Published in 1977 by Heinamann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd
Set against a background of foreign intervention and guerrilla counter movement in an unnamed country, The Immolation was one of the first books published in the seventies that tells of occupation and war from an Asian guerrilla’s point of view.
Returning to his homeland from Paris, Thanh feels estranged from his country and his people. He joins an underground group of nationalists. When the group is discovered and has to leave the city, Thanh finds himself thrown into a new world. In a jungle training camp, he meets nationalists and idealists from every social background. Quartered with a farmer’s family in a village amongst rice fields, he learns to enjoy the small pleasures of the common folk. He also finds himself faced with the challenge of having to kill his fellowman.
When all is destroyed in a series of calamities, Thanh is faced with the central, universal moral question of all time: how far should a man commit himself to a cause?
❧ EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER * ❧
THE DAY BEGAN like any other. With the sunrise, life unfolded like a bud into flower. Inside the hut, Thanh lay listening to the familiar sounds made by the womenfolk in the kitchen. But on this particular morning he cringed from the sound. He dreaded getting up, but there was no way of avoiding it.
He was out in the fields with the others when they heard the hum in the air. This time they dropped their work and headed quickly for home. In the village, life was stopping in its tracks: mothers screamed frantically for their children, and dogs and chickens in their path were kicked aside, howling and cackling with excitement at this turmoil in the world of man. As the last villager entered the safety of the shelters, there was a sudden hush, as if sound had disappeared with the vanishing humanity.
Thanh and Quang Tuyen stood scanning the sky with a few villagers at one of the well-concealed exits. Soon the airplanes came into focus.
“Look!” Quang Tuyen pointed. “Must be twenty to thirty of them!” he exclaimed, and squinting to study them, said, “B52s, jet fighter-bombers, and those ones have rockets,” ticking off data like the newspaper man he was. “I certainly hope they’re not after us,” he said.
For a while it looked as if the airplanes would overfly the village, and the comrades manning the anti-aircraft guns held their fire. Then the planes looped back, flying in high soaring circles directly above them, and rained down their bombs.
“Here they come!” Quang Tuyen cried, and they ducked into the tunnel.
First, there was a hush, and then a sound as of air rushing together in a gathering swoop and then another interval of silence and finally, an explosion. Explosion soon followed explosion, shaking the earth and the people herded within. Thanh huddled in the darkness, his body flexed, his chin resting on his knees, foetal in the womb of earth. The earth smelt of dampness. Even with all that noise, he thought he could hear water trickling, like lilliputian drumming, as it dropped from the ceiling into small puddles on the earthen floor. When his eyes became more accustomed to the dimness, he could make out the other villagers, among whom was a woman with her arms protectively cradling a small child, an attitude eternally maternal. The lampless walls seemed to gleam wetly. He could see the chopped-off tree roots sticking out from the walls, their blind white tips from pencil size to the size of a man’s arm: nourishment-seeking instruments that grope in the damp marl of earth. Impressions of human fingers feeling braille.
The bombs still came, one after another, and sometimes many together, going off simultaneously. They dropped out of the planes like metallic fish issuing from a cloacal opening: yes, metallic fish fashioned part by part, piece by piece, by distant hands. Man’s hands. Thanh thought of that although he could not think clearly with all that clangour. Thoughts only emerged from the throes of sound like rain drops from a shaken bough.
In those seeming hours of blackness underground, inhaling the humid, uncirculating air, terror began to grip him. It came with the incessant explosions and the shaking of the earth, and from not knowing when a direct hit would blow him to smithereens: everything was dependent on chance, and he was robbed of will, of choice, of volition, of any say in the matter. The fear was not so much of death, but rather of dying, of the moments before death. As he huddled there, waiting and not waiting, expecting and not expecting, time was havocked out of meaning. He imagined the tunnel caving in — perhaps it was already caving in, for wasn’t he feeling a little bit more suffocated than the moment before? — and choking him slowly to death as earth began to fill his mouth and nostrils, crowding out the air, his lungs frantic to be filled. He had always been afraid of suffocation, and often, as a boy, tried to get rid of this fear by holding his breath, until that moment when even the will was dispelled and his lungs would gratefully fill with air, his held breath broken by a gasp. And later, he had tried to do this under water, a medium that was perfectly made for this exercise: at first, the easy suspension of breathing as he looked about the watery world around him, that liquidaceous coherence, and then the gradual tightening in the chest, while still holding, oh still holding his breath, and then when he could last no longer, frantically surfacing. It was that instant when the will was berserkly lost, that instant of panic, that Thanh dreaded. And relatedly, this dread was extended to the idea of coffins. Although he knew it would not matter at all, yet he felt that when he died he would not like to be coffined. Or buried. Better to be cremated, and the ashes not urned, but scattered to the fields and rivers and streams and seas, and to the winds carrying them where they will, where they will.
Thanh longed for a lungful of fresh air, for the open spaces, for a sight of trees and grass and hills and sky. In the tunnel, he felt entombed, sealed in, cut off from the world outside. At that moment, what he longed for seemed the ultimate luxury.
“I’ll crawl to the opening and take a peep,” Quang Tuyen said, and went off without waiting for Thanh, who would have liked to join him. He should have followed, but he remained huddled where be was, strangely inert. “Maybe I have lost my will,” he thought. “Holed in here forever. Forever? What’s that, forever? Forever is now.”
Then there was an extraordinarily loud explosion as a bomb went off close by and some earth fell from the ceiling. The child in the woman’s arms began to cry, although it had been very quiet thus far. This small, vulnerable, human wail made Thanh want to shout “Stop!” to the world, “Stop!” to the bombing, “Stop!” to man, “Stop, damn you, stop!” The woman soon rocked her baby to quietness again, pacified by the motion of its mother’s arms. Thanh saw it snuggle, soft-fleshed, near the maternal breast. Hush-a-bye, child. Hush-a-bye, sweet thing. Hush-a-bye. Hush-a-bye.
An old woman passed a thermos flask of tea around, and Thanh drank the tea gratefully. “Thank you, mother,” he said.
Now there was less fear in the tunnel. He sensed it ebbing with the mother’s rocking of the child to hushness and the old woman’s sharing of her tea. These gestures had created a human warmth, shielding each of them from their separate, private fears. They began to converse, talked about household matters, exchanged stories, anecdotes, jokes and there was even laughter. The miracle of human communion!
Then the bombing ceased. All of a sudden there was an unexpected peace, a lull, so that they all looked from one to the other disbelievingly, as if they had never savoured a life without bombardment before. Silence settled over the world like a blanket. They stirred, as if freeing themselves from a cocoon, and finally ventured out into the open.
Thanh emerged surreptitiously into the glaring, florid, eye-stunning daylight and was confronted by an unbelievable sight. Under the bickering sky, airplaneless now, Loc Son lay utterly destroyed. The whole area was devastated. Amongst the charred ruins of huts and trees, and even charred earth, clouds of smoke hung, incensing the air. It was as if some giant hand had obliterated Loc Son and all its landmarks. Through the smoke and the steaming heat, Thanh could see in contrast the unscathed country outside the borders of the village, a melding of greenery, the feminine hills soft in the distance, seemingly indifferent to the blackened hole that was Loc Son.
He searched for his friends. The villagers were wandering about in a daze, looking for loved ones amidst the wreckage of their homes. He found Quang Tuyen who told him that both My and Kao were safe. Together they went in search of the farmer’s family.
They came upon the farmer’s wife, her face transformed by grief. Her niece and Dinh were clinging on to her trousers, and another couple, neighbours, were holding her up. As they approached, they saw the farmer’s body a black, twisted mass on the ground, and a little distance away, little Di’s tender young corpse. Her face was lying in the curve of her right elbow, as if she was hiding it in a game, or else as if she was ashamed to be found dead. Thanh wanted to touch her body, and seeing him make this half-gesture, her mother sobbed, the tears running down her strong face, till they dropped onto her dress and onto the earth. Through her well of tears her eyes implored Thanh to touch Di, to bring her daughter miraculously back to life. But his hand, tentative, was held in mid air, arrested by hopelessness.
Subsequently, he heard what had happened.
During the bombardment, Di suddenly remembered her kitten which in the hurried retreat to take shelter, they had forgotten to bring with them. She asked her brother about her kitten, and Dinh told her that it was outside. She crawled out without anyone noticing, except Dinh, who was too young to raise an alarm.
It was later that the family discovered her absence, and immediately the farmer went out to search for his darling daughter. From the positions of the bodies, it appeared that he had almost reached her, and in fact the right arm of his body was stretched forward as if reaching for his daughter. Of the kitten there was no trace; it had disappeared like all the leaves of the trees in Loc Son: an aftermath of ashes.