Victoria University of Wellington
Thanh-Van Tran-Nhut was born in Hue, Viet-Nam, in 1962. In 1968, she moved with her family to the US before relocating to France in 1971. After secondary schooling there, she returned to the US to attend university, graduating with a BA in Mathematics and Physics from Whitman College and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology.
On a dare from her sister Kim, two novels were written together about a seventeenth-century Vietnamese criminal investigator, Mandarin Tân. Thanh-Van then wrote the next six books in the series solo. Several have been translated into Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Russian and German, but none, as yet, into English.
Although Tan is loosely based on an ancestor, the sisters deliberately moved the timeframe of the novels into a period full of conflict: Dai-Viêt, as the country was then known, was facing civil war, North versus South, supported by the Chinese and the French respectively. At the same time, there were border clashes with Champa, an Indianised nation, and a massive influx of Westerners: French Jesuits aiming to evangelise; Dutch and Portuguese merchants looking to profit from rich natural resources. The clash of values haunts the young Mandarin — not merely Eastern and Western, but Confucianism and Taoism.
L’Esprit de la renarde (2006) is the fifth in the series, and tells the story of strange events in the Monastery of the Black Tortoise, where the door between the world of the living and the dead stands ajar during the Feast of the Wandering Souls and a strange cannibal figure joins the festivities. Without the assistance of a vixen-woman, Tân would not be able to unravel the mysterious deaths blamed on his friend Dinh.
As the book opens, the nun Quiet Contemplation is journeying to the monastery, hoping to arrive in time for the feast, when she meets a stranger…
Spirit of the Vixen
Like a dried bamboo leaf bending into a gale, the nun Quiet Contemplation struggled up the road to Faifo. Behind her the wind-whipped trees, more tortured than a thousand suffering souls, raised an almost human moan. She had been striding along on her own, her robe lifted from time to time by violent gusts that exposed her frail little vegetarian ankles. Her head, shaved as smooth as her prayer beads, slipped hairless through the grasping wind, but her progress was hindered by dust devils that rose up in waves before dissolving into the clouds. Anxiously, she sniffed the damp-laden air. If only she could reach the monastery before the rain came! It would be most inconvenient to be stuck in the mud in the middle of the forest, so early in the morning.
To build up her courage, Quiet Contemplation pictured herself already at the pagoda, being greeted by her sisters like a traveller returned from afar. It had been such a long journey home! Cambodia, with its stupas nestled in the thick of the jungle, was no more than a memory of stone and emerald drowning in the blood red of the khmer soil. Now in her sixtieth year, she was once more treading her native soil, in the Dai-Viêt she had left forty years earlier, drawn to the restoration project at Angkor. This monumental undertaking had aroused the curiosity of the Buddhist community throughout the region. Monks from Siam and nuns from Arakan flocked to the overgrown city that the King of Cambodia wished to resuscitate. Wrenched from nature’s fierce grip, a complex of dark sandstone temples filled with mythical sculptures gradually emerged, revealing itself in all its former glory. Hundreds of massive faces pitted by a leprosy of lichen overlooked a terrace where a hunting scene was as if frozen into the stone. Processions of elephants mounted by princes and servants slicing through the density of a mineral jungle? Images of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara smiling enigmatically before the envoys of some ancient king? Quiet Contemplation sighed. The adventure had certainly given her a great deal spiritually speaking, but now, her bones aching and her toes cramping, all she wanted was to rest.
She walked faster, her belly stabbing with hunger pangs. At the monastery they were probably preparing for the feast of Vu Lan in a few days’ time. She was especially fond of this Buddhist celebration honouring the lost souls of all those unfortunates who had died far from home and were condemned to wander hither and yon, shadows of shadows, barely audible murmurs against the background noise of the world’s ebbs and flows. On that day, the living also forgave the dead, cancelling out their old misdeeds and their past crimes, welcoming them back into a more accepting world. Inside the pagodas the incense spiralling up from the copper sidetables sometimes took on a human form, emaciated face and hair in disarray, outlined on the wind. It was said that these dead people came back to gather up the food and clothing they were deprived of in the afterlife, and Quiet Contemplation could well believe it, since the faithful did their best to attract them by setting out bowls of sticky rice and dishes of fruit piled high enough to feed a whole army of ghosts. Sometimes, like gems trapped in mud, there would be chunks of meat hidden away in the rice by pious descendants trying to slip them to their ancestors.
Quiet Contemplation could detect them from miles away, their smell was so enticing in her nostrils that she could have picked them out unerringly with her chopsticks, eyes closed, among the grains of rice. She could trust her instincts, sharpened over the years: because her religion limited her to plain rice and pickled vegetables, she had turned into a repressed carnivore with muzzled appetites. Tied by her promise not to consume flesh, she was obliged to pass by these tantalizing offerings with an impassive face, touched by a dash of compassion for the deceased creatures, and all the while her entrails twisted with desire and her belly screamed famine. Until now she had resisted the call of these forbidden foods, but of late her nights were invaded by improper dreams where she saw herself biting into slices of beef marinated in ginger sauce, or chewing greedily on chicken bones, crunching through cartilage. In these guilty dreams she munched blissfully on fish fried in lard, firm and tender beneath its lemongrass crust, or swallowed whole duck eggs stuffed with the black feathers of ducklings that would never see the day. Her palate would reach ecstasy as she fell resolutely into Buddhist hell, flailing about in alimentary vice, wallowing in oral turpitude, satisfying tongue and tastebuds. Somewhere in the chaste depths of her mind, a small voice rose up in vain to warn her and save her from her nocturnal weaknesses, and the image of Buddha fighting the demon Mara flickered through her memory. Alas! A conga line of grilled frogs, followed by a cavalcade of roasted rats soon chased away the pious scene, and Quiet Contemplation partied happily on until dawn, when the rooster’s crowing startled her awake. Then she would quickly recite a few sutras, invoking the name of Buddha with all the fervour of a nun pardoned and all the despair of a future damned soul.
Deep down, Quiet Contemplation blamed her failings on her life as an exile. Her mission in Cambodia had demanded more than a few personal sacrifices. Of course she had never fallen prey to the temptations of the flesh, because the monks over there had been quite short with her and she suspected them of preferring very young girls. But where food was concerned, she had endured the worst. The Khmers loved tamarind soup, so sour that her intestines still remembered it well. Even the strongest spices had not been enough to temper the acidity of the bean shoots. And that was why she had fallen into this degraded state, she told herself by way of excuse.
She was obsessing over her reprehensible inclinations when a shout jolted her from her thoughts.
'Come back here, damn you! When I catch you, that’ll be the end of your sweet little lives!'
On the track ahead, a man was waving his arms about and running left and right as a group of chicks escaped from an overturned basket. Probably a farmer going to the market in Faifo who had been caught in a gust of wind. He stopped to wipe away a drop of sweat and suddenly noticed Quiet Contemplation’s presence. At once he turned to her with a despairing look.
'Please help me,’ he begged. ‘My wife will kill me if I don’t get a good price for these blasted things!'
Shocked, Quiet Contemplation felt her heart sink. Not out of compassion for some clumsy farmer married to a shrew, but at the sight of the plump little chicks scattering like golden balls of fat. In spite of herself, she watched the tiny morsels of succulent flesh parading before her mesmerized eyes, and imagined them melting in her mouth. Like a woman possessed she reached out a hand and seized a chicken. It squeaked deliciously in her palm. She could feel its heart racing against her fingers and pictured it threaded onto a brochette with its baby brothers, a dish fit for any gourmet. She swallowed painfully and as the little thing snuggled in she held it out toward the peasant.
'Here,' she said, expressionless. ‘I’ll just round up his siblings from under the banana palms.'
Quiet Contemplation strode stiffly away and began gathering up the frantic chickens which, for want of a better idea, were running round and round a tree. She tucked them into the folds of her robe and returned them to their owner who was busy settling the first escapees into the now upright basket.
'I don’t know how to thank you!’ the farmer exclaimed, once all the fugitives were behind the woven bars of the basket. ‘I’ve counted the chicks, there’s only three missing.'
'Probably they’ll be eaten by Lord Tiger,’ murmured the stricken Quiet Contemplation. ‘How lucky…'
'How lucky that we found the others,' she quickly corrected herself, her face serene.
The farmer grinned broadly. Quiet Contemplation noticed that he was young, with a manly air about him that was easy on the eye. His jaw was determined, his lips full. And to think that such a handsome lad was at the beck and call of a domineering wife!
'You’re probably going to Faifo,’ he said politely. ‘It’s not that far from here, but this east wind would strip the clothes off the sourest old maid.'
'Yes, I’m going to the Monastery of the Perfect Lotus, and I can’t wait to get there.'
She massaged her calves slowly as her companion continued:
'Well, there’s a coincidence! I was planning to go there myself, my wife told me to make some offerings in advance of the Feast of Vu Lan. So as to ensure our ancestors will be there.'
The young man looked at her pityingly and suggested:
'Since you’re tired, let’s sit here on this rock for a bit and then go on our way together.'
Quiet Contemplation was flattered by this suggestion. Going back to the town with such a charming companion had its advantages; so she crouched down and set her bag to one side.
'What are you going to do in Faifo?’ the farmer asked. ‘Are you one of the group of nuns at the monastery?'
'No, not at all. I’m on my way home from Cambodia, where I’ve been working for forty-odd years. Today’s my home-coming, so to speak.'
'Goodness, your family must be longing to see you. I’m sure they’ll be waiting for you at the monastery.'
Quiet Contemplation shook her shaven head.
'Oh no, you should know that when you seek the Three Jewels you must leave everything behind. I have renounced all my earthly connections.'
'Really? Even your sisters in the monastery don’t know you?'
The farmer scratched his head, watching her closely.
'No, but since our order teaches us to share, I can count on their hospitality, you know.'
'So in fact you‘re pretty much still a stranger here...'
'You could say that, I suppose. But I would expect to be welcomed this evening: with all the preparations for the feast, the nuns aren’t about to turn away an extra pair of willing hands.'
The young man nodded his agreement.
'Of course it’ll be busy, because with believers like me coming to lay out our offerings in advance, they’ll need to have prepared the tables and lit the lanterns. My wife told me to hide pieces of meat in with the grain so that our ancestors will be tempted and all show up.'
At these words, Quiet Contemplation twitched. The mention of meat dishes brought a tingle to her fingers.
'Pieces of meat? What did your ancestors do to deserve such delicacies?'
The farmer gave an embarrassed laugh.
'Actually, they committed so many sins when they were alive that they must be wandering with empty bellies in the great beyond. Like Muc Lien’s mother, who was such a sinner that she was condemned to fast forever in hell.'
Quiet Contemplation thought for a moment about Muc Lien, whose filial piety had so moved Buddha that he allowed him to look into hell where his mother was rotting away. Her son had tried to give her food, but every time the mother reached out for the bowl, it dissolved into smoke. Then Buddha had allowed rice and clothing to be offered to the dead as they returned from hell on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month.
'But you don’t look as though you have criminal ancestors,' replied the nun.
'Criminal is a big word,' her companion said, coughing an awkward little cough. 'My mother didn’t hesitate to annihilate colonies of snails wreaking havoc on her vegetable garden, and she probably drowned a few litters of unwanted kittens. A distant great-aunt ran off with the savings entrusted to her by a blind couple she looked after. And as for my great-grandfather, he once sold an elixir of youth to a woman who then lost all her teeth.'
'Yes, I see,’ the nun murmured. ‘There’s no way that lot will be able to eat their fill…'
The farmer turned away and picked up the basket, lifting the lid. Quiet Contemplation almost fell over, just catching hold of a conveniently placed bush to save herself.
'Look, there’s chicken with bamboo shoots for my mother, slices of duck for my great-aunt and a handful of shrimp for my great-grandfather.'
The nun was almost fainting, so strongly did the smell of these forbidden foods tickle her nose-hairs. Her eyelids fluttered as she inspected the tasty morsels In their banana leaf wrappings. She would have sworn she could see them wriggling about to tempt her into gobbling them down on the spot.
'All that for dead people,' Quiet Contemplation muttered to herself.
The farmer pulled a face.
'I’m not even sure if they’ll like it. My wife has a sharp tongue, and sometimes a heavy hand with the salt. Or she’ll forget essential ingredients. I’m afraid the ancestors might turn up their noses at these offerings. If they don’t come, misfortune will befall my household.'
Sitting there beside him, Quiet Contemplation filled her lungs with the smell of the food. The meat might be too salty, but it smelled irresistible. Saliva poured down her throat as she imagined herself tearing the slices of duck into shreds and biting the heads off the shrimp. Her companion was stroking his cheeks pensively, when a daring idea occurred to him.
'I wonder, since you know so much about the minds of the dead, couldn’t you…'
He left his sentence unfinished, fearing disapproval.
'What is it you’re thinking?' Quiet Contemplation asked, her curiosity piqued.
The farmer rubbed his knees and looked away, uncertain.
‘Well, I was wondering if maybe you could taste the dishes before I offer them to the old ones… If they’re not good enough, I’ll go and buy something from the noodle-seller…’
Wearing a sheepish expression, the young man could hardly bring himself to look at the nun, whose stomach was leaping with joy.
'Oh goodness, how could you!' she forced herself to reply in a scandalized tone of voice. 'I am required to be a vegetarian. I have sworn never to eat meat!'
'Of course. I was really out of line to ask. I beg your forgiveness.'
As he was slowly closing the basket, a clumsy movement opened one of the banana leaves wide, releasing the dizzying aroma of fresh shrimp.
'Wait!' barked Quiet Contemplation, clutching at him convulsively. 'It would be for a good cause, after all…'
'And the dead would be grateful to you…'
'Yes, it would be a shame for them to come all this way to eat over-salty food…'
'And besides, you might prevent a terrible curse…'
The farmer turned his imploring gaze on her, hope returning to his eyes. Quiet Contemplation convinced herself that even the Buddha would not have hesitated to swallow these morsels of meat to help out a man in difficulty. What harm could there be, really, in tasting a tiny piece of meat? Vu Lan was the Feast of the Dead, and you didn’t honour the deceased with burnt rice and badly-seasoned dishes…
With trembling fingers, she picked out a sliver of chicken and placed it on her tongue, like some delicacy fit for a king. The meat brought on a torrent of saliva, and her teeth went into action of their own accord. Blissfully, she chewed all the juice out of the morsel, then swallowed it. Next she leaned forward and tackled the first shrimp, putting the whole thing, shell included, into her mouth. Breathing hard, she relished the salty flavours of the sea and the springiness of the flesh.
After the fifth shrimp, Quiet Contemplation felt a strange warmth invading her belly. It was like liquid fire, bubbling acid, rising slowly into her throat. Eyes widening, she tried to signal to the farmer, but her vision was blurred and her mouth, now dry, refused to open. Through a curtain of fog, she could only make out the young man staring intently at her. His grin had twisted into a sneer, and he was starting to pack away his belongings. Defeated, she let herself sink beneath a burning wave that dragged her down toward an abyss of flames, filled with pestilential monsters risen straight from hell.
TRANSLATION © Jean Anderson 2015
Extract (opening chapter) from L’Esprit de la renarde by Thanh-Van Tran-Nhut (Picquier, 2005).
Thanh-Van Tran-Nhut was born in Hue, Vietnam, in 1962. Her family moved to the United States in 1968, then on to France three years later. Returning to the US, she completed a BA in Mathematics and Physics (Whitman College) and a BS in Mechanical Engineering (California Institute of Technology). She worked several years in France before writing, with her sister Kim, a detective story set in 17th-century Viet-Nam. After two novels Thanh-Van continued on her own. Several of the eight books in the series have been translated into Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Russian and German. A confirmed traveller, Thanh-Van was writer in residence at Randell Cottage, Wellington (New Zealand) in 2014.
Jean Anderson is Associate Professor of French at Victoria University of Wellington, where she was founding director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation 2007-2011. Recent publications are in French and Francophone contemporary and late 19th-century women’s writing, crime fiction, literary translation and television crime series. She is co-editor, with Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti, of The Foreign in International Crime Fiction: Transcultural Representations (Continuum, 2012) and Serial Crime Fiction: Dying for More (forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillan 2015). She has translated or co-translated the work of several Pacific writers, including Chantal Spitz and Moetai Brotherson (Tahiti) and Patricia Grace (New Zealand).
The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 1 Special Issue 2015
'Detecting and (Re)Solving Conflicts in French Crime Fiction' Special Issue Editors: Jean Anderson, Angela Kimyongür, and Alistair Rolls