"Nguyễn Minh Châu and Recent Developments in the Vietnamese Short Story"

During the Second Indochina War, Nguyễn Minh Châu (1930-1989), a Communist Party member and writer for the army, wrote short stories and novels according to the dictates of socialist realism—works which glorified the exploits of revolutionary soldiers and vilified the enemy. After the war, however, he argued in an essay that writers should stop writing about one-dimensional characters too virtuous to be believed; instead they should write about “actual reality,” not some hoped for ideal reality, and they should focus less on external events and more on the inner life of individuals. He practiced what he preached by writing short stories like “The Portrait” [Bức tranh] and “A Woman on a Fast Train” [Người đàn bà trên chuyến tàu tốc hành], stories which disturbed some members of the establishment and led to him being summoned to defend them at a meeting of the Writers’ Association in 1985. I discuss Nguyễn Minh Châu’s post-war stories, his defense of them at this meeting, and a famous essay, “Requiem for a Literature of Illustration,” a moving plea for more artistic freedom that he wrote in 1986 when then Party Secretary Nuyễn Văn Linh was considering whether to “loosen strings” on artists. I conclude that although Nguyễn Minh Châu moved away from socialist realism, he still stuck to what Greg Lockhart calls the “standard renovation agenda.” His works were bold and daring but much more traditional than, for example, those of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, a post-war writer some critics call “post-modern.”