I came across a fascinating book the other day which speaks to me of two of my dearest interests-History and Art. Trang Phuong now in his early eighties has produced an impressive tome of reminiscences of his wartime experiences accompanied by his sketches and oil paintings from his youth spent as a soldier painter in the War of Independence from France and the subsequent American War.
This 209 page volume is packed with images of Phuong’s war time experience. There would have been more to select from but for two tragic losses. Firstly, as the artist relates, some went missing on his trek from south to north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Then subsequent to war fire in civil unrest in Cambodia at the Vietnamese Embassy where they were on display destroyed some choice works.
First come the drawings. This is less artistic expression and more detailed realistic recording for posterity of the day to day life of a guerrilla soldier never sure if he were not to escape sacrificing his life. They show the painter’s feelings and thoughts at critical times. You wish you had them before you to smell the battlefields and see the browning of time and the singeing of some of them by bullet and fire.
There are portraits of outstanding men and women colleagues some awarded medals, some with their weapons ready to fire. Under rustic structures of bamboo and rice straw soldiers are depicted at meetings and painting classes and their officers discuss strategic planning and are shown mulling over lessons to be learned from recent skirmishes. Even the mundane creeps in with a woman at her sewing machine in the Cu Chi tunnels and groups cooking and eating meals together. Then there are comrades knitting mattresses and workers whittling down bamboo sticks into lethal spikes. The effects of chemical defoliants on rubber plantations and rural settlements also come under the artist’s roving eye as well as much more.
We move on to the oil paintings. Normally after the word oil would come “on canvass” , nut this was not always available in a war. The author recounts slitting the hood of an abandoned jeep for that and old American sandbags were also put to good use. Preserving paintings in fierce battles, he writes, was even harder than saving lives.
Looking at the paintings I was struck at how despite the grimness of war the beauty of rural Vietnam prevails -the secluded forests, the dreamy waterways and the verdant rice fields in among the troop movements and artillery fire. Soldiers pass across the monkey bridges and climb the mountain trails on to battle while nature stands tranquilly by.
Scenes of urban warfare are also depicted as the painter was intensively involved in the Saigon Revolt and the Tet and Spring offensives. There is a photo of the author wading through water in what is now the heavily built over suburb of Phu My Hung. As with the sketches there is a reminder that many aspects of life went on more or less as usual. Soldiers had time for bathing in the rivers and there is a poignant frame of a contented soldier resting in a Cu Chi tunnel while his wife beside him breastfeeds their new born baby. Finally there some post war paintings of the reconstruction times of the country.
Do not pass over the chapters of text. Trang Phuong writes eloquently and with great humility of his experiences ending in a scene of how when as a Ph.D student in Bulgaria he received the news of the liberation of Saigon. A fellow Palestinian student remarks that Vietnam’s victory is due to how united its people are. I too was a student that day on April 30 1975 when I heard that same news in the canteen of the London University Student Union Building. I wish all readers a very peaceful April 30 holiday this year, hopefully with a copy of this tome at hand.
War, they say, brings out the worst in man and it brings out the best in man. It certainly brought out the best in Phuong as a young artist. War is failure to communicate and understand. This book succeeds resoundingly in communicating what it was to live through a country’s darkest tomes and understand history. War is bleak pointless and tragic. Dr. Trang Phuong’s book reminds us it cannot extinguish the beauty, purpose and triumph of Art. These days I rarely think of Vietnam’s troubles of the past century. Vietnam’s story is now of development and economic progress but from time to time it is good to remind ourselves of what this is built upon and this book is an admirable way to do that in the run up to April 30 which celebrates the end of a war.
The book “Trang Phuong Painter – Soldier” is available at leading book stores and can be ordered at firstname.lastname@example.org (Ms Thư). Published by Nha Xuat Ban My Thuat, hard back in cardboard case at the price of 550.000 VND. The text is in both Vietnamese and English.
Pip de Rouvray April 10 2022