New Canadian Media
Wednesday, 03 August 2016 22:40

Story Revisits Vietnamese Revenge Plot of 1908

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

Many leaders of the East who fought to decolonize their countries from Western authoritarian rule were also educated in the West. Upon returning home, they became trapped in a mental rift – they owed their education to the Western system, which also worked to colonize and ruin their countries and people.

This dichotomy is relatable to the main character of Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, a novel by Canadian author Yasuko Thanh.

It was usually lawyers or social scientists who became leaders and policy-makers to fight rigid authoritarian powers. However, in Thanh’s story, a group of Vietnamese nationalists enlist their friend – the refined, educated Vietnamese physician Dr. Georges-Minh Nguyen – to poison the French general and his garrison.

Dr. Nguyen has a medical degree from Lycée Condorcet in Paris. What he owes to the French and how they’ve taken over Vietnam clash to carve rifts in his psyche and cause him to slowly go insane.

The close-knit group of friends makes up a revolutionary cell called the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. They plot revenge on the French for the oppression they forced upon the Vietnamese – an act they hope will send a message to the colonizers that revolution has begun in Vietnam.

“Most of the doubt was gone from his mind now. He was quite certain he could kill a man.”

Justifying revenge

The book is based on the true story of the Hanoi Poison Plot of 1908, which took place in Saigon.

Dr. Nguyen is overcome by the guilt of the prospect of killing someone, until his pregnant wife escapes a rape attempt by a French soldier.

“Though he hadn’t told [his friend] Khieu about the rape his anger about it had made him steely. Most of the doubt was gone from his mind now. He was quite certain he could kill a man. Part of him was looking forward to trying.”

Khieu, a determined member of the revolutionary group, has his mind set on plotting revenge. His commitment is what allows the plan to continue.

However, the plot is foiled when cooks at the garrison confess to it, providing the names, places and dates of the plan to a priest. This forces the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains members to flee to other provinces.

Dr. Nguyen avoids capture, but must leave his wife and his newborn son behind after they are caught by French soldiers.

“He’d never imagined kissing her for the last time. Not once. He’d never imagined last times for anything. He simply ran.”

It sheds light on how discrimination by French imperials aimed to make the Vietnamese feel shame and responsibility for their plight.

Laying blame

The book depicts the era of the French colonial period in Indochina, during which people were suffering from social deprivation and using drugs to quell their anguish. It sheds light on how discrimination by French imperials aimed to make the Vietnamese feel shame and responsibility for their plight.

Dr. Nguyen encounters a French doctor at the Centre for Infectious Disease Control to discuss the “Paddy Fever,” or yellow fever. He is taken aback when Dr. Michaut calls the Vietnamese “teachers of moral vice” because he believes they have “corrupted” the French soldiers.

“What was this man on about?” thinks Dr. Nguyen. “If only he didn’t need his help, his lab, his equipment, he’d pop him in the jaw.”

Instead, Dr. Nguyen suggests Vietnamese boys engage in prostitution in opium dens to pay for their own opium habits, or to acquire goods they can’t afford.

From the French doctor Michaut’s perspective, the offence is less evident: “I don’t include you in these comparisons. You studied in Paris, like me,” he says to Dr. Nguyen.

Vietnam’s colonial history reflects some of today’s challenges of occupation and abuse of people’s land.

Suffering under colonialism

Thanh tells us stories of capricious characters that go to great lengths to overthrow their colonial oppressors. Her characters survive living amongst imaginary, yet dangerous, ghosts.

She takes us to a savaged, but vivid, colonial Vietnam, where streets are filled with fierce threats in the form of killing, rape and rebels’ chopped heads mounted on bamboo poles as warnings.

After his marriage with Dong, Dr. Nguyen lacked solace and drifted away from his wife. Once, in conversation with her, he justifies his absence by explaining the historical colonization of Vietnam by one power or another, resulting in turmoil and agony for the country’s women.

“Our country is in crisis," he said. "Men abandon their families and leave their wives in charge of feeding the children. The women have no money and they do what they must to survive. This country was the possession of the Chinese, and now is the mistress of the French. For a thousand years we’ve lived under the dominion of others. It’s why everyone’s going mad.”  

Vietnam’s colonial history reflects some of today’s challenges of occupation and abuse of people’s land. In war zones like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and many others, colonialism results in the total disarray of a country’s inhabitants, and leaves their attempts at survival and revolution against past oppressors unfulfilled as they are quickly taken over by new ones.

Thanh’s novel shows that the lust for power results in horror and misfortune for the colonized and is ultimately reflected in the truest form of human tragedy – the loss of innocence.

Tazeen Inam is passionate about both print and electronic media. She has a master's degree in mass communications, has worked as a senior producer and editorial head at Pakistani news channels and has contributed to BBC Radio Urdu in London, England. Inam is presently pursuing a course in digital media studies at Sheridan College.


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

by Maria Assaf in Oxford, England

Imagine being a child bride in pre-revolutionary Iran – suffering abuse on a daily basis, being forced into a joyless marriage and having children at the age of 13. There is no law or organization that can protect you, as the entire affair is perfectly legal.

Now, imagine having a beautiful husband and children, a mother and father, and then losing them all in a genocide.

What hope could remain in a human heart after enduring such calamities?

Could an intense desire to right the wrongs or change the world bring back life to a suffering soul?

In Amity, author Nasreen Pejvack makes her reader wrestle with such questions, page after page, as she recounts both the painful and happy memories that form the lives of her two main characters: Ragusa, a survivor of the Yugoslav ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, who is on the verge of taking her own life, and her unknowing rescuer, Payvand, who is an Iranian activist with a tragic life story of her own.

Paradox of the West

Amity shows that there are moments in some peoples’ lives in which hope does not materialize from suffering. There are times when the soul has been so utterly shattered, that the mere suggestion of finding meaning within its pain is insulting.

Pejvack presents a panorama of a Western world – with its affluence and the seeming peace of its clean streets – which hides many truths and stories of refugees or others who have fled conflict and reached what seems like a safe haven.

As the stories in Amity show, the suffering of many of those individuals will not cease once they have a Canadian passport.

As the stories in Amity show, the suffering of many of those individuals will not cease once they have a Canadian passport or British citizenship. The marks that their pasts have left on their souls will accompany them forever, like a shadow surrounding the most trivial moments of their lives.

Yes, many of them have been saved; the lucky few have even re-married in their new countries and found jobs and successful careers. But who can take away the pain of the memories, the tears, and the nightmares that keep survivors trapped in their minds as if in a prison of their pasts?

Pejvack’s book is heartfelt throughout. It is honest and direct and her phrases are simple, clear, and concise.

For those readers who are fortunate not to have suffered the misfortunes of war, oppression and tragedy, this book will provide insight into the lives of the millions of people worldwide who are experiencing similar fates as Ragusa and Payvand.

Understanding each other, and the world

Amity is a testament of sympathy with victims and the experience of sharing an understanding of tragedy and pain; of expressing empathy towards those who feel that no one could possibly understand the depths of their suffering. 

This book grabs the audience’s attention rapidly, with its strong life stories and its vibrant political, economic and historical debates, made intentionally easy to read.

Her book is incredibly timely and relevant in the context of the present turmoil in the Middle East.

The writer’s political debates illustrate the evils that have plagued Iran and the nations that formed the former Yugoslavia, creating strong sentiments between two women who shared impassionate days and brought joy to each other in their pain.

The book succeeds at making the audience care about global politics and the way it creates wars that lead to the kinds of crises that have made these two protagonists suffer so much in their lives.

As Payvand tries to pull Ragusa back to life by telling her stories, this book also grabs the reader’s attention and curiosity from the beginning by making us want to learn more about the fascinating characters Pejvack describes in each chapter.

For those interested in the histories of the places where conflict has struck recently, this book embarks on detailed accounts of Iran’s recent past, explaining how the country came to be what it is now.

Pejvack’s explanations are nuanced and politically knowledgeable. Her book is incredibly timely and relevant in the context of the present turmoil in the Middle East.

… Pejvack writes in a way that is every bit poetic as it is political and invites people to care, to take action, and to participate in her revolution.

Call to action                        

Each of Pejvack’s characters is an activist in her own right.

Ragusa, a Croat, married a Serb – something inconceivable during tense times in which Croatian and Serbian populations were at war.

Payvand, an Iranian revolutionary, had to see her comrades die and experience the disappointment of witnessing the onset of what she calls an ignorant revolution.

From the portrait of violence Pejvack presents comes a call for revolution. Formerly a writer and poet for an underground activist publication in Iran, Pejvack writes in a way that is every bit poetic as it is political and invites people to care, to take action, and to participate in her revolution.

The call for unity regardless of nationality and other differences is one of the most beautiful premises this book proposes. This work is a must-read for inspired young citizens of the world, as Pejvack appeals to those who are trying to make a difference and are in need of some accessible guidance on how to contribute positively to the world.

Maria Assaf is a Colombian-Canadian freelance reporter who writes for Latin American, Filipino and other immigrant publications in Canada, including New Canadian Media. She completed her bachelor's degree in journalism at Ryerson University and is currently pursuing a master's degree in development and emergency practice at Oxford Brookes University, where she is researching refugee freedom of expression.


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

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