In the summer of 1973 I had a dream in which, to my great distress, I died. I was alone in a friend’s house at the time and, not knowing what to do, I hid the body in her deep freeze. When everyone returned, I explained to them what had taken place: ‘Something terrible happened when you were out. I – I died.’
My friends were very sympathetic. ‘But what did you do with the body?’ they asked.
I was ashamed to tell them. ‘I don’t know where it is,’ I said, and we all set out to search the house for my corpse. Upstairs and downstairs we looked, until finally, unable to bear the deception any longer, I took my hostess aside and confessed. ‘There wasn’t anything else in the compartment,’ I said, ‘and I just didn’t know what to do.’ We went to the deep freeze and opened it. As the curled and frozen shape was revealed, I woke up.
I was glad to be going off on a journey. I had been awarded a bursary for the purpose of travelling and writing poetry; I intended to stay out of England a long time. Looking at what the world had to offer, I thought either Africa or Indochina would be the place to go. I chose Indochina partly on a whim, and partly because, after the Paris Peace Accords in January of that same year, it looked as if it was in for some very big changes. The essence of the agreement was that it removed American military personnel from Indochina and stopped the B-52 bombing raids. The question was how long could the American-backed regime last without that accustomed support. I wanted to see Vietnam for myself. I wanted to see a war, and I wanted to see a communist victory, which I presumed to be inevitable. I wanted to see the fall of a city.
I wanted to see a communist victory because, in common with many people, I believed that the Americans had not the slightest justification for their interference in Indochina. I admired the Vietcong and, by extension, the Khmer Rouge, but I subscribed to a philosophy that prided itself on taking a cool, critical look at the liberation movements of the Third World. I, and many others like me, supported these movements against the ambitions of American foreign policy. We supported them as nationalist movements. We did not support their political character, which we perceived as Stalinist in the case of the Vietnamese, and in the case of the Cambodians . . . I don’t know. The theory was, and is, that when a genuine movement of national liberation was fighting against imperialism it received our unconditional support. When such a movement had won, then it might well take its place among the governments we execrated – those who ruled by sophisticated tyranny in the name of socialism.
There was also an argument that Stalinism was not a simple equivalent of Fascism, that it contained what was called a partial negation of capitalism. Further, under certain conditions it might even lay down the foundations of a socialist organisation of society. In the Third World, Stalinism might do the job which the bourgeois revolutions had done in Europe. Even Stalinism had its progressive features.
Our attitudes may have looked cynical in the extreme. In fact they were the formulation of a dilemma. After all, we had not invented the Indochina War, and it was not for us to conjure out of thin air a movement that would match up to our own aspirations for Britain. To remain neutral over Vietnam was to support the Americans. To argue for an end to all US involvement, and leave the matter at that, was to ignore the consequences of one’s own argument. If there was a conflict on which one had to choose sides, then it was only right to choose sides honestly, and say: ‘Stalinists they may be, but we support them.’ The slogans of the Vietnam movement were crude stuff indeed – ‘One side right, one side wrong, victory to . . . Vi-et-cong!’ – but the justice of the cause was deeply felt.
This feeling was shared by many people who were not socialists or communists by any stretch of the imagination, and who did not have any other political axe to grind. Such people had merely to look at what was being done to Vietnam in the name of the Free World to know that the Free World was in the wrong. The broadest support for the anti-war movement was engendered by a disgust at what the Americans were doing. In Britain, the Communist Party made precious few gains in this period. The tradition to which the students looked was broadly or narrowly Trotskyist, a fact that no doubt intrigued the Vietnamese communists, who had taken care to bump off their own Trotskyists a long time before. But the Trotskyist emphasis, like the general emphasis, was again in opposition to American imperialism. Very few people idolised the Vietcong, or the North Vietnamese, or Uncle Ho, in quite the same way that, for instance, the French Left did. Indeed, it might be fairly said that the Left in Britain was not terribly curious about or enamoured of the Vietnamese movement it was supporting.
By the time I was about to go to Indochina, the issue had fallen from prominence. When the Indochina Solidarity Conference was held in London that year, my own group, the International Socialists, did not bother to send a delegation. There were other, more important campaigns: against the Tories, against the Industrial Relations Act, against racism. Our movement had grown up: it was to be working class in character; it had graduated from what it thought of as student issues. It had not abandoned Vietnam, but it had other fish to fry. At the conference itself, I remember two speeches of interest. One was by I.F. Stone, who was hissed by the audience (which included an unusually large number of Maoists) when he attacked Chairman Mao for shaking hands with a murderer like Nixon. The other was by Noam Chomsky, who warned against the assumption that the war was over, and that direct US intervention in Vietnam would cease. Chomsky argued that the Left were wrong to dismiss the ‘Domino Theory’ out of hand. As stated by the Cold Warriors it might not measure up to the facts, but there was another formulation which did indeed make sense; it was US foreign policy, rather than Russian expansionism, which knocked over the dominoes: countries might be forced into positions where the only alternative to accepting American domination was to go over to the opposite camp and would thus be drawn into the power struggle whether they liked it or not.
I mention such arguments because I do not wish to give the impression that I was completely wide-eyed about the Vietnamese communists when I set out. I considered myself a revolutionary socialist, of the kind who believes in no Fatherland of the Revolution, and has no cult hero. My political beliefs were fairly broadly based and instinctively grasped, but they were not, I hope, religiously held.
But I wanted very much to see a communist victory. Although I had a few journalist commissions, I was not going primarily as a journalist. I wanted to see a war and the fall of a city because – because I wanted to see what such things were like. I had once seen a man dying, from natural causes, and my first reaction, as I realised what was taking place, was that I was glad to be there. This is what happens, I thought, so watch it carefully, don’t miss a detail. The first time I saw a surgical operation (it was in Cambodia) I experienced the same sensation, and no doubt when I see a child born it will be even more powerful. The point is simply in being there and seeing it. The experience has no essential value beyond itself.
I spent a long time on my preparations and, as my dream of dying might indicate, I had developed some fairly morbid apprehensions. The journey itself was to be utterly selfish. I was going to do exactly as I pleased. As far as political beliefs were concerned, they were going to remain ‘on the table’. Everything was negotiable. But the fear of death, which had begun for the first time to enter my calculations, followed me on my journey. As I went through the passport check at Heathrow, I glanced at the Sunday papers and saw that the poet I most admired, W.H. Auden, had just died in Vienna. People were talking about him in the passenger lounge, or rather they weren’t talking about him, they were talking about his face.
I kept seeing the face, on the plane, in the transit lounges, on the empty seat next to mine, and I kept remembering Auden. From the start he had willed himself into old age, and it was not surprising that he had not lived longer. He had courted death, cultivated first eccentricity and then what looked to the world very much like senility. It was not senility, but it was a useful cover for his despair of living, the deep unhappiness which he kept concealed. He had held the world very much at arm’s length, and had paid a heavy price for doing so.
Between sleeping and reading, I found myself passing through a depression compounded of one part loneliness, one part uneager anticipation, one part fright and two parts obscure self-pity. In Bombay the depression began to lift: I slept all morning at the Sea Palace Hotel, then, surrendering to the good offices of a driver and guide, set off to see the sights. The evening light was first a muddy yellow; next it turned green. On the Malabar Hill, I paid my respects to the spectacular view, the vultures picking the bones on the Parsee tower, the lights along the waterfront (‘Queen Victoria’s Necklace’) and the couples sitting on the lawns of the Hanging Gardens, in attitudes reminiscent of a Mogul miniature. The most impressive sight was a vast open-air laundry, a yard full of boiling vats between which, through the dark and steam, one could scarcely make out the moving figures of the workers. There was a steamy warmth everywhere, which I liked immediately. Waking the next morning, I looked down on a wide meandering river, either the Salween or the Irrawaddy, whose muddy waters spread out for miles into the sea. Seen from the plane, the landscape of the Far East was dazzling, silver and blue. You could tell you had arrived in Indochina when you saw the rows and rows of yellow circles, where muddy water had filled the bomb craters.
Fear of Madness: November 1973
‘Iknow not whether others share my feelings on this point,’ wrote De Quincey, ‘but I have often thought that if I were compelled to forego England, and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad.’ I read this sentence the other day, for the first time, and as I came to the last clause I was struck once again with the full nausea of my first trip to Vietnam. ‘The causes of my horror lie deep,’ De Quincey went on. But he set them forth beautifully:
No man can pretend that the wild, barbarous, and capricious superstitions of Africa, or of savage tribes elsewhere, affect him in the way that he is affected by the ancient, monumental, cruel, and elaborate religions of Indostan, etc. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c. is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to me an antediluvian renewed . . . Man is a weed in those regions.
I was impressed, overawed, by the scale and age of the subject: a war that had been going on for longer than I had been alive, a people about whose history and traditions I knew so little. I had read some books in preparation, but the effect of doing so was only to make the country recede further. So much had been written about Vietnam. I hadn’t even had the application to finish Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake. The purpose of the book seemed to be to warn you off the subject.
I could well have believed that somebody was trying to tell me something when I came out of my room on the first morning in Saigon and stepped over the decapitated corpse of a rat. I was staying, as most British journalists did, in the Hotel Royale, but even there I felt something of an intruder. I had to find work, I had to sell some stories, but I was afraid of trespassing on somebody else’s patch. There was an epidemic of infectious neurosis at the time: as soon as one journalist had shaken it off, another would succumb. It would attack without warning – in the middle of an otherwise amiable meal, in the bars, in your room. And it could be recurrent, like malaria.
The reason for the neurosis was not far to seek; indeed it sought you out, and pursued you throughout the day: Saigon was an addicted city, and we were the drug; the corruption of children, the mutilation of young men, the prostitution of women, the humiliation of the old, the division of the family, the division of the country – it had all been done in our name. People looked back to the French Saigon with a sentimental warmth, as if the problem had begun with the Americans. But the French city, the ‘Saigon of the piastre’ as Lucien Bodard called it, had represented the opium stage of the addiction. With the Americans had begun the heroin phase, and what I was seeing now was the first symptoms of withdrawal. There was a desperate edge to life. It was impossible to relax for a moment. The last of the American troops had left at the end of March, six months before I arrived, and what I saw now was what they left behind: a vast service industry clamouring for the attention of a dwindling number of customers: Hey, you! American! Change money, buy Time magazine, give me back Time magazine I sell you yesterday, buy Stars and Stripes, give me back Stars and Stripes, you number one, you number ten, you number ten thousand Yankee, you want number one fuck, you want Quiet American, you want Ugly American, you give me money I shine shoes, number one, no sweat . . . on and on, the passionate pursuit of money.
The bar at the Royale was half-open to the street. The coffee at breakfast tasted of diarrhoea. You washed it down with Bireley’s orangeade (‘Refreshing . . . and no carbonation!’). Through the windows peered the shoeshine boys – Hey! You! It was starting up again. One morning I was ignoring a particularly revolting specimen when he picked up a handful of sand which he pretended to eat: ‘You! You no give me money, you want I eat shit!’ His expression, as he brought the dirt to his mouth, was most horrible. It was impossible to imagine how a boy of that age had acquired such features: he was about ten, but his face contained at least thirty years of degeneration and misery. A few days later I did give him my boots to clean. He sat down in the corner of the bar and set to work, first with a matchstick and a little water, meticulously removing all the mud and dust from the welt, then with the polish. The whole process took about half an hour, and the barman and I watched him throughout, in fascination. He was determined to show his superiority to all other contestants in the trade. I was amused, and gave him a large sum. He was furious; it wasn’t nearly enough. We haggled for a while, but I finally gave in. I gave him about a pound. The next day, at the same time, he came into the bar; his eyes were rolling back in their sockets and he staggered helplessly around the tables and chairs. I do not know what he had taken, but I knew how he had bought it.
Of all the ingenious and desperate forms of raising money, the practice of drugging your baby and laying the thing on the pavement in front of the visitor seemed to me the most repulsive. It did not take long to see that none of these children was ever awake during the day, or that, if asleep, something was amiss. Among the foreigners, stories circulated about the same baby being seen in the arms of five different mothers in one week, but the beggar who regularly sat outside the Royale always had the same child, a girl of eighteen months or so. I never gave any money either to the girl and her ‘mother’, or to any of the other teams.
One day, however, I was returning from a good lunch when I saw that a crowd had formed around the old woman, who was wailing and gesticulating. The child was more than usually grey, and there were traces of vomit around her face. People were turning her over, slapping her, trying to force her eyes open. At one point she and the old woman were bundled into a taxi. Then they were taken out again and the slapping was repeated. I went into the hotel and told the girl at reception to call a doctor.
‘No,’ she replied.
‘But the child is sick.’
‘If baby go to hospital or doctor’ – and here she imitated an injection – ‘then baby die.’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘if baby don’t go to hospital maybe baby die.’
I took the girl out into the street, where the scene had become grotesque. All the beggars I had ever seen in Saigon seemed to have gathered, and from their filthy garments they were producing pins and sticking them under the child’s toenails. ‘You see,’ I said to the girl, ‘no good, number ten. Baby need number one hospital.’
‘No, my grandmother had same-same thing. She need this – number one.’ And the receptionist produced a small phial of eucalyptus oil.
‘That’s not number one,’ I said, ‘that’s number ten. Number ten thousand,’ I added for emphasis. But it was no good insisting or appealing to other members of the crowd. Everybody was adamant that if the child was taken to hospital, the doctor would kill it with an injection. While I correspondingly became convinced that a moment’s delay would cost the child’s life.
Finally, after a long eucalyptus massage and repeated pricking of the fingers and toes had produced no visible results, I seemed to win. If I would pay for taxi and hospital, the woman would come. I pushed my way through the crowd and dragged her towards the taxi – a battered old Renault tied together with string. The baby was wrapped in tarpaulin and her face covered with a red handkerchief. Every time I tried to remove the handkerchief, from which came the most ominous dry gaspings, the woman replaced it. I directed the taxi-man to take us to number one hospital and we set off.
From the start everything went wrong. Within a hundred yards we had to stop for petrol. Then a van stalled in front of us, trapping the taxi. Next, to my amazement, we came to what must have been, I thought, the only level crossing in Saigon, where as it happened a train was expected in the near future. And around here we were hit by the side effects of Typhoon Sarah, which at the time was causing havoc in the northern provinces. We also split a tyre, though this was not noticed till later. Driving on through the cloudburst, the taxi-man seemed strangely unwilling to hurry. So I sat in the back seat keeping one hand on the horn and with the other attempting to ease the baby’s breathing by loosening the tarpaulin around her neck. I also recall from time to time producing a third arm with which to comfort the old woman, and I remember that her shoulder, when my hand rested on it, was very small and very hard. Everything, I said, was going to be number one, OK: number one hospital, number one doctor, baby-san OK. We were travelling through Cholon, the Chinese quarter, on an errand of Western mercy.
All things considered, it took a long time for it to dawn on me that we were not going to a hospital at all. We even passed a first-aid post without the taxi-man giving it a glance. In my mind there was an image of the sort of thing required: a large cool building dating from French times, recently refurbished by American aid and charity, with some of the best equipment in the East. I could even imagine the sententious plaques on the walls. Perhaps there would be a ward named after the former US Ambassador. It would be called the Bunker Ward.
It was when the old woman began giving directions that I saw I had been duped. We were threading our way through some modern slums, which looked like the Chinese equivalent of the Isle of Dogs. ‘Where is the hospital? This is no hospital,’ I said.
‘Yes, yes,’ the taxi-man replied, ‘we are going to hospital, number one doctor.’
We stopped by a row of shops and the taxi-man got out. I jumped from the car and seized him by the arm, shouting: ‘I said number one hospital. You lie. You cheap charlie. You number ten thousand Saigon.’ We were surrounded by children, in the pouring rain, the taxi-man tugging himself free, and me gripping him by the arm. It was left to the woman, carrying the little bundle of tarpaulin, to find out exactly where the doctor lived. Finally I gave in, and followed her up some steps, then along an open corridor lined with tailors and merchants. At least, I thought, when the baby dies I can’t be blamed. And once I had had that thought, it turned into a wish: a little cough would have done it, a pathetic gurgle, then silence, and my point about Western medicine would have been proved to my own satisfaction. I should have behaved very well, and would have paid for the funeral.
In retrospect it was easy to see how the establishment would command confidence: the dark main room with its traditional furnishings, the walls lined with photographs of ancestors in traditional Vietnamese robes, a framed jigsaw of the Italian lakes. And in the back room (it would, of course, have to be a back room) a plump, middle-aged lady was massaging the back of another plump, middle-aged lady. They paid hardly any attention when we came in. There was not the slightest element of drama. Indeed, I began to see that I was now the only person who was panicking. When she had finished the massage, the doctor turned her attention to the baby. First she took some ointment from a dirty bowl at her elbow, and rubbed it all over the little grey body. Then from another bowl she produced some pink substance resembling Euthymol toothpaste, with which she proceeded to line the mouth. In a matter of minutes, the child was slightly sick, began to cry, and recovered. I had never been more furious in my life. To complete my humiliation, the doctor refused any payment. She provided the old woman with a prescription wrapped in newspaper, and we left.
We drove to the miserable shelter in which the old woman lived.
‘Sit down,’ she said, indicating the wooden bed which was the only feature of her home apart from the roof (there were no walls).
In any other mood I might have been moved by the fact that the only English she knew beyond the terrible pidgin currency of the beggars was a phrase of hospitality. But I so deeply hated her at that moment that I could only give her a couple of pounds, plus some useless advice about keeping the baby warm and off the pavements, and go.
I left the taxi-man at a garage not far from the Royale, where I also gave him some money towards repairing the split tyre.
‘You number one, Saigon,’ he said, with a slight note of terror in his voice.
The weather had cleared up, and I left him, strolling along past the market stalls. Here, you could buy US Army foot powder in bulk, K-rations, lurp-rations (for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols), souvenir Zippo lighters (engraved yea though i walk through the valley of the shadow of death i shall fear no evil, for i am the evilest sonofabitch in the valley), khaki toothbrushes and flannels, and model helicopters constructed out of used hypodermics. You could also buy jackets brightly embroidered with the words when i die i shall go to heaven, for i have spent my time in hell – saigon, and a collection of GI cartoons and jokes called Sorry ’bout that, Vietnam. Five years ago, there had been over 500,000 American GIs. Now there were none.
As I approached the hotel people began asking how the baby was, and smiling when I replied, ‘OK.’ I began to think: Supposing they were all in it together? Suppose the old woman, the taxi driver, the man whose van stalled, the engine driver – suppose they were all now dividing the proceeds and having a good laugh at my expense, congratulating the child on the way it had played its role? That evening I would be telling the story to some old Saigon hand when a strange pitying smile would come over his face. ‘You went to Cholon, did you? Describe the doctor . . . uh-huh . . . Was there a jigsaw puzzle of the Italian Lakes? Well, well, well. So they even used the toothpaste trick. Funny how the oldest gags are still the best . . .’
Indeed I did have rather that conversation a few days later, with an American girl, a weaver. It began: ‘You realise, of course, first of all that the taxi driver was the husband of the old woman . . .’ But I do not think there was a conspiracy. Worse, I should rather conclude that the principals involved were quite right not to trust the hospital doctors with a beggar’s child. It was for this reason that the hotel receptionist had countermanded my orders to the taxi-man, I learned afterwards, and many people agreed with her.
When the old woman came back on the streets, I hardly recognised either her or the child, who for the first time looked conscious and well. ‘Baby-san OK now, no sick,’ she said, gazing at me with an awful adoring expression, though the hand was not stretched out for money. And when I didn’t reply she turned to the child and told it something in the same unctuous tones. This performance went on for the rest of my stay: whenever I was around the child would be made to look at the kind foreigner who had saved its life. I had indeed wanted to save the child’s life, but not in that way, not on the old woman’s terms.
I was disgusted, not just at what I saw around me, but at what I saw in myself. I saw how perilously thin was the line between the charitable and the murderous impulse, how strong the force of righteous indignation. I could well imagine that most of those who came to Vietnam to fight were not the evilest sons-of-bitches in the valley. It was just that, beyond the bright circle illuminated by their intelligence, in which everything was under their control and every person a compliant object, they came across a second person – a being or a nation with a will of its own, with its own medicine, whether Fishing Pills or pink toothpaste, and its own ideas for the future. And in the ensuing encounter everything had turned to justifiable ashes. It was impossible in Saigon to be the passive observer. Saigon cast you, inevitably, into the role of the American.
I’ve been a schoolteacher. Right after college in 1969, like a lot of guys, I taught school as an alternative to serving in Vietnam. I was married with a week-old daughter on graduation day. I taught grade school English in Cleveland, Ohio for six years. After that, I ran, eventually owned, a longstanding bookstore in downtown Cleveland. It felt something like Three Lives in the West Village. I went on to found an alternative weekly paper like the Voice, also in Cleveland. It lasted 12 years. Twenty-one years ago I moved here, armed with an idea and a prototype for a national book magazine. Like a Rolling Stone for books. I never raised the huge amount of money I needed. I then worked for a media company, editing a couple of neighborhood weeklies, more than once using my editor’s space to talk about city kids and reading. Between the editorial jobs, I taught English for a year here in Manhattan at a Catholic boys’ high school with mostly minority kids. I was terrible at discipline. But sometimes when we found a book or a story we liked, it all came together.