John Balaban is back in town
One of the greatest things about living in Hanoi is the fascinating visitors who come back again and again. Yesterday, American poet John Balaban stopped by at Nguyen Qui Duc‘s Tadioto on ‘his last visit’ to Vietnam.
“I am in reasonably good health, but I got one machine now running my heart and another one running my knee,” John said with a very healthy grin and added a quote from Tao Te Ching: “Be as careful of the end as you were of the beginning.”
Like most of us in the audience, John got Vietnam under his skin as a young man, starting with being a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. He went on to become a relief worker during the war, taking care of wounded children, getting himself wounded in the process.
Balaban also set out to collect and preserve the Vietnamese folk tales, which have been handed down verbally from generation to generation. Through Balaban’s translations some of Vietnam’s finest poetry have become available to all of us.
His own 12 works of prose and poetry are legendary gems in world litterature. ‘Remembering Heaven’s Face’, and ‘After Our War’ just to mention a few.
At Yesterday’s Hanoi event, John’s long time friend, journalist et al, Nguyen Qui Duc displayed his excellent interviewing skills in prompting John on a far reaching adventure into war, peace and poetry of the finest kind, throwing in some Gloria Emerson and her love for Graham Greene – and a spice of sexual connotations in fluent Vietnamese.
My personal clue yesterday flashed like a tracer round, when John spotted me with a “We have met before!”
We had indeed met, 29 years ago during the Romania revolution (or whatever it was).
John and I had ended up in the city of Cluj, where angry people were stringing up members of Securitate, dictator Ceausescu’s hated security forces. I still have the shoulder strap from one of the Securitate uniforms, given to me by one of the anti-Ceausecu activists ‘as a souvenir’.
John and I bumped into each other in front of the house of a famous Romanian writer, who had just been released from jail. We must have exchanged a few words, but I only remember how it incredibly cold it was that day in Cluj, and how good half cooked potatoes taste for dinner, when you have not eaten anything serious since yesterday morning.
John collapsed a little later and ended up in surgery at the hospital in Cluj.
“I got the best of care, because the doctors were too scared to have an American die at the hospital,” John says with that healthy grin, he is wearing these days.
Yesterday, John Balaban offered this exit advice, a quote from Vietnamese poet, Hồ Xuân Hương: “Where is Nirvana? It is here – 9 times out of 10.”