Friday, 27 March 2009

bia hơi and Toer

Bia hơi Quán Sứ

Ten AM bia hơi, and I am not alone
Today the sun is shining
A faint blue struggles through the smog
To sit and drink and read and write
In the morning, on the street
Watching the traffic on a busy round-about
Smoke curls through my fingers
A woman sells me a safety razor
An ode to my enduring love of Hanoi
Why has the West forgotten these simple pleasures?

OK - its all very good and well of me to wax lyrical about the joys of bia hoi in the morning - but I am in a privileged position. My wallet usually contains half a months wages in Vietnamese terms (did I walk around in Australia with two grand in my pocket? no I didn't). And even the Westerners here look upon me with suspicion as the non-tourist who is unemployed. Whilst others toil at teaching English, I sit in the sun at a bia hoi and write poetry and read books. I've got to be careful... Envy will find me and strike me down. However, after half a life of loyal service to The University of Sydney I am going to take this period laying down. I always thought salaried work was a kind of blackmail. For this short period of time I shall enjoy the opposite. What shall I call it? Whitemale?

I have almost finished the last book in the Buru Quartet - by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass). An extended story of colonialism and the birth of indigenous nationalism in Dutch Indochina around the the beginnings on the 20th century. A must read for anyone interested in colonialism, politics, economics and class repression. Or control of the media, or how to organize a resistance against oppression. A manual for popular uprising, showing many of the wrong paths to take, the perils and successes of social consciousness raising. Or a thesis on why which language you write in counts. There are many good book reviews online, so I shall just provide my imprimatur to these books. They are good. Get on your lazy arse and read them.

Many thanks to deepwarren and hellsexy who physically relayed the last two of the quartet from Oz to here. What would isolated readers do without the international readers' conspiracy?

Sunday, 22 March 2009


Originally uploaded by Scratchin Dog.
There were no strange dreams last night, only the abyss of a dead drunk sleep. This morning, the sickness. Coffee sickness. Cigarette sickness. Moving sickness. All the sickness a third level piggy-backed hangover can muster. The heavy pressed full-stop at the end of each of my last three days has a name, and its name is tadioto. Or perhaps it isn't a full-stop at all, but a long drawn out ellipsis...

Tadioto is a bar in the making. It isn't open yet, so I'm not going to tell you where it is. There are no customers, only consultants. I am the Jamesons consultant. The bar top is a long expanse of dull black rock, the kind of bar top that should only exist in a Murakami novel. I like to sit at the far end of the bar so I can gaze down its light absorbing length. It reminds me of the obelisk in 2001 - except you put your scotch on it. The lights are low, the music excellent and unobtrusive. The other occasional consultants are an eclectic mix of the scum of the earth - reporters, photographers and the like. The bar stools are unfeasible narrow and uncomfortable. If you want to sit at the bar it is hard work. If you can't take the pain of the stools, you are relegated to the easy chairs in the corner. Only the real drinkers, the professionals, sit at the bar. The consultants.

The young Vietnamese bartender - practicing for when the bar finally opens - is uncomfortably handsome. He is tall and elegant, and doesn't so much move as silently glide from space to space. He has that strange quality of being-almost-not-quite-there. A skill shared between the best barmen and ghosts. Or ghost barmen as in The Shining. His voice is barely audible, and often I wonder if we have conversed at all, or whether the entire communication has taken place by telepathy. On the top of my bar tab that he meticulously updates in impeccable handwriting he writes 'Mr Jamesons'.

And then there is the other one. The owner. I don't want to write his name, or even think it. Of late, each time I hear his name a rapid pain shots through my internal organs. My kidneys and liver strain like a terrified dog on the end of a chain. He does not write anything on my bar tab - and if he is behind the bar my glass is never half empty. This man is every alcoholics dream, every alcoholics nightmare. An assassin with bottles. This is why the consultants gather here. This will be the finest bar in Hanoi if it ever opens, but the bar is but the body. The man is the heart and mind. And like moths to the flame, so the consultants come and work towards their early graves, to listen to this man. Like some hideous parody of the sermon on the mount, the owner dispenses his wisdom and we lap it up like starving curs. We should be ashamed.

I do not look forward to the day when this bar opens. Part of me hopes it never will. Customers will clutter the place up, degrade it, sully it with their noise and pointless chatter. I much prefer the quiet company of the consultants, gathered around their despondent Jesus. Perhaps the only good thing that can come from this bar opening is it may just save my life.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

the truth about my life in Vietnam

I've been dealing with a lot of those 'what have you been up to over there' kind of emails of late. Vietnam sounds so exotic. You look like you are having a great time. Yadda yadda yadda. These questions bug me mostly because they encourage me to sit back and ask myself the same thing. What have I been doing over here? I don't work. I often don't even leave the apartment until dinner time. I am not writing my great Australia/Vietnamese novel. I'm not even sitting back staring at the wall with some kick-arse drug habit (cigarettes and booze don't count, if only because they are legal). So what is it I've been doing all this time?

I'll tell you what. I've been reading. Call it 'research towards the novel', or 'avoiding all my responsibilities'. I've looked at myself hard in the mirror and asked where all those hours, days, weeks, months have disappeared to. And it is reading. Whenever I can't face life, or reality, I pick up a book. And obviously I've had a lot of responsibilities to avoid. I've sat down and listed all the books I remember have read since leaving Australia in April last year. This list is in no particular order, and I've probably forgotten a few. However, there are only two books on the list which I felt happy to see the back of - the Paul Coelho and the Iain Banks - they didn't do it for me.

Bowl of Cherries - Millard Kaufman
The Age of the Warrior - Selected Writings - Robert Fisk
The Shock Doctrine - Naomi Klein
Interpreter of Maladies (short stories) - Jhumpa Lahiri
This Earth of Mankind - Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Child of All Nations - Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Generation of Swine (reread) - Hunter S Thompson
Failed States - Noam Chomsky
The Zahir - Paulo Coelho
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali - Gil Courtemanche
Shalimar the Clown - Salman Rushdie
Snow - Orhan Pamuk
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace - Dang Thuy Tram
Dirt Music - Tim Winton
A Wolf at the Table - Augusten Burroughs
Possible Side Effects - Augusten Burroughs
Running with Scissors - Augusten Burroughs
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
In Evil Hour - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Short Cuts - Raymond Carver
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (short stories) - Raymond Carver
1967 This Is It! - Lowell Tarling
South of the Border, West of the Sun - Haruki Murakami
A Wild Sheep Chase (reread) - Haruki Murakami
The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Birthday Stories (shoter stories - various authors) - ed Haruki Murakami
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini
The Piano Teacher - Elfeiede Jelinek
The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
Double Vision - Pat Barker
Underground - Andrew McGahan
A Song of Stone - Iain Banks
Two Caravans - Marina Lewycka
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Maria Lewycka
Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris
Strange Pilgrims - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Novel with No Name - Duong Thu Huong
A Viet Cong Memoir - Truong Nhu Tang
Ho Chi Minh: Selected Writings
Dumb Luck - Vu Trong Phung
Brazil - John Updike
The Road - Cormac McCarthy
The Tears of Autumn - Charles McCarry

currently reading:
Footsteps - Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard - Kiran Desai