell’s myth: the claim of Vietnam being a totalitarian Oceania, for example.

If we remember that the “specialty” of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as a dystopia, is not the division of the world, or separation of the classes, or the general poor condition of life, or the absolute control of the government, or the degree of conformism killing individuality – after all common features in dystopian worlds, from Zamyatin’s We to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta – but the Minitrue, the control and perversion of information, then this chain of received information and perception is also a chain of power. With the personal reputation involved, a celebrated independent blogger’s Facebook with 1000 followers can have more impact within the intellectual circle than a government newspaper of high circulation, and within the sphere of her blog she has absolute cotrol over the “freedom of speech”. Most of her followers, moreover, either out of convenience or distrust of “official” sources, would tend to read only her blog for their news. So the Internet has not enable the democratization of knowledge: rather, it has enable the creation of a complex, Foucaudian network of power. This network is more often than not hierarchical, but it is seldom perceived as such: George Orwell’s statement interpreted by Phạm Thị Hoài, then summarized by Dân Luận, then rephrased in vozforums, for example, would not be understood as “opinion of Dân Luận” or “of Phạm Thị Hoài”, or of this or that forum member, but still “of George Orwell”. So if those wielding this type of power use it irresponsibly, history is not only rewritten into one new version befitting the interest of one absolute sovereign power, but into numerous versions, simultaneously and contradictorily existing, handed to the trusting, uncritical crowd, without corresponding physical, lived experiences and memories to correct them.

Such was the state of the budding “Orwell studies” in Vietnam in 2013. It was also a year when the name “Orwell” was evoked repeatedly in Anglo-American media, when the disclosures of Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance made headlines in the world. Such incidents proved that even if the governments still try to control access to unfavourable information (one thinks of the D-notice sent to British newspapers on Snowden, or the ban from viewing WikiLeaks on the US military personnel), the information is still out there, waiting for those who wish to find it. As the cliché goes, the problem now is not to have information, but to choose what information to take.

And what are the implications for doing academia, in Vietnam, about such a disputed, remote yet also relevant topic as “George Orwell”? It would be impossible, for example, to write this essay without relying on “non-traditional” sources: from the perspective of a literary historian, consulting only respectable official sources, there would seem to be no Animal Farm or “Story on a Farm” published in Vietnam in 2013. And even though in alternative sources there can be found abundant news and screen captures of the pulled articles, made by vigilant readers/polemicists, that is no guarantee for factuality: as those familiar with the Internet and with digital reportage well know, screen captures can be manipulated, websites can be faked, digital history can be rewritten by the most amateurish technician, easier than Winston Smith’s creating “Comrade Oglivy”. So the researcher would have to trust his sources and his instincts, while well aware that the story he is putting down is just his own construction from available “facts”. As always, Orwell makes the illusion of objectivity more difficult to maintain than ever.

But is reading and studying Orwell still necessary and relevant in Vietnam, or any other country out of the Anglo-American world, keeping in mind all the warnings against taking his anti-Soviet (and not anti-socialist) criticisms as commentary on the Vietnamese situation and so forth? Yes, and not only because his novels and essays provide wonderful models and analyses about the dynamism of power and apparatus of governing, not only universal in modern states but also in microspheres within the Foucauldia network of power. Learning about Orwell, amid all the contradictory information and contending interpretations, is like learning about reality, reality as objectively existing and not constructed by a particular authority: Orwell himself, because he stayed true to the reality which he perceived in a particular moment, is as inconsistent, ever-changing, multi-faceted, never fully apprehensible, and subject to various interpretations, as reality itself. And learning from Orwell is not seeking for the answer to the game of “What would Orwell say?”, which would actually give the speaker’s speculation about what Orwell would say, assuming they understand Orwell and can speak for Orwell. What makes Orwell unique is that he constantly says things other people cannot guess from a principle or a manual, and that is, again, because of his honest engagement with the reality, not with a principle or theory. That is the Orwellism that is constant from all the changing sentiments and politics of his, whether his particular judgement is right or wrong. To go past the verbal smokescreen, to be never content with one’s own received or established opinion – that is the best lesson that anyone can learn from Orwell, and when one has acquired that talent, one would not need to evoke the name “Orwell” anymore.

Works Cited

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—. “Vạch trần huyền thoại Xô-viết – Lời tựa thứ hai cho ‘Trại súc vật’” [“Exposing the Soviet Myth: The Second Preface to ‘Animal farm’”]. Introduction. “Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm’”. By George Orwell. Trans. Phạm Nguyên Trường. pro&contra 12 March 2013. 1 Aug. 2013. <http://www.procontra.asia/?p=1855>.

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Zelikow, Philip D. “Cuộc tự sát của Phương Đông? (1989 và sự sụp đổ của chủ nghĩa cộng sản)” [“The Suicide of the East? 1989 and the Fall of Communism”]. Trans. Trần Ngọc Cư. talawas blog 10 Feb. 2010. 1 Aug. 2013. <http://www.talawas.org/?p=15728>.

[1] All quotations are translated from Vietnamese, but those originally in English will be restored. Also I would try to keep the stylistic and formatting choices (boldface, italics, capitalization…) in the original.

[2] The association of Orwell with the anti-Marxist/socialist/communist/totalitarianist stance was also found in most translated essays: Mikhail Magid, “George Orwell, drawing from the accounts of those surviving totalitarianism…”, Nadegda Kuznetsova, “The totalitarian party, or the Outer Party as called by George Orwell”; Anatoly Tille, “Some others, such as G. Orwell, who saw the disgusting aspects of the regime, thought socialism to be a disgusting society”; Alain Besançon, “G. Orwell remarked that many people became Nazi out of a justifiable horror when witnessing what communists did, and many became communist out of a horror when witnessing what Nazi did”; Milan Kundera, “Orwell’s 1984, the book that for decades served as a constant reference for antitotalitarianism professionals”. But it is hard to estimate to what extent translated essays are received, or even are read at all, if they are not quoted elsewhere, so I will just focus on Orwell’s evocation in Vietnamese writings, where apparently he has an organical existence in the writer’s consciousness. On the proactive dimension of Orwell, however, there are Thomas Pynchon on “Orwell’s politics… not only of the left, but to the left of left”; Kenzaburo Oe on Orwell’s liking for “decency” or humanism; Philip D. Zelikow on Orwell’s “Democratic Socialism” (inverted quotes in original].

[3] See for example, Arlen Blyum’s “George Orwell in the Soviet Union: A Documentary Chronicle on the Centenary of his Birth,” The Library 4.4 (2003): 402–16, and John Rodden’s “Soviet Literary Policy, 1945-1989: The Case of George Orwell,” Modern Age Spring 32 (1988): 131–39.

[4] The choice of the old or new name in book reviews and news is a contending point between the different circles. For that reason, I will use Animal Farm in quotations to indicate when the book is called by its own name, and Story on a Farm when the new name is used.

[5] The original titles are “关于国内对乔治·奥威尔研究的述评 —— 以20世纪50~90年代的研究为据” and “新世纪以来国内乔治·奥威尔研究综述”.

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