It's an old story: good luck and good looks
don't always mix.
Tragedy is circular and infinite.
The plain never believe it,
but good-looking people meet with hard times too.
Our ending is inevitable:
long years betray the beautiful.
This manuscript is ancient, priceless,
bamboo-rolled, perfumed with musty spices.
Sit comfortably by this good light, that you may learn
the hard-won lesson that these characters contain. (p. 5)
Summary: Vương Thúy Kiều is a beautiful and brilliant and honest young maiden with an extraordinary talent for poetry. One day she is visiting her ancestor's graves for the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and comes across an untended grave, that of Đạm Tiên, another beautiful and brilliant woman, and she has a premonition that this will be her fate as well. She burns some incense and says a prayer on the spot, and uses her hairpin to carve a poem on the nearby tree. A strange whirlwind shakes the tree, bringing a strange perfume, and they suddenly notice footprints in the nearby moss.
Kiều says: 'See the fierce power of a poem.
Learn how words can leap across the years.
She is my sister, though I am alive and she is dead.' (p. 9)
In thanks for the sign, she carves another poem in the tree bark, and at that moment a young man and a white horse comes by, Trọng Kim. Kim and Kiều fall in love at first sight. That night, however, Kiều has a dream in which she is visited by Đạm Tiên, who says that they are both part of "the Company of Sadness / of all those who are doomed / to live and die with a broken heart" (p. 11).
Love between Kiều and Kim continues to develop, and it eventually proceeds to promises of eternal love and marriage. Before this can happen, though, Kim's uncle dies, and he has to leave for several months to attend to matters related to that. While he is gone, Kiều's parents run into severe financial difficulties, and the only thing that will keep her father and brother out of punishment is if Kiều marries a wealthy man, Mã, and becomes his concubine. This is a serious matter, the most serious kind of matter in a culture that takes filial piety as a central virtue. With great grief, she agrees to marry Mã.
Mã, however, is a man of the worst sort, and he immediately turns around and sells her into prostitution; indeed, that is part of how Mã is so rich, he is a finder for a brothel run by Madame Tú. Kiều attempts at first to resist and then to commit suicide, but she is no match for Madame Tú, who has long experience in forcing girls into compliance, and she eventually gives in and becomes a prostitute, a very high-dollar one because of her beauty. She lives in misery for some time until a young man from a wealthy family, named Thúc, falls in love with her and marries her as his concubine. They live well enough for a short time -- "moon and flower", as the Vietnamese phrase goes -- but Thúc has a first wife whom he has been avoiding this entire time, Hoạn, a woman from a very powerful family. She resents very much the idea of Thúc having a second wife, and even more the fact that he hides her from it, and she is one of those people who is perfect on the outside, the better to stab you in the back unexpectedly. She works out an elaborate plan to have Kiều kidnapped then enslaved -- to Hoạn herself. Needless to say, this makes life in Thúc's household very awkward, particularly as Thúc cannot do anything about it, given the sheer importance of his wife's family, and Hoạn, always putting her barbs and provocations in the form of smiles and jokes, gives him no room to maneuver.
Kiều is saved from this by the power of poetry, which is a recurring theme in the work. She writes a poem so extraordinarily heart-rending that Hoạn herself melts enough to give Kiều the option of becoming a Buddhist nun and tending a shrine on the estate. This gives Kiều some small space, but only for a time; Hoạn surprises Thúc going out to talk to Kiều, and Kiều realizes that it is not, in fact, going to get better. But being an attendant at the shrine gives her an opportunity to run away that she had not had before, and she takes it, stealing some of the implements of the shrine to make her way. She comes to a Buddhist temple, where she gives the stolen implements and is taken care of by the nun, Giác Duyên. However, when Giác Duyên discovers that the implements were stolen, she notes to Kiều that this is eventually going to catch up to her if she stays at the temple. To hide her better, Giác Duyên sets her up with a local family that give lavishly to the temple, the Bạc family.
Unfortunately, we have been here before; the Bạc family is so wealthy because Madame Bạc runs a brothel, and thus Kiều is forced into prostitution again. So it goes until she meets the well-favored rebel lord, Từ Hải, a tall, handsome, broad-shoulder, larger-than-life, and utterly unconquerable man. They hit it off immediately, and Từ Hải gets Madame Bạc to agree to a price for her -- not that Madame Bạc has any negotiation leverage with him. They have an intense marriage, and Từ Hải goes off and conquers much of the south. Kiều is a rebel queen. It is in many ways very satisfying; Kiều is able to reward those who have helped her, and punish those who showed her no mercy. (Lady Hoạn, despite her villainy, she spares because of that brief mercy that had been given due to the poem.)
A new governor comes to power in the south of the Empire, however, Hồ Tôn Hiến (Hu Zongxian), and he is a cunning man. Realizing that Từ Hải is just too good at military matters for direct handling, he pinpoints exactly what Từ Hải's weakness is: Kiều, on whom he dotes, and whose advice he takes seriously. The governor thus sends Từ Hải a message, framing it in a way that he hopes will get Kiều's favor, offering Từ Hải amnesty and confirmation of his authority if he will meet and given a nominal allegiance to the Emperor. The message succeeds. Kiều advises the rebel lord to take the offer and Từ Hải goes to the meeting and is murdered in an ambush (although, being the man he is, he dies fighting and on his feet, unbowing even past death). Hồ Tôn Hiến marries her off to a local official.
Qiao, the historical character on whom Kiều is based, betrayed the pirate Xu Hai to Hu Zongxian in hope of reward; when Hu Zongxian reneged on his side of the deal, she committed suicide by throwing herself into a river, remorseful for having betrayed a decent man for a reward she could not even get. Kiều has been more noble and innocent than her historical exemplar, but she too is overcome with remorse at having been the one weakness of Từ Hải, and when she comes to the Tiền Đường (Qiantang) River, to the very spot where Đạm Tiên had met her own death, Kiều throws herself into the river to die.
But the Tale of Kiều does not end here. This is part of the power of poetry: it cannot make the world go right, but it has a power that goes beyond even death. Qiao's story ended with her suicide. Kiều's does not. Giác Duyên, the Buddhist nun, fishes out Kiều from the river and revives her. Kiều has died, but it was in her case a symbolic death, not a literal one. As she has passed through the waters of death, Đạm Tiên is able to erase her name from the register of the Company of Sadness in reward for her goodness through such terrible things. The past cannot be undone. Fifteen years have passed since that fateful day of ancestral rites; and the hardships Kiều has faced necessarily leave their mark. But Kiều, who in a sense has already died her death from a broken heart, is now freed. And while things can never be quite the same again, there is one person whose story also matters here: Kim.
Allen's translation was very readable. From what I could tell, occasionally comparing the translation with the original Vietnamese, the translation is sometimes closer and sometimes looser, and certainly much less flowery. As the original is infinitely beyond my limited and fragmentary Vietnamese, I can't really judge the quality of most of the translation, whether it was good or bad in general as translation of the poetry itself. Timothy Allen, the translator, faced a difficult task. Vietnamese is a language that tends easily to poetry; it has a very rich poetic diction, full of allusions that make perfect sense to those who have lived all their lives with them, but certainly not easy to convey in a language whose poetic diction is often very different. But what I can say is that I think he made one very crucial and valuable choice in his translation: he prioritized the narrative. This is a very readable translation; it still captures some of the poetic floweriness at times, but Allen generally prefers the way of translating that won't bog down the reader, and he succeeds. This is a good move; it's absolutely essential not to let narrative poetry get too slow and turgid, and I can recommend Allen's translation quite highly because of it.
Her fingers dance about the strings
and the scent of sandalwood grows more intense.
Is this the butterfly that dreamed it was Zhuangzi,
or is Zhuangzi dreaming of his wings again?
Is this that king who became every cuckoo
to mourn from every mountainside
the loss of his land and his love?
Clear notes drop like pearls into a moonlit bay
and shimmer like the heat from sun-warmed jade.
He listens to the weave and weft of the five tones
and it thrills his heart.
'But is this the same melody you used to play,' he says.
'It sounds so cheerful now, though it was sad before.
Why does it sound so different?'
'Probably I lacked the skill before,' says Kiều.
'These fingers on these strings have caused me so much grief.
But now you've heard my little tune
the way it should be played,
I'll put away my lute. That was my final song.' (pp. 148-149)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
Nguyễn Du, The Song of Kiều, tr. Timothy Allen, Penguin (New York: 2019).