In 1989, when I was doing my postdoc at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, a friend gave me some Vietnamese magazines, wherein I found some short stories by Nguyen Huy Thiep. I couldn’t remember the last time I had read so exciting a Vietnamese writer. I read all of the new short stories by Thiep with a feeling like that of reading Conan Doyle — that is, one cannot put down the book before reading all of it from cover to cover. At that time, if someone talked about Vietnamese contemporary literature, the first and only name that would flash in my mind was Nguyen Huy Thiep.
I like to make portraits of people whose beauty and talent I admire. Therefore, after returning to Hanoi from Russia in January 1990, the first thing I did was look for Nguyen Huy Thiep to make his portrait.
I found him working as a copyist of drawings for school textbooks in the publishing house of the Ministry of Education.
The Dream of the Artist
I invited Thiep to my house, where I made a detailed sketch of his portrait by pencil. I also made sketches of his hands, feet, his portrait sitting in an armchair. I even went to the coffee shop he frequented to sketch the armchair he used to sit in.
The rest of the composition of his portrait in oil was my fantasy. Behind him I put the characters of his famous short stories, including King Quang Trung, who I drew upside-down, and King Gia Long, whose face is covered by a female nude. In the upper-left corner there are portraits of the great masters of human literature and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries — Victor Hugo, Sigmund Freud, Anatole France, Guy de Maupassant, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Boris Pasternak — in whose works I found some relationship with what I read from Thiep.
The faces of these great men appear as the clouds. At the right-hand side is the scene of a caravan passing through a desert, with some dogs running after. (The dogs bark, the caravan passes.) The caravan transforms into the birds, flying up into the sky.
In the painting, Thiep is sitting in an armchair of the drawing room in my house. The chair is floating above the marble stairs as if they are the stairs to Parnassus. The wave is striking on one side of the stairs. At the other side, the ocean brings the long and massive waves toward a wall full of bullet holes, from which blood comes out. Frogs, snakes and centipedes gather beneath his feet.
The original title of the painting was simply Portrait of Writer Nguyen Huy Thiep. But in the beginning of the 1990s, Thiep was a ‘problem’ writer. His short stories caused many hot debates in literary circles and in the press, as well as in the general public. So at the vernissage of my solo show in Hanoi in 1991, I was asked by the fellow artists from the Vietnam Fine Arts Association to change the title. So the title became The Dream of the Artist.
I am not sure if the public was enthusiastic about the painting, because I doubt many of them had ever seen Thiep. The wife of the British ambassador in Hanoi at that time wanted to buy the painting, but we could not agree on the price.
The painting is now in the private collection of a French art collector.
When Nguyen Huy Thiep got an invitation to France in 1990, he asked me to make illustrations for his short stories so that he could show them together with his books in Paris. After finishing the illustrations, I gave him the original drawings, keeping only the photocopies.
My feeling was he was a bit disappointed when seeing my illustrations by pen on paper. He referred to a famous artist who illustrated his stories, but in colours and large format, whose name I forget. I told him that this is what I felt from his short stories.
Anyway, this trip to France did not take place. The reason could not be more stupid. Around that time, a French weekly newsmagazine called Le Nouvel Observateur took an interview from Thiep. The interviewer asked him if he had ever been a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam. He said: “Chua bao gio,” which means, “I had never been so.” Le Nouvel Observateur put it as: “Jamais” — “Never.” The Vietnamese press translated this as “Khong bao gio,” a categorical and contemptuous refusal.
In the aftermath of this episode, my original drawings were lost. They have never been published in the press either [except a drawing I made in 2004 for his short story Quan Am chi lo — Goddess of Mercy shows the way].
Peasant, Butcher, Comet
When I first met Nguyen Huy Thiep — in a poorly lit room, with window bars like a jail cell — my impression was that he looked like a peasant. He was neither eccentric nor trying to be so as some other writers or artists, so concerned about their own genius, whom I met in my life. We talked about many things, and his original remarks always surprised me, for instance:
— I am like a butcher, who kills a pig just to take out its heart, throwing away all the rest.
Nguyen Huy Thiep was like a comet shooting across the Vietnamese literature skyline. His way of writing did not leave anyone alone. A well-known and late Vietnamese writer once said, “After Nguyen Huy Thiep, no-one can write as before.”
Personally I think his greatness in Vietnamese literature is that his short stories are inimitable. Some lesser writers borrowed from him, tried to copy the structure and even the details from his short stories. But no matter how they tried, they all failed to reach the quality and the beauty that one finds only in his short stories. His works are unique.