“Chronicles of a Village” by Nguyễn Thanh Hiện

Chronicles of a Village, Nguyen Thanh Hien, Quyen Nguyen-Hoang (trans) (Yale University Press, April 2024; Penguin Random House SEA, October 2022) Chronicles of a Village, Nguyen Thanh Hien, Quyen Nguyen-Hoang (trans) (Yale University Press, April 2024; Penguin Random House SEA, October 2022)

Over the course of thirty-seven fragments, an elderly man coming to an understanding of his world tells the “story” of his village: chronicles of a village serves as an indictment of History for what it leaves out. The narrator often offers a curiously romantic view of a pastoral world that is being overtaken by the outside world, and as a celebration/tribute/elegy for his father, mother, and brother. 

An early fragment illustrates how deep, varied, dynamic and more compelling the “news” of a place can be when it embraces folklore, gossip, dreams, hopes, and memories, however hazy they might be. All of this is made magical by the multiple perspectives and revisions that come with the narrator’s age and experience. It is also inescapably that of memory.


these are the chronicles of my village, the vessels of remembering and reminiscing, tale upon tale of yesterday, yesteryear, yestercentury or yestermillenia, now plainly precise, now hazily adrift, […] constantly expand, contract, compel, pressure, evoke and awaken before culminating in a perhaps inevitable explosion, shattering all the burnished grandiose narratives that so desperately try to conceal the fatal historical disabilities of a land.


As powerful as his memory might be in his fight against history, he also acknowledges its dangers:


because in my memory, the past is a chaotic swarm of motley beings that eat and breathe and sometimes these creatures entangle my thoughts, making me feel infinitely muddled, if not stone-blind before the world.


For all the chaos, entanglements, and muddlings that might cause despair, the narrator doesn’t give in. He is on a leisurely stroll, wandering through time and space, steeped in an underlying oral tradition, infused with philosophical bursts on the nature of being and burial robes, and finding peace in the simple day-to-day, month-to-month, and season-to-season business of living: plowing the soil, growing rice, fashioning straw men to scare the birds away, making fabrics and baskets, working the bamboo groves, helping cows give birth. Threaded through everything is the natural world. The mountains and its forest are of epic importance to the village, from the foundational movement of thirty villagers into the Upper Forest and Mun Mountain, to the stories emerging from it through the centuries.

The entire novel has an underlying musicality to it.

The major conflict in the novel is between the village and the outside world with its grandiose narratives that attempt to rewrite the village’s very existence. These are the narratives that sustain the various royal dynasties, including the Tây Sơn (and the rebellion), the Trịnh, and the Nguyễn, as well as the colonizing Chinese and French. At times, the world appears as shadows, soldiers moving through the darkness of night, villagers disappearing. Other brutalities, such as the beheading of a monk and nun, are embedded in stories handed down from one generation to the next. The narrator is, however, witness to the binding and taking of his father and to “the blood-soaked purge of my homeland, everyone who believed in the infinity of the sky was executed by hanging.” Such was the fate of his older brother. After a long time or a short time, his father was, mercifully, released.

For a time, the village resists. Against this violence, he gives us some hope:


the invisible source and course of life in my village quietly flowed on: the sounds of the loom, the lullabies, the laughter of children, all these sounds soaring above the bamboo grove.


And with that nugget of ordinary life, the narrator wanders off again on an extended improv through all that is near and dear to his father, from the languages of humans interwoven with farm animals to land on “the philosophy of the burial robe.”

There are the other grand narratives that are even more insidious and which cannot be shattered as they restructure the very foundations of the social contracts that govern the people and the land. Of particular note is the birth of the individual and the consequent collapse of the village as defined by its communal interactions:


history proposed that the boys and girls in my village should leave the bamboo groves for it was time to honour money and wealth […] time to honour the individual, never before had the individual been exalted like a celestial being on earth […] history acted like a force of gravity that attracted all the boys and girls in my village away from their home, the girls were particularly obsessed with becoming singers, might it be more glorious to be a songstress than to anonymously sing with the old blind man and his gourd lute.

chronicles of a village is simply elegant. One would expect nothing less from Nguyễn Thanh Hiện.

As the narrator wanders, the entire novel has an underlying musicality to it, more specifically, it reads like an extended jazz improvisation with multiple motifs he intertwines, such that the motley beings recur in multiple contexts, a hundred birds burst into song, lines and phrasings repeat, with variations in tone, rhythm, and duration.

chronicles of a village is simply elegant. One would expect nothing less from Nguyễn Thanh Hiện given his illustrious literary career with the number of novels and epic poems he has written, his teaching, his background in philosophy, and his love of the land. What is a surprise is that this is the first book translated into English.

Rick Henry was a Professor of English at SUNY—Potsdam where he directed the BFA in Creative Writing.