14 June 2010


Mai La Gustafsson. War and Shadows: The Haunting of Vietnam. Cornell University Press, 2009.

This is a book about being haunted by off-campus history, the history which is felt in the blood and bones, and imbibed at the elders feet. The ghosts that haunt Vietnam are not the pale spectres from the sanitised heritage industry reflecting a story book past, nor do they haunt places, so much as people.
The ghosts here are of the innumerable dead of the long Vietnam war, the succession of wars which went on from 1945 to 1975.

Within the Vietnamese culture presented by Gustafsson, there are two contrasting fates for the dead. One is to be incorporated into the heaven at the heart of the habitat of hearth and home, after a peaceful death in old age surrounded by kith and kin, and after death they are to be treated with the appropriate rituals, and housed (in spirit) in the household shrine as honoured ancestors (the to-tien ), ritually propitiated by the next generation. The other is die alone, far from home, in the hell of outer wilderness, unmourned, unrespected and unpropriated. These dead will wander as 'angry ghosts' (con-ma). These angry ghosts possess the living as if, denied the habitat of hearth, home and shrine, they seek a surrogate in human bodies.

Based on her field work in 1996, Americo-Vietnamese anthropologist Gustafsson, portrays a country almost overrun with the angry ghosts of the war dead, who haunt and taunt the living. The signs of possession include altered states of consciousness, trances, violent or disruptive behaviour, torrents of abusive speech, hallucinations, fugue states, abnormal feats, self-harm, etc. It is again tempting to see these of manifestations of the wilderness which the angry ghosts bring into the heart of the habitat. They represent forces of chaos, disorder and disruption.

As the statistics she presents show, in a sense the war turned the whole country into one hellish wilderness, a place of chaos and disorder, now encoded into a history which challenges all attempts to rebuild order. The angry dead represent the unredeemed forces of history, which manifest themselves through a collective post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt (to say nothing of whatever physical ailments the chemical warfare of the agent orange type brought in its wake).

This trauma was not helped by the authorities banning traditional ways of dealing with the dead, and exorcising spirits, and now seems to be exacerbated by the three-way tension between the traditional beliefs of the 'triple religion', the values of the Communist regime, and the rise of westernised consumerist culture.

The attempts by the Vietnamese people to 'get on with it', to build the sort of rational world of daylight reason and common sense that both the Communist authorities and the new consumerist elite aspire to, are constantly frustrated by the angry ghosts of off-campus history which refuse to lie down.

This is not just a Vietnamese problem of course, though the angry ghosts of other societies do not often manifest in this quasi-medical fashion. They prefer the subtler road of newspaper headlines and political clichés. In that sense much of the press in Britain is haunted. The bad times are coming, and the angry ghosts of the world will be stirring anew, few of them, unlike those of Vietnam will be exorcised by a visit to a local underground medium. -- Peter Rogerson.

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