Vietnam's popular literary gadfly. TESTING THE LIMITS OF OPENNESS

NGUYEN MANH TUAN, a literary provocateur in Vietnam, sadly watches the harbor in the gray dusk. He is dining at the old Majestic Hotel, overlooking the Saigon River. The evening wind blows up small waves against the river's current, leaving white foam that rolls down to the sea. He is both sad and angry. Some Communist Party leaders have opposed his writings. They even have demanded that he be hanged.

``Who dares malign my fighting prose?'' he asks. Vietnam's old literature was built on roguish defiance of authority, and today the pens of the nation's writers are being sharpened once again in the limited liberty of a new cultural openness.

``In our history, we have gone through periods of loosening up on freedom and democracy, then tightening, then loosening,'' he says. ``This time, the loosening will last, because it does not depend on one leader.''

Mr. Tuan's boyish looks and black mane reflect his own roguish temperament. His sandals are brown and his pants gray, two colors favored in Vietnamese art. But this young phoenix, who tries to rise above Vietnam's recent past of war-propaganda literature, also wears a red-and-black Izod sport shirt imported from the capitalist West.

Like a few other Vietnamese authors allowed to venture into bolder social and political criticism, Tuan's fiction attacks a basic contradiction in Vietnam: the widening gap between the good intentions of the nation's leaders and their results. The results are a poverty worse than Mongolia's and party domination in the private lives of Vietnamese.

``Until last year, we thought that the party was always right,'' says Ha Xuan Truong, editor of Communist Review, the party's theoretical journal. ``Now it's a two-way street.''

Tuan is not considered the best writer in Vietnam, but he ranks as the most controversial and the quickest to pick up on social dissent and put it into print.

Another critical novelist is Nguyen Khai, who is just as candid but more subtle than Tuan. His latest book, ``Human Time,'' deals with the problem of the aging. ``The Priest, Me, and ...'' tells about a young priest wrestling with problems of Vietnamese Roman Catholicism. One unusual book, ``The White Land,'' by Nguyen Trong Oanh, deals with the war against the United States, but rather than painting it as one glorious victory after another, it talks of the horrors on both sides, as well as Vietnamese who defected.

The most popular book in recent weeks has been ``A Far-Gone Time,'' by Le Luu, a famous propaganda writer during the war. The books tells about a man's many tragic failures in love and marriage, and how party leaders failed him with their advice and deeds.

Tuan's fame as a faddish gadfly really began in 1985, with a novel called ``Cu Lao Tram,'' the fictional name of a Mekong Delta province. The book was like a lance to the Communist Party's conservative dragons, bringing fire down upon the author. Among other things, it criticized the practice of forcing farmers to join cooperatives.

``The book touched on some sacred topics,'' he said, such as the syrupy folk songs about love that southern peasants sing to relieve their boredom and the low education level and the pretense of many village party leaders, usually old war veterans. The plot concerns a young female party leader who defies the rules, such as coercive collectivization, in helping her village develop.

Just after the book came out, party leaders from nine provinces in the Mekong met to decry the book, and were able to quietly prevent it from being turned into a movie or radio drama.

``The decision was kept secret to avoid publicizing the book even more,'' says Nguyen Van Thoung, editor of a newspaper in the delta city of Can Tho. ``From afar, the book appears good in criticizing negative phenomena. But close up, it doesn't match reality. It describes several ex-soldiers as decadent, implying war heroes are bad economic managers. And the female party leader left her post without permission - violating party discipline.''

Tuan says the book was actually banned in certain areas. At regional party meetings in Ho Chi Minh City, he says, ``Some leaders said I was a counterrevolutionary and should be put on trial and hanged.'' He has never joined the party, because ``maybe they don't like me.''

Particularly irksome to Tuan is that the party-controlled Writers' and Artists' Central Committee failed to come to his defense. Just the same, the book sold 160,000 copies, unusually high in Vietnam.

Another barb thrown at him by his Mekong critics was that he was a northerner, who could not possibly understand the south. Born in Hanoi, Tuan never went to college and worked as an auto mechanic until 1967, when he went into the Army and carried ammunition down the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war. He was assigned to the south in 1975, five months after the collapse of the Saigon regime, by the new communist rulers in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). They wanted a ``candid'' writer who could capture the south with ``realism.''

His first novel, ``The Remaining Distance,'' was published in 1980. It tells of one family, symbolic of the whole country, separated by war, with some members living in the communist north, others in decadent Saigon. Reunited, they try to find a common life again, but their political differences remain. The book, which was made into a film, uses human drama to criticize both the northern socialist intelligentsia and the velvet-and-silk life of rich southerners.

By 1980, however, Vietnam's economy was in trouble. ``Our spirits sagged while the leaders kept making excuses about the effects of the war and the old regime. Their excuses were no longer believable. The leaders were not open to change.''

In Ho Chi Minh City, however, the first stirrings of ideological change began, he says, because the city has remained dynamic from its capitalistic days. ``Anything imposed on it will be rejected. The many generations of capitalist French and Americans left it an industrial city. Rules not attuned to the natural dynamics are thrown off.''

His second book, ``Facing the Sea,'' took a stab at the fathomless economic woes, told through the tale of a war hero who tries to manage a fish operation using past glory and naive goodwill.

His next book, due out in February, deals with the complaints of many young people in Vietnam today: how their inability to control their careers causes social problems. The book tells of four young people sent to a coffee plantation in the hills, and how each in his or her own sad and dramatic way is forced to be become either corrupt or disillusioned.

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