I have never been asked directly by an author if I would read and then review his or her book. So when Nguyễn Trọng Hiền asked if I would, I was surprised, happy and honored. ‘Neihtn‘ ‘s debut novel is the hero of this post.
Set in 19th Century Vietnam, The Village Teacher is a work of historical fiction.The story is placed in French colonial Vietnam. The protagonist of the story is Teacher Tam, a school teacher from a small village in North Vietnam. Tam aspires to follow in the steps of the scholars of the time and excel at the royal examinations entitling him to a position at the court or as a Mandarin. In the process he shall make new friends, enemies and show to the reader the life in an oriental state under Imperialist powers. A simple village boy makes for the perfect hero with intellect, a training in martial arts and an infallible sense of ethics. The story weaves around politics, drama, love, history and rural life. It tells in some detail of the struggle of a poor man who falls in love with an unlikely heroine and battles the demons of bureaucracy, jealousy and conniving centers of power in the South Asian country.
I will not talk any more of the plot for a fresh story is much more worthy of a read. When I picked up the book the first few chapters were a little difficult to get through. The author’s Vietnamese descent and knowledge of the country’s culture flows through the book. From the names of the characters, to the intertwined lessons of history, geography and gastronomy of the region you feel a very definite presence of ‘Nam’. The words and names are a little difficult to remember at first and thus the initial chapters take time. The freshness of the writer is apparent in the first few pages as one can make out that although excellently well versed in English perhaps its not the writer’s original tongue. I say this as a compliment for it adds to the Vietnamese experience.
As the book progresses one finds more fluidity perhaps by the author having gotten into the flow or the reader having done the same. The names don’t seem so difficult and you pursue the short excerpts from the history books with a new found passion for this relatively less discussed nation and culture. I knew very little about Vietnam, all references I had were from the 70’s conflict period. So would most of the English speaking world I fathom. So the influence of China, the culture of Mandarins and the dominance of France is new and thus interesting. The initial chapters talk of examinations which make or break the careers of scholars as they rise to positions in the royal court. I find myself drawing comparisons to the life in India or most developing nations were high government bureaucrats even today are selected by modern versions of similar exams. Despite the age in which the story is set you form a perfect idea of the daily life of the main characters and find it easy to relate to.
The story may start off as a history lesson soon embraces the beginnings of a romance novel before swaying into suspense, tragedy, drama and with little sprinklings of action. The book has the perfect formula for fiction with the tussle between righteousness and evil, the anguish of lovers torn and the inklings of epic rooted in history. The author must be commended for swaying away from carnal imagery in this era of G.R.R Martin and The Fifty Shades of Grey . He manages to create a palatable romance while letting it remain in the confines of the society in the book’s time and place. One gets to meet interesting if stereotypical characters through out the book which are parts of Asian culture irrespective of nationality. Whether it be a professional match maker, marital astrologer, court eunuch, an all powerful village chief or a village council feigning democracy, all portray life in the era in keeping with history.
I wouldn’t say any part of the plot was deeply unpredictable but the author does mange to create periods of intrigue. The strength of the book to me lies not in the individual stories of Teacher Tam and his beloved Giang but in what they represent in a time of colonialism and mixed cultures. The success of the novel is in the depiction of a period and place often unknown in language easy, authentic and colorful. I say authentic for the work embossed a sense of formality, reservedness and I dare say rigidity, rampant in Asian cultures in the 19th century, onto my mind. While I was reading the book I could feel a sense of awkwardness as if I was adjusting to a new culture. You actually experience something new in terms of the lifestyle of the characters. Another notable point is how the relationship between the French and the Vietnamese has been portrayed with delicate respect for both cultures. It takes a sound business sense and good moral compass to be able to entertain and not alienate audiences form both nationalities. The willingness of an educated few to embrace modern education and teachings while valuing classical knowledge and the defiance of orthodox scions of an Ancient culture to anything alien and new, these seem very believable and well portrayed. I would like to have seen the ending a little more drawn out, but we live in abrupt times and perhaps not everyone shares my love for long scenes.
I would recommend you read the book if Oriental cultures, Asian rural life or colonial era stories interest you. For the average romance lover there might be a lot of history. For a first novel and the culmination of a life time dream, this is a great effort and for a fellow IT guy, Brilliant!
The authors blog : http://neihtn.wordpress.com/
Amazon : http://tinyurl.com/qhxgcgt