Swamp of the Assassins: On being censored in Vietnam

By Thomas A. Bass

Today Index on Censorship begins publishing a serialisation of Swamp of the Assassins by American academic and journalist Thomas Bass, who takes a detailed look at the Kafkaesque experience of publishing his biography of Pham Xuan An in Vietnam.

The Spy Who Loved Us was wired like a literary seismometer.

About Swamp of the Assassins

Thomas Bass spent five years monitoring the publication of a Vietnamese translation of his book The Spy Who Loved Us. Swamp of the Assassins is the record of Bass’ interactions and interviews with editors, publishers, censors and silenced and exiled writers. Begun after a 2005 article in The New Yorker, Bass’ biography of Pham Xuan An provided an unflinching look at a key figure in Vietnam’s pantheon of communist heroes. Throughout the process of publication, successive editors strove to align Bass’ account of An’s life with the official narrative, requiring numerous cuts and changes to the language. Related: Vietnam’s concerted effort to keep control of its past

About Thomas Bass

Thomas Alden Bass is an American writer and professor in literature and history. Currently he is a professor of English at University at Albany, State University of New York.

About Pham Xuan An

Pham Xuan An was a South Vietnamese journalist, whose remarkable effectiveness and long-lived career as a spy for the North Vietnamese communists—from the 1940s until his death in 2006—made him one of the greatest spies of the 20th century.


2 Feb: On being censored in Vietnam | 3 Feb: Fighting hand-to-hand in the hedgerows of literature | 4 Feb: Hostage trade | 5 Feb: Not worth being killed for | 6 Feb: Literary control mechanisms | 9 Feb: Vietnamology | 10 Feb: Perfect spy? | 11 Feb: The habits of war | 12 Feb: Wandering souls | 13 Feb: Eyes in the back of his head | 16 Feb: The black cloud | 17 Feb: The struggle | 18 Feb: Cyberspace country

These are dark days in Vietnam, as the courts decree long prison terms for writers, journalists, bloggers, and anyone else with the temerity to criticize the country’s rulers. The brief efflorescence of Vietnamese literature that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989—known as doi moi, or the Renovation movement—is long gone. After twenty years of black pens and prison, the censors have wiped out an entire generation of Vietnamese writers, driving them into silence or exile.

I myself have spent the last five years fighting with Vietnam’s censors, as they busied themselves cutting, rewriting, and then blocking from publication a Vietnamese translation of one of my books, The Spy Who Loved Us (2009). Based on a New Yorker article published in 2005, the book tells the story Pham Xuan An, the South Vietnamese journalist, whose remarkable effectiveness and long-lived career as a spy for the North Vietnamese communists—from the 1940s until his death in 2006—made him one of the greatest spies of the twentieth century. Trained in the U.S. as a journalist and using his profession as his cover, An worked as a correspondent for Time during the Vietnam war and served briefly as the magazine’s Saigon bureau chief. Charged with drawing battlefield maps, following troop movements, and analyzing political and military news, An leaked invaluable information to the North Vietnamese Army.

After the war, the victorious communists made An a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces and elevated him the rank of general. He is a natural subject for a biography, and, indeed, six have already been published, including another work in English by Georgia State University historian Larry Berman. Called Perfect Spy (2007), the book characterizes An as a patriot, a strategic analyst who observed the war from afar, until he happily retired to his living room, where he entertained a stream of distinguished visitors, from Morley Safer to Daniel Ellsberg.

My own account of An’s life is more troubling. I concluded that this brilliant raconteur developed a second cover as a spy. Claiming to be a friend of the West, an honest man who never told a lie (although his whole life was based on subterfuge), An had worked for Vietnamese military intelligence, not only throughout the Vietnam war, but also for thirty years after the war. At the same time, Vietnam’s northern power brokers distrusted this wise-cracking southerner who was outspoken in his attacks on the corruption and incompetence of Vietnam’s communist government. An’s rise in military rank was slow and begrudging, and he had been kept under police surveillance for years. The Vietnamese government might initially have been pleased by the prospect of publishing not one, but two, American-authored books on their “perfect spy,” but the longer the censors squinted at my version of An’s life, the more nervous they got, and the more the story had to be chopped and rewritten before it could be approved for publication.

After rejecting offers to translate my book from several publishers, including the People’s Public Security Publishing House (an official arm of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security) and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (one of the country’s largest censors), I signed a contract in July 2009 with Nha Nam, a respected publisher whose list of translated authors ranges from Jack Kerouac and Annie Proulx to Umberto Eco and Haruki Murakami. Nha Nam is an independent publisher, one of the few in Vietnam not affiliated with a ministry or other state censor. Nha Nam is occasionally fined for publishing “sensitive” books, and sometimes their titles are pulled from the shelf and pulped. Only later would I learn that Nha Nam’s status as an independent publisher does not guarantee its independence, but to their credit, the company has kept me apprised of every move made over the past five years to censor The Spy Who Loved Us.

Many authors ignore their books in translation. They delegate the sale of subsidiary rights to their agents and barely glance at the texts that arrive later in German or Chinese. I planned something different for my Vietnamese translation. I suspected it would be censored and wanted to track the process. I asked my agent to write into my contract a clause stating that the book would not be published without my prior consent and that I had to be consulted about changes made to the manuscript. Other clauses wired the book like a literary seismometer. I wanted it to record the work of the censors, to register their preoccupations and anxieties, so that by the end of the day I would know what the Vietnamese government feared and wanted to suppress.

The process of translating my book into Vietnamese began in March 2010, when I received an email saying, “I am Nguyen Viet Long of Nha Nam company, now editing the translation of The Spy Who Loved Us. I should like to correspond with you in regard to the translation.”

Long begins by asking if I know the correct diacritical marks for the name of Pham Xuan An’s grandfather. These are missing in English but important in Vietnamese, and I appreciate his attention to detail. Unfortunately, the rest of his email adopts a more aggressive tone. “You make some mistakes,” he writes, before correcting a laundry list of items. Many of these mistakes are not really mistakes, but questions of interpretation or judgment or matters of dispute in the historical record. They are the Vietnamese equivalent of inside baseball, arcane tidbits good for keeping scholars dancing on pinheads.

For example, did Jean Baptiste Ngo Dinh Diem (the first president of the Republic of Vietnam) become a provincial governor at the age of twenty-five? This depends on the day he was born, which is not an easy question to answer. People in Vietnam customarily fudge their birth dates, a practice recommended for scaring away demons, improving astrological signs, and attracting younger mates. An obscure item for an American author is apparently a big deal for the Vietnamese. If one assumes that Ngo Dinh Diem was an American puppet, a running dog for the imperialist invaders, then the last thing one wants to do is credit him with youthful accomplishment. Hence, one denies that he was the youngest governor in Vietnamese history and complicates the issue so extensively that it becomes easier simply to drop the claim.

Responding to a query from my literary agent, Long on March 15 writes, “There will be (absolutely) censorship, the book is sensitive. But please do not worry. We will keep talking to the author and will do our best to protect as much as possible the wholeness of the book.”

Long is trying to rush the book into print by April 30th—the auspicious day marking the end of the Vietnam war. After my agent reminds him that he is contractually obligated to show me the translation of the book before it can be published, Long misses the first deadline, and then he misses more deadlines, until, finally, six months later, in September 2010, I receive a copy of the galleys. The first thing I notice is an unusual number of footnotes scattered throughout the text, in a book that originally had no footnotes. I have enlisted a coterie of friends—academics, translators, an ex-CIA agent, and a former U.S. diplomat and his Vietnamese wife—to review the translation. They come back to me with sobering news. Apparently, many of the footnotes begin by saying, “The author is wrong.” Then they correct my “mistakes.”

Clearly, I have misunderstood the function of Vietnamese editors. Even before my book goes to the real censors—the chaps who control Vietnam’s publishing licenses—it has to be massaged in-house. Long will do the first whack, and the more efficiently he prunes, the more appreciated he will be by the state officials who can cap their black pens and turn to censoring more important things.

Part 2: Fighting hand-to-hand in the hedgerows of literature

This first installment of the serialisation of Swamp of the Assassins by Thomas A. Bass was posted on February 2, 2015 at indexoncensorship.org