Phạm Tuấn chuyển ngữ
Doćn Quốc Sĩ

A French poet once said "Mother's love, a love that nobody forgets". When surprised or hurt, we Vietnamese would say "God", "Buddha", but we would not say "Mother".

During the sacred war of resistance against the French, our ambushing guerrillas often heard the cry "Oh maman" of the French soldiers when they were hit. This fact was used by the Vietnamese psychological warfare organ, and our pamphlets, newspapers and radio called on the French soldiers to lower their gun and boycott the colonialists' unjust and inhuman war of reconquest for the sake of mother's love.

Mother, Mother's Love, Motherland... then comes Pham Duy's Me Vietnam song cycle with its four parts: Mother's Earth, Mother's Mountains, Mother's Rivers and Mother's Sea. Anything that relates to Mother Vietnam and her Love evokes a feeling of forgiveness and sweetness, of passionate and lingering memories, of immense, endless love.

It is no surprise therefore that Pham Duy has identified Mother Vietnam with Vietnam's history, the tragi-heroic story of a people who has suffered many trials and tribulations. Let us review the music and words of this immortal song cycle.

In his will, Nehru requested that his earthly body be cremated and the ashes spread over the vast fields of India, so that he can for ever be united with his motherland and remain among the hard working and long suffering Indian peasants. Statemen who remember their indebtedness will always look with love and respect to those mud-stained peasants, the true foundation of the nation. Those peasants it is who feed the country, who founded it and who will preserve it. Pham Duy opens the Me Viet Nam song cycle with the hymn "Our Mother", to start the Mother Earth section:

    Mother Vietnam, without rouge and powder,
    Mother Vietnam, with mud stained hands,
    Mother Vietnam, without silk and brocade,
    Mother Vietnam, wearing plain homespun.

The song, in the C minor key, seems to come out straight from mother's earth, from the furrows, from the rows of sweet potatoes and manioc, as light and spontaneous as the fresh wind bearing the flagrance of rice and areca.

How many years of peace and leisure have our people had since the country was founded? It was a history of wrenching pain and torment. For that reason, out of the four Parts (Mother's Earth, Mother's Mountain, Mother's Rivers and Mother's Sea) and twenty-one songs [actually 22 - T.P.] making up the Cycle, the second song "Beautiful Mother" is the most cheerful. We see a youthful girl in her teens, sensual and passionate, with rosy cheeks, red lips and sparkling eyes. It is the only song with a rythmic and flirtatious character, a heart filled with spring love, a soul imbued with the blue cloudless sky. Number three, Mother Waiting, has a tinge of melancholy, even though the key has changed from C minor to E flat major. Numbers four, Mother's Rice, and five, She Welcomes Father, start joyfully but by the middle sections we detect a hint of the war and separation that is to come.

By the time Part Two begins with number six, Mother's Question, the cruel fate of a destructive and endless war, with the sufferings and pain it brings, are plainly apparent:

    King's soldier, Lord's soldier, village soldier...
    How many enemies must he kill?

As the fateful war begins, so must "Mother Give Up the Merriment". The fierce fighting is bound to bring mounds of bones and rivers of blood.

In song number eight, "Mother In The Traveller's Heart", a powerful Allegro Marcia in the key of C major, a man leaves home to defend and liberate his country. Bold and heroic he looks to the future, but he is then struck with sadness as he gazes back at the past, in reminiscence of the ancient verse

    Since I went to my country's defense sword in hand,
    Ever the memories of Thang Long have tugged at my heart.

Mother stays home with the young children, tends the mulberry grove, looks after old grandmother. She has become a soldier's wife, withering in wait, filled with sadness but also with courage. Until one day she "turns into stone" (number ten):

    In the Winter wind
    Tirelessly she looks
    At the horizon
    Pitying the downhearted poet,
    Mother turned into a mountain.

The happiness of conjugal life was as fleeting as the brief morning sun on a windy and wet autumn day, followed by separation, anguish and hardships. The soldier's wife has turned into stone. Her only joy and hope were the growing children; alas, as Part Three (Mother's Rivers) unfold, the full tragedy of Mother Vietnam is revealed in a storm of suffering.

Song number 11, "Wanting to Go Home", was a plaintive lament to the afternoon breeze, the floating clouds, the wandering stream:

    Day after day I stand on the river bank, in the dusk,
    Looking homeward, waiting for the boat that never comes.

The rivers, her children, have been carried away by desire and ambition, blinded by lust, imprisoned by their Karma. From fighting to defend the country (Song number 12, "Obsessed Rivers"), they have now come to fight each other for supremacy (number 13, "Rivers Engulfing Mother"). Mother Vietnam is swallowed in this tragic maelstrom where she is held for a further two songs, numbers 14 "Rivers Without Return" and 15 "Dividing Rivers". Not until the end of the latter shall we see a glinting drop of dew, a breath of gentle breeze, in the form of a loving and forgiving call from Mother:

    "O children who have lost the way,
    Come back to Mother if you still remember"

which leads to Part Four, Mother Sea.

The "Fruit of Suffering" (1) of Mother's Rivers, those violent, narrow-minded and divided children, opens an escape route to Mother Ocean:

    She sings a gentle lullaby of lapping tide,
    A vast embrace of blue turquoise she opens wide...

That youthful country girl of yore with "rosy cheeks, white hands, wasp-like waist, shapely shoulders, round breasts" has, after a long and painful voyage, become an old woman, white- haired and speckled-skinned.

The echo of the boatmen's calls and of the splashing waves drift from afar, or is it the sound of Sea Mother calling to her children? Song number 17, "Waves on the Eastern Sea", is like an echo, extraordinary in its immensity and tenderness:

    Ahoy... Over the Eastern Sea the waves are roaming
    Calling on wandering sails to return.
    Rivers come from far and wide,
    Born on the snow-lined Himalayas,
    To Viet Nam they converge
    And nestle by Mother Ocean's side.

The conscious merges with the unconscious, pride with humility. The song is in E-flat minor. Mother's endurance and forgiveness have reached their extreme and, in song number 18, "Homeward Sail The Boats", transmute into a mystical light like that which dawns on the polar ice after six wintry months. The closing section starts with the familiar "Stork" folk strain, warm and soft, a stream of tears that washes away the pain and leaves a peaceful feeling:

    Our mother is waiting tirelessly,
    Wandering swallows flock home from the sea,
    Our home so sweet and full of beauty,
    The waves so gentle, the water so kind.

and the final ending is a prayer and a message:

    We have come home to build our love,
    Our Vietnam love,
    Love for old Mother.
    Young children must remember
    To love each other,
    To love each other.

In song number 19, "Lightning On The Sea, Rain On The Sources", we come to a surpassing image in all of literature, an image that is transcending and noble:

    Mother smiles and sends her clouds
    Ascending through the lofty skies

The skies open wide and join with the sea, in a world filled with the flagrance of love, human love and nature's love. Mother has become a Grandmother. Through misery and torment, as time washes her hair white (2) , long suffering Mother becomes a gentle grandmother in song number 20, "Silting Sands And Swirling Clouds":

    The waves are rising, rising with the tide,
    In the moonlit night with silt and sand they come to shore,
    The surging, swirling waves in the moonlight...
    Salty deltas grow to plains of fertile earth
    And lifeblood circles back to my heart.
    Young children watch the joyful larks fly
    And clouds that float so pretty and so high,
    Rolling, swirling, weaving their veils around the sun.
    As seasons come and go, they weave their dreams
    And bring down Mother's rain in sweet, gentle streams.

The Vietnamese people, the Viet motherland, Me Vietnam... thus does Mother represent our country's history, both painful and heroic.

To close this essay, I would like to repeat the words of a certain unfortunate soldier, sobbing about home and mother:

    My soles worn out, shirt fraying at the shoulder,
    In the cold Truong Son dusk among the lonely hills,
    Mother, I have let thoughts of home into my soul!

Mother is like a torch illuminating the conscience of those lost in the fog.


Saigon, Vu Lan Festival 2517 (1973)

PHẠM TUẤN chuyển ngữ

(1) Title of a play by the author, published by Sang Tao, 1963.

(2) Poem by Doan Van Cu.