I love ‘Theatre at Con Market’, a poem by our resident poet Thường Quán [pen name of Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng]. The poem reminds me of the film Cinema Paradiso (1988) by Giuseppe Tornatore. In Cinema Paradiso, movie-goers from a small Sicilian village are subject to cut-away shots whenever they are about to witness kissing or erotic scenes in romantic films. The village priest in the film has pressured the theatre’s projectionist to cut all “morally unsuitable” scenes from any film shown. In Thường Quán’s poem, the scenes cut from films shown at the theatre at Con Market are not erotic scenes but “hardcore predicaments” precipitating bodily harm. The verb “skip” used in my translation is intended to be more neutral than “cut” – since cutting implies deliberate censorship (as in the case of the village priest in Cinema Paradiso), whereas the notion of “film skipping” implies a more random act, i.e., a technical flaw.
The fabled world of Danang urchins – at once resembling Vittorio de Sica’s indolent neo-realist universe and Francois Truffaut’s restless New Wave vision, is pregnant with adolescent desire: the intense need to fill in the blank, to pierce through life’s mysteries. These youths have yet to experience death “because there are no artillery sounds during the pre-war years”. But unlike Tornatore, who gave his mass audience a facile ending, Thường Quán, like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange (which Stanley Kubrick made into a film with the same title in 1971), shows us that art does not help men to triumph over evil. Art can be as indifferent and forgetting as evil, like the death of Icarus in Brueghel’s painting, as depicted by W.H. Auden in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. Only the starkness of experience (“cold season, cold day, cold memory”) can withstand the ruthless march of history.
Vietnamese only has one tense – the present tense; thus temporal shifts are understood from context. In English translations from the Vietnamese, the use of appropriate verb tense(s) then becomes an interpretive issue. I have applied the present tense to the first two parts of the poem, but employed the past tense in the poem’s epilogue. The use of the past tense toward the end functions as confirmation (that evil has happened) and also as aspiration: that the memory of evil will help to prevent it from re-occurring in the present.
“The tiger” in Thường Quán’s original poem becomes the lion in my English translation, perhaps because I am thinking of the film Androcles and the Lion (1951) with Jean Simmons and Victor Mature. “Chợ Cồn” in English becomes “Con Market”– a serendipitous thing, because it also implies the idea of art being the “con man”. The theatre is a temple of illusion, momentarily insulating the urchins.