BOOK REVIEW: Võ Phiến and the Sadness of Exile


Schafer, John C. Võ Phiến and the Sadness of Exile. Southeast Asia Publications, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, 2006.

UPDATE 10/15/2016: This literary masterpiece is now re-released as an open edition by Digital Commons at Humboldt State University.

Open Access Online version:

Amazon Print version

Proceeds from the print version will support the Library Scholars internship program, which makes open access publishing at Humboldt State University Press possible.

In Võ Phiến and the Sadness of Exile, John Schafer (Professor emeritus of English, Humbolt State University) explores the life and work of the Vietnamese writer Vo Phien. Schafer does not just ‘introduce’ this important literary figure to English language readers, but deeply analyzes the dialectics between historical context and the intellectual output of Vo Phien. Through this close and focused study on the subject Vo Phien, John Schafer is able to also critically explore larger debates around memory, nostalgia, and exile around the Vietnam War. This précis examines the ways in which Vo Phien and the Sadness of Exile is the artful expression of the life and work of Vo Phien and a meditation upon the sorrows of exile.

How can history reveal the subtle meanings of literature? How can literature reflect the lived experiences of history? And why do historical and literary interpretations often remain diametrically opposed as distinct methods to understand the same individual? John Schafer moves between historical context and literary interpretation, integrates Vo Phien’s work and interviews, and thus produces a recursive, quiet, and contemplative story reflective of Vo Phien himself. Rather than a simple historical recollection of Vo Phien’s life, John Schafer beautifully encapsulates the life and literary work of this phenomenal literary figure. John Schafer structures the biography thematically and loosely moves through the chronology of Vo Phien’s life and the context of the Indochina wars. Schafer challenges the simple binary relationship between past and present and encapsulates the emotional trauma of loss upon perceptions of the past and present. Vo Phien’s writing reflects the weight of the past, and with temporal and physical distance from his que huong, that past becomes more of an emotion than a reality. Schafer draws attention to the theme of nostalgia and loss in Vo Phien’s works and characters. For example, Mr. Degree Holder embodies the sense of anomie and loss, reflecting how Vo Phien feels he ‘lost’ his que huong physically and also spiritually. In this way, Schafer centers the role of memory and emotion upon the writing and rewriting of history.

In his conversations with Vo Phien, Schafer also demonstrates the interwoven relationship between history and memory. In chapters one and two, Schafer considers Vo Phien’s literary works against Vo Phien’s reflexive but elusive comment that his early life was “obsessed with politics.” Schafer attempts to understand the justifications and reasons for this comment by closely looking at the history of the period and Vo Phien’s literary output over time. Schafer dedicates several sections and continues to emphasize the historical significance of Binh Dinh province—Vo Phien’s home province—during the Indochina Wars. Schafer explains how Binh Dinh was a Communist controlled zone (Interzone V) during the First Indochina War, and a free-fire zone during the Second Indochina War. Through this historical contextualization, Schafer convincingly argues that Vo Phien experienced Communism and its ideological excesses more directly during his formative youth in Binh Dinh and later on when he worked to teach Viet Minh cadres. Schafer does not historically flatten Vo Phien’s politics but reinforces his argument by examining Vo Phien’s subtle criticisms of politics. Schafer draws attention to both literary content and style as a way to understand Vo Phien’s politics. For example, in “Saying Good-bye”, morally deficient characters uttered patriotic slogans, and the death of the protagonist is not given a self-sacrificial hero’s death. Schafer also notes that Vo Phien’s stylistic and nuanced criticisms of mass politics were responses to obvious and crude state-sponsored propaganda. Using Vo Phien’s ‘anti-communist feeling’ rather than ‘anti-communist thinking’, Schafer emphasizes the subtleties of feeling over the superficial clarity of thinking. In many ways this distinction parallels the narrative quality of memory and history.

Schafer poignantly draws the reader into the thinking and personal dilemmas of Vo Phien throughout his life as he ruminated over important existential questions such as the following: Should the writer serve the state? How did the state use abstract political theories to pull its citizens away from the reality of war? What is the purpose of writing about tragedy? By deeply exploring the roots of Vo Phien’s emotions of fear, confusion, loss, and nostalgia, Schafer clarifies without diminishing the depth of Vo Phien’s profound introspection. More than just biography, Vo Phien and the Sadness of Exile is a commentary on exile (or ly huong, loss of home) and how individuals make meaning out of their liminal existence. Often histories of the Vietnam War mention the tragic human cost of war, yet the commentary is empty of the intimate details and raw human emotion of everyday life in a time of war. Through his close readings of Vo Phien’s life and body of work, Schafer conveys a human life rather than historical actor, an individual who is quiet, humble, reflective, and also tormented because of the loss of his love (que huong). Schafer explains, “Vo Phien has always been fascinated with the subtleties of love, in particular with the glance, which he says is not just a means of signaling love, it is love itself.” (230) The soulful reflections of Vo Phien and the beautiful storytelling of John Schafer provide a narrative of war that is complex and contradictory, and thus deeply human.

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