IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
WORKER IN THE PROMISED LAND
I had left my country in the spring of 1948. The heartrending pain of a loving mother silently enduring the permanent departure of her prodigal son! . . . The tears of a 12-year-old girl holding her little brother in her arms!
The old tree drifting down the river can never return to its native land — this image flitted around in my head as the Messageries Maritimes freighter raised anchor in the Saigon harbor in that sad late afternoon.
It took more than four weeks to lug us from Saigon to Marseilles.
I traveled fourth class, in the hold with a dozen young men hoping to study in France. We slept in bunks. At one end of the hold were coffins bearing the remains of officers of the French Expeditionary Corps who had been killed in the ambush at Da Lat. The specters of the Indochina War followed us.
And so that spring of 1948 I set foot once again in the ancient Mediterranean city of Marseilles, gateway to the promised land. Fourteen years earlier, working as a launderer on the Aramis, I had arrived at the same port and roamed around the city for three weeks during the drydocking of the ship, then returned to Vietnam. I had intended to go to Paris and stay there, but it turned out that I would not get my sailor’s pay until the end of the return trip, so I didn’t even have the money for a Paris train ticket.
This time I was here for good. Some Vietnamese students came to the dock to help new arrivals — a tradition of solidarity dating from the first student emigrations in the 1920s. They advised me to stay in Marseilles, pointing out that, if nothing else, it was warm all the time. For me this was out of the question: it was Paris or bust.
They put us up in a cheap hotel. The next morning we had our first practical lesson in urban life. The chambermaid, coming to our room to change the sheets, was astonished to see that the bedding had not been disturbed. She asked us:
“Where did you sleep last night?
“On the beds!
“You’re supposed to sleep in the beds! she explained, drawing back the covers to show us how it was done.
In Vietnam, where it’s warm all the time, we were used to sleeping on bundled branches and covering ourselves with grass mats. We had never heard the phrase getting into bed.
Our guides put us on the night train, and the following morning we arrived at the Gare de Lyon [train station] in Paris. The clock on the tower with its sinister-looking hands made a strong impression on me, as if it was proclaiming: Now you’re in for it, my boy! You’re in my power!
I settled into the Saint-Sulpice neighborhood. My friend Luc [Lu Sanh Hanh], who had arrived in France the previous year, had reserved a room for me in the little Hôtel de la Principauté on Rue Servandoni, right around the corner from Rue Vaugirard where he lived. Another Saigon refugee, a radical student named Phuc, lived there too.
That winter was my first experience of ice — in the basin in front of the Saint-Sulpice church. I touched it, fascinated.
During the first few months my Saigon friends and relatives would periodically send me two or three kilos of rice, which I sold on the black market — postwar rationing was still in effect, and rice was extremely hard to come by. Later, I got by with other scams while in the process of learning a trade and finding some regular work. I sent used cameras to a photographer friend in My Tho (who was sheltering my son Do) and radio parts to an old Saigon radio-repairman friend (who was taking care of my other son, Da).*
In exchange for the rice I brought, I was able to eat freely at La Baie d’Along, a restaurant on Rue Grégoire-de-Tours.
That was also where I made my first contacts with the Vietnamese diaspora and developed friendly relations with Vietnamese who had been forcibly conscripted to fight or work in France during World War II. They had been among the 20,000 Vietnamese soldiers (of whom 6000 had been killed in the fighting) and the 20,000 civilians deported from Vietnam to France to work in dangerous war production. They had been penned up in camps under military discipline. Many died in the prisons established within those camps to stamp out rebellion; others succumbed to starvation or disease. Despite numerous revolts, these camps continued well beyond the war years, the majority until 1948, a few as late as 1952. This amounted to a double exploitation: by the state, which acted as the intermediary with the enterprises, levying its tithes in the process, and by the bosses in textile factories, construction, salt production, etc., to whom these captive workers had been delivered. In 1948 I thus came to know those who had deserted or had been demobilized thousands of miles from their country. Some, like Dang Van Long, became close friends.*
Their meeting place, which also served as a haven for unemployed people, was just down the street from the Baie d’Along restaurant. It also functioned as a schoolroom where a few students gave free lessons to their compatriots in French, arithmetic, etc. I joined in, helping to teach Vietnamese illiterates how to read and write their own language.
* * *
Nanterre [an industrial suburb west of Paris]. November 1951. It’s still dark. The Simca auto factory rises before me, an immense wall of illumined dirty windows, its sinister geometrical silhouette standing out against the dawning sky. At the workers’ entryway on the right side of the factory, across the street from a jam-packed café-bar, I merge with the dense crowd waiting for the gate to open and swallow us up. I’ve joined the working class.
Two uniformed guards control the entry. Each worker presents his identity card. I show them the notification inviting me for a test. They direct me to the hiring office.
The personnel chief is M. Bouygues. I’m applying for work as an electrician. You’re 38 and you’ve never worked before? He gives me a strange look, as if to say, These Orientals, you never can tell their age . . . After examining my diploma in industrial electricity from the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers [National School of Engineering and Technology], he directs me to the electrical repair and maintenance department on the third floor, to take a test.
An energetic foreman sets me up on an empty work bench, beside another one where an old worker is busy with some small task. The old man gives me a sidelong glance over his glasses, then returns to his work.
The foreman sets a bunch of equipment in front of me.
“These are the parts from the control mechanism of a welding machine. You have to reassemble it according to this blueprint.
Then he spreads out the schematic diagram next to a pile of electrical parts — resistors, capacitors, rectifiers, coils, etc. — along with solder, pliers, and a few other tools.
Deafened by the clashing noises from the assembly line, I put the parts together, then start the wiring. I become so wrapped up in this that the noises bother me less and less.
Making sure that the foreman is no longer present, the old worker beside me whispers, How are you doing with that? He avoids looking in my direction — if he’s caught helping me, he’ll be fired. He continues to watch me out of the corner of his eye while pretending to be busy with his own task. Another whisper: No, not that way! You’ve got the rectifier upside down! He looks relieved when he sees me redo it correctly.
At noon, everyone stops for lunch. The assembly-line noise ceases all at once, as if by magic. The old man, whose name is Guillaume, introduces me to a congenial younger guy who has come in from the workshop. He was hired two weeks ago, having passed the same test I’m doing. He goes to wash his hands, then takes me to the cafeteria.
We have 45 minutes to chow down and have a coffee. Then he says, Come with me, and we leave a bit early. He leads me to the locker room in the basement. Making sure that no one else is there, he takes a pencil and a piece of paper from his pocket and quickly sketches a diagram: This is how the wiring of the heat relay goes. It’s the trick part of the test. I sigh in relief, touched by this spontaneous help.
The following afternoon I finished the wiring. The foreman brought in his boss Gaido, an Italian engineer who had learned the ropes at Fiat during the Fascist era, to check my work. The rebuilt machine seemed satisfactory to both of them. Gaido picked it up and put it on the testing chassis. My heart was beating — this was the moment of truth! He turned on the switch and it worked! But just to make sure, he retested it by rapidly turning the machine on and off at irregular intervals. It still passed — no leaking solder, no bad connections.
“Okay, you’re hired.
The employment contract included all the internal factory regulations, all the rules of industrial servitude. They had me go through an identification screening and I was photographed. It reminded me of being run through the judicial identity laboratory on Rue Filippini in Saigon, across from the Central Prison, during my first arrest in 1936. Now I had my plastic-covered identity card with an administrative number and photo — my passport into the factory. I was part of the impersonal flock of Simca personnel.
I had the right to speak with labor union representatives, and was given a free choice among the three unions present in the factory: the CGT [the Stalinist union], the CFTC [the Christian union], and an independent union organized by the company, which consisted mostly of Indochina veterans. I chose not to join any of them.
During my medical exam, the old doctor, seeing the dilapidated state of my lungs, ordered an additional exam. The social worker, sensing my anxiety, kindly took me aside: Don’t worry. I’m going to drag this out so that you will have worked long enough to get Social Security in case you have to stop working.
At the medical laboratory, near Rue Ampère, a pretty lab assistant in white hospital garb did an intubation. I practically suffocated as she forced the rubber tubing down my esophagus, all the way to my stomach. Then she sucked some gastric juice into the tube and put it in a culture fluid. If tubercular bacillus developed within the next three months, I’d be in trouble.
My job, which I shared with one other guy, was to watch over the electric switch boxes of the welding machines, which were installed on the chassis assembly line on the same floor where I’d done the test. Inexorably, the assembly line advanced after each pause, leaving just enough time for the worker to make the required number of welds. The assembly line must not be allowed to stop, the welding machines must not be allowed to break down. In case of any mechanical failure, our role as maintenance electricians was to immediately repair it during the regular pauses of the line. I spent most of my time in the midst of this deafening atmosphere doing nothing but watching the welders, who were working frantically to keep in time at each pause of the line. From time to time they would call on us to regulate the current of the welding machines or to adjust their hydraulic pliers.
What was in the minds of these companions, slaves riveted to the assembly line? I have no idea. All that constant striving to work harder and faster so as to make a little extra. We were expected to produce 350 cars per day; anything over that and each worker got a proportionate share of the bonus.
The bosses control our time. Time eats away our life. We proletarians are nothing but the bosses’ variable capital. I’m still haunted by the huge hands of that clock in the Gare de Lyon — a giant cross to crucify the world — which loomed up before me when I first arrived in Paris that spring morning in 1948.
Horloge! dieu sinistre, effrayant, impassible . . .
Le gouffre a toujours soif; la clepsydre se vide.
[Clock! Sinister, terrifying, inscrutable god . . . The thirst of the abyss is unquenchable; the water clock runs dry.]*
From then on clock faces spiked with pointed hands pursued me endlessly in the city. As Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy: “Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most the carcass of time.*
* * *
I lived in a shabby hotel in the Chalons quarter, next to the Gare de Lyon. A room rented by the week, with a tiny sink. The single light bulb gave out a pale, gloomy light that was insufficient for reading. Strange little cheap Chinese restaurants crowded both sides of the meagerly lit street. Puddles of household waste water glittered here and there on the lower end of the roadway like a urinal that never drained away. Drug dealing and black market trafficking of every kind took place late into the night.
I crossed this dismal little street early each morning to catch the first subway at 5:30, so as to arrive on time in the industrial suburb west of Paris. It took me more than an hour and a half to get from the Gare de Lyon to Nanterre. During this commute I tried to keep my eyes open and read Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in the old Costes edition. I read and reread the same pages in the subway till it reached the Pont de Neuilly, then transferred to a bus. Then a quick coffee in the bistrot across from the factory gate.
The guards closed the gate at the beginning of the shift. If I was late, they phoned the chief foreman before letting me in. One day my foreman said sarcastically, It looks like we’re going to have to give you an alarm clock.
I continued my studies at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. When I obtained diplomas for three years of industrial electricity theory, I qualified for hands-on lab work. There were only a dozen places in the school’s laboratory, and they were reserved for the students with the best exam scores. Leaving the factory on the evening of the test, I arrived a bit late at the school. But somehow I managed to worm my way through the packed room to be one of the first to hand in my papers. It sometimes happened that among those who had the same scores, whoever handed his in first was selected. With relief, I learned that I was admitted. I slipped away quickly. In the crowd behind me I heard someone whisper: That Chink pulled a fast one!
I was confused and I was ashamed. For my own survival, I had sunk to struggling against my fellow creatures. But if I got through the lab courses, I would perhaps be able to find a less painful way to make ends meet.
Then the tuberculosis bacilli played me a dirty trick. The factory doctor called me in one day after work. Your test was positive. We can’t keep you at work. You have to go get cured.
The social worker, sympathetic as before, showed me the procedures I needed to follow to get unemployment and health benefits. It was understood that I could get my job back once I was cured.
I took advantage of this time free from the brutalizing routine of the factory to try to clarify my ideas and commitments, past and future. During the same period I continued to take technical classes in electricity at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.
After a couple months of rest, it was back to the daily grind. This time I was on the night shift. A deathly silence reigned on all the floors. The motionless assembly lines, machines, and presses slept an iron sleep, seeming to be renewing their energy so as to be ready to extract the next day’s living labor.
The first few nights were the hardest. I found it impossible to recuperate on daytime sleep, and this upside-down life left me constantly exhausted. After two weeks on the night shift, I asked to return to my former day crew.
I was put back on the assembly line, still in charge of maintaining the electrical controls for the welding machines, but this time for fenders and doors rather than chassis. The sheet metal parts, suspended from an overhead belt, twisted about like a venomous caterpillar above my head. As they advanced, the worker had to apply the weld at the precise instant that each piece arrived. One piece passes, another arrives. Man himself becomes a part of the machinery.
Once when I had to replace a pair of worn electrodes on a suspended welding machine, I cut the current and the line stopped. The repair took me about twenty minutes. Then I reconnected the current, but it took the assembly line another ten minutes to start moving again. This was extremely upsetting to the managers, who were all breathing down my neck. As I was calmly replacing my tools, Gaido shouted:
“That interruption of the line cost the company five million francs! Don’t you understand? You can’t just cut the current like that!
“At school I was warned never to work with the power on, I replied.
This incident did not cause me any further trouble, but the welders were annoyed because of the bonus they forfeited. Other members of my team, French workers who were stronger than I, could have done the same repair in five or ten minutes, and they would not have cut off the current. But I was following the correct rule of the trade, without taking into account the bosses’ measure of time. I hadn’t forgotten the old electrician who was electrocuted in the basement while changing a fuse without cutting off the electricity.
From then on I was assigned to do repair work in the shop. The pace of work was less frantic than on the assembly line, but repairing the machines required considerable strength. It strained my back to drag heavy cast-iron machine parts to the work bench or to secure them between the mastodon jaws of the vise.
“Is that how you do it in your country? Gaido snarled at me once when he saw me make an awkward move.
I felt his remark to be a racist slur, but at the moment I couldn’t think of any good retort to the fascist. I fumed over it for a week.
Then, in April 1954, I resigned.
“Where else are you going? Gaido asked.
“I don’t know.
“Don’t kid me, you must have already found something else.
“Well, think it over.
When the period for giving notice had passed, Gaido and my team boss kept insisting that I reconsider my decision. But I was sick of the whole scene. My fellow workers seemed uninterested in anything outside the daily grind of Commute, work, commute, sleep . . . There didn’t seem to be any point in trying to make them aware of their slavish condition.
Do what must be done, come what may! Finally in May 1954 I returned my tools. Goodbye, Simca!
The next day I applied for work at Hispano-Suiza, a well-known brand of luxury cars, in Bois-Colombes [a suburb northwest of Paris]. I had an unusual reception: after registering my identity, the secretary took my fingerprints.
“It’s for National Defense, she explained before leading me to the employment office.
Upon looking over my certificates from the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers and noting my past experience as a repair electrician, the engineer proposed to hire me as a technician. The work consisted of measuring airplane wing vibrations when the attached machine-gun was fired. But the idea of contributing to the fine-tuning of engines of death repelled me, and I turned down their job offer.
* * *
After five weeks of being unemployed, I finally found a job as a technician at Mors in Clichy [a working-class suburb north of Paris]. The factory produced railroad signal relays, but also worked for the Navy. It was there that I met Paco Gómez, a survivor of the Spanish Civil War who became my lifelong friend.
Born in 1917, Paco was brought up in Madrid by his seamstress mother. After a period in the Communist Youth and then in the Trotskyist Left Opposition, he joined the POUM. In June 1937, while a delegate at a POUM congress in Barcelona, he was arrested by the Stalinists, who had taken over the Republican Police. After spending a year in various Spanish Republican prisons, he was released and fought on the Pyrenees front in a troop composed mainly of members of the CNT. Upon the victory of Franco’s forces in January 1939, he joined the mass exodus to France and was taken to a refugee concentration camp at Argelès-sur-Mer in Pyrénées-Orientales. French Trotskyists got him out of the camp and brought him to Paris, but he was reinterned in the same camp when he was caught while searching in the south of France for his refugee comrades. Suzanne, a teacher whom he had met in Paris, recontacted him and married him, thereby enabling him to leave the camp and return to Paris.
At Mors, I was assigned to the team of relay regulators, and worked sitting down. The work was less arduous than at Simca, but nevertheless very tedious, demanding more dexterity than technical knowledge.
One afternoon at work, I suddenly felt sick. After an X-ray, the factory doctor exclaimed, You must go to the hospital immediately!
Once I was in the hospital, they wouldn’t let me leave. A nurse made me wash in a bathtub, then I was confined in a bed for tubercular pleurisy.
What would become of my son Da, whom I had succeeded in bringing over from Saigon just a few months earlier? He had arrived on May 17, 1956. He was twelve years old and did not know a word of French. There I was, a rooster bringing up a chick, as the Vietnamese put it. I had enrolled him in the local school just a few steps from our room at 60 Rue Nationale. He had a delightful and very devoted teacher who cut out pictures of objects and pasted them in a copy book to facilitate his learning the new language. Da and I only saw each other in the evening, but were able to spend the weekends together.
While I was hospitalized, Paco and Suzanne took Da to live with them. Suzanne placed him in the school where she herself taught, where he formed a close attachment to three other classmates. They called themselves the Four Musketeers, and are still friends.
One time Suzanne brought Da to visit me in the hospital, but he was not allowed to enter the room. Sitting on a bench just outside, he told me about his new life. The white hairs on his head reflected the terrifying night he had spent during the previous year (1955), bullets whistling over his head as he crouched under the bed during the battle between the Binh Xuyen pirates and Ngo Dinh Diem’s mercenaries in the straw hut neighborhood between Saigon and Cholon.
Among the friends from the factory who came to see me in the hospital was old man Guyot.
“Don’t worry! I’ll take care of your son, he said to me as he placed some oranges on my bed. I’ll return him to you as good as new!
Vandenstein, a cable maker at the plant, made the same warmhearted offer.
* * *
After two and a half months at the hospital, I was granted a long rest in the Pyrenees. At the beginning of December I entered a sanatorium in Cambo-les-Bains, not far from the Spanish border. It was called Les Terrasses [The Terraces] and consisted of a group of multistoried buildings and pavilions built on wooded terraces overlooking the Nive River. In front of the sanatorium, beyond the curtain of autumn-colored trees that hid the river, rose the rounded peaks of the Lower Pyrenees. I was finally seeing that blue sky country of the South that Brassens’s companion dreamed of in the film Porte des Lilas, full of the drifting clouds I so loved. I started to paint.
One of the paradoxes of my life: In prison or in a hospital I have felt free, freed from worrying about how to get my daily rice. At the Central Prison in Saigon we were able to meet and discuss things without worrying about being spied on by the cops, whose surveillance was so prevalent everywhere else. In the hospital or the sanatorium, apart from the periods of treatment, I was able to breathe freely, living outside the realm of time to gain and time to lose.
The smell of turpentine and paint disturbed my roommate, so the doctor gave me a room of my own in the neighboring pavilion. My window opened onto a splendid view of Mt. Ursuya and the poetic banks of the Nive.
In the factory, time dominated me, devouring the moments of my life. Here, I was intoxicated with space, with the poetry of the trees, the song of the river, the melodious silence of the mountains.
I drew and painted like a bird sings, like one of those prehistoric men drawing, painting, carving, or leaving impressions of his hands on the walls of caves. It was an internal necessity, like the silkworm:
Même si, dit-on, le fleuve se dessèche et la montagne s’use,
Le ver à soie jusqu’à sa mort continuera à cracher sa soie.
[Even if, as the saying goes, the river dries up and the mountain wears away, the silkworm will continue all its life to spit forth its silk.]*
My previous paintings, 60 Rue Nationale and Rue des Chiffonniers, portraying the poor neighborhoods in the 13th Arrondissement, had been painted in the evenings after my factory work. Now here was the magnificent silhouette of Mt. Ursuya, disappearing and reappearing behind the white patches of fog rising from the valley of the Nive River beyond the rows of autumn-colored trees. I was enthralled by the charm of this landscape, and devoted a whole series of paintings to it.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 10 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.