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Historical Dictionary

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TRẦN DẦN (TRẦN VĂN DẦN, 1926–1997)

Vietnamese poet and writer who supported the nationalist cause of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and published perhaps the most important war novel of the Indochina War in any language. Born into a wealthy family in Nam Dinh province, Tran Dan studied French literature in high school, where he discovered the work of Baudelaire, Verlaine, and the symbolists. According to Georges Boudarel, Tran Dan began writing in earnest during World War II, but was less interested in politics than in art for its own sake. Little else is known of his activities during the war or during the events that brought the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) into being in September 1946. In Nam Dinh in late 1946, he joined with a group of symbolist poets to publish the first issue of their literary review, Dia nguc/Hell. As the founding manifesto read: “We are a band of wanderers, without a light or a place, reincarnated accidentally at the very time when the stars are fading”.

His life indeed his perspective on art changed, however, with the outbreak of full-scale war on 19 December 1946. Unlike some of his friends, Tran Dan not only chose to support the DRV against the return of French colonialism, he also agreed to put his art in the service of the party’s nationalist cause. The Viet Minh put him to work tending to matters of information and propaganda. In early 1948, he joined the army in Son La province and became a member of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in August of that year. He worked on propaganda within the army in Son La and took part in the creation of the literary and artistic Black River Group and contributed regularly to its review. He soon stood out for the originality of his writings on the war and also his drawings of soldiers (some of which drew criticism from political cadres unable to understand his cubist style). After undergoing cadre rectification in 1951, he was promoted to the committee in charge of artistic questions for the army. When this did not work out, he transferred to the people’s army magazine and covered a number of the major battles in the north. In late 1953, he volunteered to go to Dien Bien Phu. Tran Dan travelled to the front with the composer Do Nhuan and the painter To Ngoc Van.

Based on his first-hand experience of seeing men engaged in this epic battle, in April 1955 he published his famous novel about the war as seen from the Vietnamese soldier’s point of view Nguoi Nguoi Lop Lop or Man after man, wave after wave. However, before publishing his novel, he made a two-month trip to China to work on a documentary film of the same battle. During this time, he rejected the efforts of the political commissar accompanying him to impose a crude propagandistic stamp on the film. He also journeyed in China at a time when the Chinese Communist Party allowed intellectuals to criticize the party. According to Georges Boudarel, Tran Dan was influenced by the ideas of Hu Feng and, like him, rejected Maoism and the party’s right to define art so directly. His war novel reflected this new way of thinking. In it, soldiers certainly fight heroically, and the party is there; but we see some of the human side of the soldiers, their doubts, fears, and fatigue. The party criticized his realistic accounts of the war, preferring heroic and ideological representations. Tran Dan left the party in April 1955, was arrested for his participation in Nhan Van Giai Pham movement, accused of being “anti-party” (chong Dang), and forced to undergo re-education. His work would not be rehabilitated, like that of Hung Feng, until the 1980s. See also CINEMA; CULTURE; EMULATION; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; HISTORY; MYTH OF WAR; NEW HERO; NOVELS.