"...Each day we are so lucky to have the energy and interest to step out onto the street and stop here and there to greet some friend...
We walk on our own or accompanied by dozens, hundreds of people in our memory, living around us, whose bustling or silent souls float from each fluttering leaf falling from the branch to each quiet brick on the pavement or in a house...
We wander round the familiar city, yet suddenly, like being awakened from a deep and sound sleep, we encounter something which recalls past moments of our lives or even the time before we were born..."
So writes Bang Son in one of his thousands of short prose sketches of Ha Noi.
Musings like this have provided him with inspiration to write about his beloved capital for more than twenty years.
"I have jotted down the most simple features of everyday life, which are easily ignored in our usual hustle and bustle," says Son.
Through his work, readers can taste the flavours of com nam, muoi vung (pressed rice and salted sesame) or canh dua (pickled cabbage soup) common at any intimate family meal; sense the soul of the familiar image of a village pond or of bang (almond) trees standing quiet in a corner waiting for the chilly gust of winter, or become absorbed in the fascination of choosing a branch of peach blossom for Tet.
Writer Hoang Quoc Hai says Son distills the spirit of Viet Nam from such details, making the reader fall in love with it and feel a renewed responsibility to preserve it. "His creations are quite different from other writers’ as he not only describes things coldly like a photo or a video, he pours his soul into the story, making the anecdotes light and sparkling."
Hai says Son forms his phrases through the joys, sorrows, and labours of whole his life.
The careful working of his prose sketches is the result of Son’s original passion for poetry.
Relaxing: Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake has provided inspiration for Son’s stories. — VNS Photo Hoang The Nhiem
As a teenager he wrote poems which appeared in many publications, only shifting to prose in the 1980s.
"It happened when I read a book by a Russian writer containing some very short essays, some only one line long, which made a big impression on me," Son recalls. "I began to wonder why Vietnamese writers didn’t do the same."
At the same time the Van Nghe (Literature and Art) newspaper called for 100-word contributions for a short essay column. Ever since, Son has focused on this form.
"Essays this short require a poetic way of thinking which is fed through prose, so I didn’t find it very different from writing verse," Son says.
He explains that in this form the author might not create a concrete character, place and even event; he or she just writes down the spontaneous feelings of a moment.
Poet Van Long notes that Son’s pieces have a remarkably smooth and optimistic tone, compared with other writers like Nguyen Tuan, considered the leading artist of this form, who agonises over each word, or Vu Bang whose works express a nostalgic sorrow and pity.
Bang Son’s widely-published sketches have been assembled into some 40 books on life in Ha Noi and the northern plains.
"Ha Noi and I are one, as my whole childhood is tied up in those ancient lanes. I used to live in a small wooden house in Cau Go Street, where I stayed up all night composing poetry and writing my diary, and falling in love with a Ha Noi girl," Son recalls.
"The city gave me my love, source and style of living. So, writing about Ha Noi is my own way to express my love for the capital."
He has written with all of his heart, memory and soul, like a duty of a child to the motherland.
Though he writes more than one composition a day, and some themes are repeated, each new piece is written from a totally different angle.
"Readers are pretty sensitive," he said. "They won’t accept careless writing. Sometimes in order to write 300 words I have to brainstorm hard to find a new way of saying something without going over my own tracks."
The writer’s now trying to complete two books, one entitled Hon Muc (Ink’s Soul), comprised of short pieces on 40 of his artist friends, including photographers Mai Nam and Dinh Quang Thanh and writers Vu Bang and Van Long. The second Phap Phong Ha Noi, (Breathing Ha Noi) describes 100 houses in the city, homes of famous artists or the sites of historic events.
At 72 he still works hard to pass on the most beautiful aspects of Ha Noi life to the next generation of readers.
Along with many other artists, he is concerned about modern culture. "Television has overthrown the culture of reading. At this rate, in ten years there may no young readers with the time and interest to read great creations by the world’s best authors."
Perhaps day by day his short essays, more easily skimmed through in such a busy age, will continue to refresh his readers’ pleasure in the most ordinary things. — VNS
Reprinted with permission from VietNam News Agency.